“It’s easy, David: don’t try to be a star. BE A STAR!”
Elkin: Legend has it that early in his career, after struggling on the outskirts of fame for years, David Bowie pulled a con on popular culture: he declared himself a rockstar and, in that, became one.
Of course he had the force of an insatiable creativity and the machinations of some enormously ballsy and talented people to help him in this (plus some deep record company pockets), but what came first was the declaration, in the beginning was the word, then came the playing for time, the jiving us that we were voodoo, and, of course, being the nazz with god given ass.
The new book from SelfMadeHero by Tunisian born graphic designer and comics artist Néjib, Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie, focuses on the time in Bowie’s life right before he makes the transformation as a rock and roll star, when he and his wife-to-be Angie moved into a sprawling Victorian house in the suburbs of London named Haddon Hall. Haddon Hall became, in effect, the womb that gestated Ziggy Stardust, and, for that, Néjib felt it warranted special consideration.
That special consideration is manifested by giving the house the role of the narrator. Through this simple narrative trick, Haddon Hall becomes more than a portrait of an artist, it serves as a reflection on how place is as much a part of artistic achievement as the forces of time and experience.
As interesting as this idea is, though, it is not cohesive enough to carry this book out of the miasma of missteps in which it gets lost.
In the PR material for this book, SelfMadeHero says that “Néjib uses artwork inspired by the pioneering graphic designers of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, notably Heinz Edelmann and Milton Glasser, to chart Bowie’s personal life, the development of his music, and the transformation of his image.” In 144 pages of thin lined, panelless cartooning festooned with unshaded swaths of yellows and olives and pinks and roses and azures and violets, Néjib swirls biographical snippets together with abstract renderings of moments of creative outpouring to create a disjointed, emotionless retelling of what was surely a vibrant and exciting time in the life of a powerfully creative individual.
Sacks: Elkin, there are some books that challenge the reader. They defy expectations and standard storytelling approaches. They seem to push the reader away at the same time they pull that reader closer. They welcome with bright, delightful colors and deflect with a diffuse design which rejects emotional attachment.
Haddon Hall is a little like the legend of David Bowie. We can feel we can know and relate to the legendary rock star on some level, but in the end we love Bowie’s enigmatic worldview and style. As a stylistic chameleon he reflects fashion (sometimes with John Lennon, who we feel we can understand) and his own inner impulses. There is no way a house can ever understand a rock star; there is no way a reader can understand the thoughts a house might have.
There’s the core of some fascinating stories in this book, most based in the fact that Bowie as Bowie was still in the process of being formed. David is just another unknown struggling hippie rock star as we dive into this book, which means we can relate to him in some ways. The story of David’s brother living in an insane asylum seems a book in itself, a tantalizing taste of the madness that may have been in our Bowie’s blood as well. His rivalry with Marc Bolan (never specifically named in the book other than by his first name) lights a fire under David’s ambitions. The lack of long term success from “Space Oddity” is an intriguing detail that adds depth to our perception of our musical hero. His relationship with his beloved Angie shows a level of domestic bliss for our protagonist that we seldom see.
Néjib delivers a book that is somehow both objective and subjective in approach. That’s exemplified by his diffuse approach to his art. Some moments are delightfully psychedelic, especially the way he shows people carried away by their love for music. In other places, where strong emotions are required, the art fails him. We aren’t able to feel the depth of story Néjib needs to deliver, which leaves Haddon Hall a somewhat empty experience.
Elkin, I love nontraditional comics art and works that challenge the commonly held wisdom and approaches. But this book disappoints. There are the threads of great history here, but the history doesn’t connect.
Elkin: Which was exactly my point, Sacks. There is so much in this book that approximates the beginnings of something interesting, but each step forward is sunk in the quicksand of another beginning. It becomes a hazy cosmic jive that is all worthwhile, but, unfortunately, Néjib ends up blowing it.
When you play the wild mutation, so many of the pieces get lost in the onslaught. If your intention is to look back, you also need to look in.
I, too, would have been turned on by a book about Bowie and his brother and the juxtaposition between David’s stone and Terry’s wax as they frightened the small children away. I, too, would have dug a book about Bowie and Bolan. A book about Bowie and Lennon. A book about the Spiders from Mars. Hell, even a book about Defries. All these little moments are the protean particles from which the entity is formed. When Néjib decided to take on the full scale using the style he has, it necessitates losing substance, and, in that, it etiolates that which was most vibrant and colorful.These all are the transformative moments that put the heat under the kernel, more so, maybe, than place.
So, yes, Néjib’s use of Haddon Hall as the narrator does add a reflection on how place is as much a part of artistic achievement as the forces of time and experience. Unfortunately, the nature of having so many rooms, each with so much space within, makes it easy to lose one’s way and get overwhelmed by the journey of passing through.
In the end, Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie is a pretty thing to look at, there’s just no room for me, no fun for you.
Sacks: It’s a bummer, man, a total bummer, because there have been plenty of wonderful biographical graphic novels created about musicians, from The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song to Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness to José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s brilliant Billie Holliday. In fact, this book is at its best in depicting the short bursts of musical brilliance musicians create as they write and deliver their songs.
But as we all know, the ultimate success of a work of art is in the entire work, not just in a series of moments. Haddon Hall is a series of moments. It has a few nice melodies and occasionally delivers a beat that makes me want to tap my toes. Ultimately, though, it’s a melody that catches the ear for a moment but then drifts out of memory, a lost ghost of a pleasing noise grown more dissonant upon consideration.