Written and Illustrated by Xavier Fauthoux
Published by IDW Publishing
James Brown, Black and Proud is an IDW translation of a French graphic novel biography of the Godfather of Soul.
Biographies are often tough to pull off in graphic format because by necessity, the creators need to cover a lot of ground in a generally limited space. It’s virtually impossible to not end up just illustrating various single panel moments of the subject’s life and career.
The trick, then, is to make it all visually interesting so the reader will want to keep going whether he already knows the story or he doesn’t.
In this case, the creator, Xavier Fauthoux—whom I’m given to understand is a photographer and filmmaker—does a nearly perfect job of that.
One trick is that throughout large portions of the book, the characters—both black and white—are all colored grey. This changes only toward the end, the peak of Brown’s career, when he recorded, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
I remember the very first time I ever saw or heard of James Brown. It was in the 1965 movie Ski Party, possibly the whitest movie ever. A bunch of super-white young people—Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Deborah Walley, and a pre-Batgirl Yvonne Craig—are at a white snowbound cabin on a white, snowy mountaintop ski trail. Everything is just so darned WHITE! And then suddenly, randomly, James Brown and the Flames show up just long enough to dance around and sing “I Feel Good” for the white kids.
I’ve learned a bit more about the man and his career over the years but I never followed it closely so I’m hardly an expert. If the Internet is to be believed at all, however, the book takes some dramatic liberties with the James Brown story, starting right at the beginning as he’s seen giving kids Christmas presents just before he goes in the hospital and dies. Online biographies say he went to a dentist appointment and the dentist suspected the worst about his health and refused to treat him, sending him instead to the hospital.
That said, this would hardly be the first biography—or even autobiography! —to rewrite things a bit for dramatic effect. What’s here succeeds in capturing the essence and the humanity of this larger than life man, and lays out quite a large number of straight facts about his influential career at the same time…with none of it ever dull.
Telling the story from his birth to his death, in flashback, is the voice of Brown himself (albeit with some help from the omniscient narrator) and more often than not, I can actually “hear” James Brown’s voice talking in my brain, telling me the unvarnished story. He doesn’t downplay the bad parts, nor does he celebrate them. He just tells them and shows them as they were, as though seeing his whole life flash before his eyes as he inches ever closer to the end.
And what a life! An abandoned black kid raised in a brothel to his own private jet and dinners with Presidents. At one of the most turbulent times in history, his reputation built on a unique brand of musical soul and pre-Funk funkiness makes him a spokesman both FOR Black America and TO Black America.
We all seem to love to read about personal setbacks and tragedies such as the ones that made Brown almost a parody of himself in later years. But when it comes to heroes, history often buries their flaws. This book, James Brown, Black and Proud, is an entertaining and dramatic look at the man that emphasizes the way history will no doubt remember him—the hardest working man in show business and a massively talented influencer not just for African-Americans, but for the world.