Graphic novels, or in this case graphic biographies, are a new world to me. I’ve always looked at the arts rather like a primary school gym teacher: words over here, pictures over there, no talking in lines! PWEET! But then again, as we all know or should know, being a true lover of the arts means that we should be prepared to roll with it, accept changes or combinations, embrace the new before we’re dragged into the grave by the cold skeleton hands of the old. So bring on the graphic biography and let’s see what you have.
Well, I have to tell you that the result was equally compelling and enjoyable. A biography – any biography of anyone by anyone in any format – has three duties. What are the important facts of someone’s life, why should we care about the subject, and who was this person anyway? Wake Up & Live: The Life of Bob Marley (Omnibus) by Jim McCarthy and Benito Gallego, performs the first duty well, the second duty allusively and the third effectively. Thus and overall the book wins.
Bob Marley, for the three of you who have read this far and don’t already know, was – along with Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff – one-third and the most famous of the great triumvirate that brought reggae music into the Top 40 mainstream of music in the 1970s. Lyrically, reggae was the music of peaceful protest, aggressive without throwing bombs. unlike its contemporaries in The Clash or The Sex Pistols; the sound of a peaceful, dancing protest. Musically, reggae’s beat was born of bad radio reception in Jamaica, resulting in an emphasis on the rhythm section as the narrative driver rather than the relatively thin-sounding lead guitar which dominated US or UK sounds. As a point of trivia, Adam Copeland, the drummer for The Police, has long been acknowledged as the only non-Jamaican who truly got reggae.
Besides its musical and political themes, there was also a religious aspect to reggae found in Rastafarianism. Rasta, as it is known in short form, is an utterly fascinating sect, a combination of several seemingly distinct or even incompatible elements: Christianity, the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia, and absolute bushels of cannabis. Put that all together and God is re-named as Jah, a spirit that lives within us all, Selassie was the second coming of Jesus, and Ethiopia itself was Zion, the land to which the followers of Rasta would return (either physically or psychically) to find peace. I will note that if any of this makes you smirk, do take a look at some of the fables or indeed fabliaux of any religion and learn some humility. It’s not that great a leap from burning bush to burning spliff.
But I digress. Getting back to Bob Marley, much like Kurt Cobain or Keith Moon, both previous subjects of Jim McCarthy’s work, the great Jamaican has the biographical advantage of having lived a relatively short life that can be summarized in a dynamic way with a tragic end. Dying of old age, as Chuck Berry did recently, requires an author to choose an end point for the story. Pass away from cancer as Marley did at age 36 and the end is written for you.
So how’s the execution of Wake Up and Live!? Excellent actually. I don’t really want to haul out the cliché of “a picture tells a thousand words” but clichés exist for a reason and that is they are accurate. The visual pleasure of Benito Gallego’s artwork provides the same evidential verité of a documentary film with the added advantage that, unlike a film, here the frames don’t move. One can stop, consider, examine and contemplate. As for Jim McCarthy’s words and narrative, not only are all the high points and background of Marley’s youth, discovery by and rise within the music industry, and eventual death covered, there is an additional educational element in how the distinctive Jamaican patois is handled. McCarthy does not anglicize the speech of the Caribbean; it is presented as it is. There are running translations throughout though, within the graphic frames.
I know many a Bob Marley devotee and there is not a one of them that will not thoroughly enjoy Wake Up & Live! For those fans who wish to pass along their devotion to a new generation, I might well suggest the gift of this book along with a copy (choose your favourite format) of Marley’s 1975 Live! Album as a perfect starter kit. The recipients can find their own papers or pipe. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.