Malcolm X is a hard figure to represent in a graphic biography. He never gained the affection of the majority population, even in his day. His uncompromising positions alienated white and sometimes even black supporters. He was too outspoken and surrounded by too much violence to be covered by the fuzzy blanket of nostalgia that now softens the memories of Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, and many other civil rights heroes of the last century.
But the very things that make him hard to discuss make him most important to remember. Malcolm X served as an icon for the fears of civil rights fighters, bigots, and everyone in between. His story is reminder of the violence that lay behind the marches, the speeches and the uplifting quotes that play on television every February. Andrew Helfer and artist Randy DuBurke handle that tension by confronting it directly. Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography opens with Malcolm standing at his window, gun in hand, waiting for the bullet he knows
is meant for him.
Andrew Helfer covers the mandatory biographical high points: childhood, early influences, the conversion to religion, and Malcolm X’s famous trip to Africa are all present. But more than just retelling the basic facts of the case, Helfer’s narrative brings the danger of the civil rights era back to life. The cruelty and bitterness of life in a world where some people could openly be treated as less than people is made a tangible thing. Every snub and threat lingers, stirring up both anger and a sort of book-long paranoia. Without that emotional resonance, the life of Malcolm X has little weight. He’s just another famous speaker who angered some powerful people. With it, Helfer gives story with the power it deserves, and the epic feel of a Greek tragedy: a great man with enormous talent, even true genius, destroyed by the corruption of his society and his own desperation for change.
Randy DuBurke paints the story of Malcolm X in stark, heavy black and white, with a style that floats smoothly between photographic rendering and editorial cartooning. The places and people of the history are drawn with such detail they can almost be heard to move, but DuBurke isn’t beyond adding some pointed sweat drops to a panicked man’s face, or fading the hero of a fable into thin lines. Though the art is clearly informed by photographs and newspaper clippings it never feels stiff or copied, with one stage of exception. The crucial moments of violence in Malcolm’s story, whether his own assassination or an anonymous lynching, are presented with the stiff realism of a newspaper clipping. The frozen images are the opposite of titillating, but grimly commanding; the crimes of history, demanding witness. Helfer’s writing makes the biography intimate, but DuBurke’s art remembers the common urgency that surrounded Malcolm’s life.
The story of Malcolm X is not comforting, or reassuring. But he, and the world he helped change, are important. Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography serves not only to remember the man, but to remember why we should.