It’s always a pleasure when a new graphic novel biography comes out about someone I know absolutely nothing about, and I certainly had no clue about the existence of Roger Casement. Fionnuala Doran‘s The Trial of Roger Casement covers exactly that, the circumstances by which he was tried for treason in the United Kingdom and found guilty, but a biography of Casement could have been much more expansive if the author had chosen, but the political focus is the reason for the narrative one, an examination of both the personal nature of liberty and the ways in which a person’s sexuality has before, and still can be, used to cause further damage.
An Irishman, Casement was knighted by King George V after vigorous humanitarian work in Africa and South America, carried out over a couple decades at the turn of the century. It was after this, and directly related to his disenchantment with what imperialism spread across the globe. that he became involved with an Irish military force devoted to Irish independence and actively fundraising to build its army. Casement takes his fundraising efforts to America and then Germany as World War I begins.
Doran’s narrative begins with this transition between America and Germany, documenting Casement’s doomed efforts to raise a resistance to England, and doing so in now enemy territory. A revolution not quite materializing, Casement finds himself arrested and under trial for his efforts to raise a rebellion while consorting with the enemy, a process exacerbated by the discovery of his diaries and the use of his homosexuality against him.
Doran builds the narrative to Casement’s crucial statement at his trial, a lengthy and eloquent examination on the right of a governmental body to pass judgment on an individual when the individual does not recognize the right of that governmental body to do so, specifically because that governmental body has enslaved his own people through sneaky laws designed to keep them in place. In Casement’s argument, the only people who have the right to judge him are the Irish, and his statement, which takes up probably the last fourth of the book, is a powerful defense of self-determination and anti-imperialism.
By contrast, Andy Warhol is a well-covered figure, and the trick for writer Nick Bertozzi in Becoming Andy Warhol, with artist Pierce Hargan, is to come up with a fresh way to present Warhol’s story since it is so well-known as to be basically the stuff of legends. Bertozzi does this by bringing Warhol down to earth and doing less a biography and, frankly, more of a comic. As it begins, this is just an easy going comic about a young guy in New York City trying to make it in the gallery art world. It’s low key, amiable, and barely reads like a work of non-fiction at all.
This is a great tactic because in tackling a legend, Bertozzi has managed to bring Warhol down to earth in such a way that we’re not reading this comic about Warhol and his story, we’re reading this comic about this guy named Andy, and even though we know exactly what happens to Warhol, we’re less sure what life holds for Andy.
Bertozzi’s narrative begins as Andy is making that shift into the gallery art world, unsure himself of what life holds, and as shy and awkward as Archie Andrews, but builds Warhol into a character that only seems that way in his manner. Still appearing shy and awkward by the end, his career is revealed as a masterful game played by a canny individual who recognizes that fame might be the most interesting canvas, and one of the materials used in that form are the hangers-on, as well as those who try to profit from it, all the foot soldiers spreading the mythology.
The art of Warhol, quite simply, is revealed as a form of brand building that’s pushed forward by a sly jokester, and the entire culture itself is a component of the work, even us now. It’s still very much a living and breathing work Warhol initiated.
The difference between the two men isn’t sincerity, though it might be tempting to say that it is. Warhol is far from insincere, but there is an aloof quality to his actual work. Not so Casement, who suffered and suffered and suffered for everything from politics to national identity to good works to his private life. Both works bring you directly into their subjects’ world and let the reader experience firsthand what it was like to live in their skins. I honestly wouldn’t want to be in either.