Jimi Hendrix, gifted with immeasurable talent and imagination, revolutionized the art of playing the electric guitar in the 1960s. No one else quite personified the era’s glorified fantasy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Nor did any rock star flame out so suddenly and publicly, dying tragically as a result of his substance abuse.
But, you already knew all of that.
For those interested in knowing more, on August 9, Ablaze publishing will release the English language version of Mattia Colombara and Gianluca Maconi’s graphic novel biography Hendrix: Electric Requiem, originally published in Italian in 2010. This graphic novel attempts to retell Hendrix’s life story with the same kind of creativity, fantasy and imagination that defined his music. Unfortunately, despite its bright spots, it falls short of capturing the true spirit of Hendrix.
Gianluca Maconi, co-writer and sole artist, uses a cartoonist style relatively typical of indie and European comics. He draws slightly exaggerated versions of the famous people who are still recognizable. He also has a keen eye for details – for example, the fact that Hendrix played the guitar left-handed. Although this cartoon-like style isn’t normally my thing, Marconi is a good cartoonist and the art in Hendrix: Electric Requiem is definitely better than the writing.
But be warned, despite the cartoon versions of rock stars, this book is rated mature and not for children. There are a few sex scenes, images of topless women and an anecdote about Hendrix having a cast mold of his penis made. Strangely, considering Hendrix’s well-known addictions, there is little direct drug use shown. A few characters drop F-bombs, but not so much to be distracting.
This retelling of Hendrix’s life attempts to blend a mixture of documentary-like biography and metaphorical fantasy. Sadly, Colombara’s and Maconi’s attempts at imaginative analogy and metaphysical musing end up not very original.
The book opens with Hendrix entering a sort of Limbo after his death, meeting a Cherokee and a Black man who represent his heritage. This start gives the promise of a psychedelic, metaphysical journey to match Hendrix’s music, but the further development of these elements never delivers anything very imaginative or inspired.
Additionally, the authors use a metaphorical analogy that runs parallel to Hendrix’s rise to fame. In this fantasy, Hendrix is Prince Valiant, battling a dragon to retrieve a beautiful jewel, meant to symbolize his soul or the music itself, but also fame and glory. It’s not always very well defined. But, more importantly, this metaphor just isn’t as original or inspired as Colombara and Maconi seem to think.
Of course, the bulk of the graphic novel is a biography of Hendrix’s actual life. While the scenes depicted may be based on real events, most are obviously not how these events actually took place. Instead, there is a good amount of artistic license used in retelling these stories. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make them better. Sure, I learned things about Hendrix I never knew before, but few of these things really grabbed my attention in any meaningful way.
Some chapters depict Hendrix’s experiences with racism and race relations. But, there aren’t enough for this theme to be the main focus, which is unfortunate, because they are some of the better parts.
Also, I just couldn’t ignore the extent of Colombara’s and Maconi’s hero worship. One section includes multiple scenes of other famous rock stars of the time, including Eric Clapton and The Who, meeting Hendrix. After hearing Hendrix play, they are all completely decimated, assuming their careers are over.
More significantly, the authors never fully display or explore Hendrix’s well-known flaws. Yes, as mentioned before, Hendrix is shown in different sexual situations with various partners. But he is never depicted as a womanizer, rather just as a rock star enjoying his due sexual extravagances.
Furthermore, also mentioned before, Hendrix’s well-known substance abuse and addiction play a surprisingly small role in the graphic novel. The most damaging events resulting from his addiction, including his death, are reported in a very neutral way near the end of the book. Even then, these tragic events aren’t shown visually, as one might expect in a graphic novel, but rather reported in text over a related, but more neutral image.
Overall, this was my biggest problem with Hendrix: Electric Requiem: I don’t really feel like I got to know Hendrix as a complex person full of talent, strengths, flaws and sins. From beginning to end, he is characterized as a generally good-natured but somewhat naive kid perpetually searching for himself, whether in music, fame, his heritage or wherever. The complexities of his personality, increasingly consumed by his fatal flaws, never appear. Consequently, Hendrix: Electric Requiem is more boring than it should be.
That doesn’t mean the book is devoid of anything praiseworthy, however. Hendrix: Electric Requiem is best when Maconi utilizes the advantages that the graphic novel as a medium has to offer.
In one chapter, every page consists of three rows. Each row tells a different kind of story, while a flame rises page by page from the bottom through the middle of every row. No other medium but the sequential art of comics could tell the story in this way.
Moreover, the pages with fewer or no words are actually the best. One that comes to mind involves Jimi getting up on a chair and playing his guitar to show up Pete Townsend of The Who. Additionally, probably the most inspiring chapter shows Hendrix playing a concert just after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The chapter consists almost solely of wordless splash pages of Jimi passionately playing his guitar, only interrupted by one page reprinting the text of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These wordless sections somehow capture the passion, energy and emotion of Hendrix’s life and music better than any of the pages filled with narration and dialogue.
In conclusion, any biography of Jimi Hendrix should attempt to capture the passion and creativity of its subject. A few times, Hendrix: Electric Requiem shows how a graphic novel could be the perfect medium for just such a biography. Unfortunately, most of the book doesn’t come close to reaching the level of originality and imagination required to adequately inspire the reader. In the end, we end up with an average biography of one of the greatest rock stars of all time.
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