In the final line of the final song on his final record, David Bowie acknowledged his importance to the world and his need to retreat from public life in one fell swoop when he sang, “I can’t give everything away.”
In his introduction to this graphic novel by Steve Horton, Michael Allred, and Laura Allred (out January 8, 2020), Neil Gaiman writes, “The people in these pages aren’t people: They are icons.”
Both of these quotes ring completely true, which is why reading this book honestly intimidated me, even as a lifelong fan of David Bowie and his work.
In approaching this review, I’ve honestly struggled with finding the words to describe David Bowie. How do you even broach the subject of a man who has meant so many things to so many different people, someone who had himself been so many people? Bowie has indeed become more than a man or even the musical movement he was a part of. He has become a signifier of living life on one’s own terms. Don’t like the life you lead? Become someone else.
I’ve always disliked the commonly used descriptor of Bowie as a “chameleon,” the implication being that he’d change his colors and demeanor to fit the times. While this is certainly true in some regards — the ’80s were kind to him in terms of sales, but it was also something of a creative dry spell for the man — it’s not entirely the way he lived.
Bowie didn’t blend in; he warped reality around him. Bowie was the singularity that he imagined would swallow the Earth in “Five Years” time. This is why he struggled for relevance and popularity in his early years. It wasn’t that he wasn’t keeping up with the times; the world had to change to revolve around him. And it very quickly did, as beautifully illustrated by this graphic novel.
The story structure here is interesting. Much like the man itself, it doesn’t move in any patterns that we’re used to in a biography of this type. It’s almost like we’re seeing the CliffsNotes of Bowie’s life, which honestly works. There’s a sense that things begin to move way too fast for young David, and it takes him years to figure out how to truly settle.
The events of his career and the lives that were changed around him are broken up by dreamlike vignettes — a romantic dance on a giant turntable, soaring through space as Major Tom, viewing all of his future personas in a store window — which go a long way toward showing the reader how Bowie was always looking forward to the next thing.
This constant motion may be disorienting for some, feeling nearly unfocused in a way. But for this reviewer, it felt like the correct way to show the whirlwind of Bowie’s creativity. People drifted in and out of his orbit, and he in theirs.
There are several moments throughout that will feel poignant for Bowie fans. In particular, breaking up his final speech on the Ziggy Stardust tour to use as a framing device for his early years is a lovely move. What comes across as a somewhat callous and irrational move when seen on video becomes the final word on a very turbulent time. By showing us everything that led to this point, the creators of this book humanize this alien god. Ziggy becomes the Starman who blew our minds, but he’s still the man we hope will land and share with us just a bit of his sparkle.
Even beyond the momentous story beats (first record deal, failed first marriage, the death of his brother), Horton and Allred also see the importance of showing us the wholesome side of the man. There are a few moments that feel close to veering into the territory of a cheesy biopic, albeit in the best ways. We see Bowie casually forging friendships that would go on to be huge for the music world. At the time, however, David and Marc Bolan were just a couple of lads, chilling and listening to records. Again, sequences like these go a long way toward bringing Bowie down to Earth, especially in the moments when it’s clear that he began to lose himself.
A possible drawback to the quick pace and short scenes that feel like they’re aimed more toward hardcore fans is that they may be somewhat alienating, if you’ll forgive the term, toward casual readers. Make no mistake, this is still a lovely story, but fans will definitely be more likely to pick up on more of the finer points. This isn’t necessarily a knock on the storytelling, though. If anything, I believe that some of this may be the perfect entry point for people to look up the songs or scenes being referenced. If this leads to a greater understanding and a new appreciation for Bowie’s work, then the book has done an extra special job.
And honestly, who wouldn’t want to pick up a book this gorgeously illustrated, fan or not? What Michael and Laura Allred have accomplished here will likely be remembered as some of their finest work. The characters in the book are somehow both photo-accurate and unmistakably Allred creations. There’s a weight to everything, even when it feels like Bowie has become unmoored from reality. The fantasy sequences are charming, bursting with blinding color and light, illustrating some of Bowie’s greatest tunes in ways that feel like they poured right out the man’s mind (the “Memory of a Free Festival” page is particularly stunning). Bowie’s lyrics are woven throughout the novel in both literal and figurative ways, showing the reader his vivid imagination and the real events that may have inspired them.
The final moments of the book, which I won’t spoil, elicited genuine tears from me. Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns, and Moonage Daydreams is a beautiful tribute to the man who was many men — Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Blind Prophet, and others. It also shows us the beauty and peace he found when he ultimately found himself.