Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The Incredible Nellie Bly by Luciana Cimino and Sergio Algozzino

I don't know why biographical graphic novels can't just tell their story. Maybe there's some Secret Council of Life Stories that requires it, that insists that every story must be narrated by a character. Prose writers don't feel compelled to throw in Bob Jones, intrepid reporter, who will breathlessly sit and listen to the subject of the bio tell all the events "in their own words," so I don't know why cartoonists have to do it.

But they do. Every case I can think of, they do.

This one is The Incredible Nellie Bly, written by journalist Luciana Cimino and drawn - I think I should say painted, since it's full-color and he worked digitally on the art in a way that seems to be all at once - by cartoonist Sergio Algozzino. They're both Italian; this was conceived, created and published there first, even though Bly is American. So the Secret Council is presumably global.

Instead of getting Bly's story directly, told as comics - which would be a perfectly reasonable thing - we start with Miriam (no last name given, presumably fictional), a student at Columbia's journalism school in 1921, one of the few women grudgingly accepted there. She has a major paper to do, and wants to write about Nellie Bly's famous ten days in an asylum from thirty years before. And, to do that, she of course must seek out the aged, reclusive, sickly Bly and get her to tell the story in her own words.

Which, again, Cimino could have done from the beginning: Bly could have narrated the book. I assume authors are sticking in self-insert characters to mimic the process they went through to create their books, but that just means they're not done with the process yet: they haven't gotten to the clear central story they're trying to tell.

(I may just be obnoxious on this point; I see I said something very similar about the Munoz/Sampayo Billie Holiday, which has the same problem but even more so. And, again, that tends to prove my point that the writers of these books do this all the time.)

The frame story is fairly thin: we get Miriam and a fellow student occasionally responding to Bly's stories, or cajoling her to tell the next one, or  worrying about her frailty. But we don't see whatever journalistic work the two of them do: they don't turn into famous or intrepid reporters themselves. They're just there to be an enthusiastic audience, in a work that doesn't actually need that.

The bulk of the book is, of course, in Nellie's voice, telling how she was born Elizabeth Cochran, daughter of a divorced mother near Pittsburgh, and started writing for a local newspaper before coming to New York to make a bigger name for herself. The book does not examine or explain that ambition, which could be positive or negative: it does accept that ambition, and finds it completely normal for a young woman in the 1880s, when it was definitely not accepted. It also, unfortunately, almost explains her journalistic nom de plume, with a song playing in the background of one page that isn't commented on in the text. Apparently, it's by Stephen Foster, so any 19th century Americans would find it instantly recognizable, but I doubt 21st century Italians did.

Bly did take on that name, did some opinion work and investigative journalism out of Pittsburgh - including a six-month trip through Mexico that turned into a book, all before the trip to New York and joining Joseph Pulitzer's new World newspaper. And Incredible runs through those high points; it's good at telling us the main moments of Bly's journalistic career, clearly and in order. We get the insane-asylum story, her big first story for the World. We get the around-the-world trip, a few years later. And we get a sense of the other work she did, though not much in the way of specifics.

Maybe because this book was written by another journalist, or maybe because Bly's life was so full of incident, it's almost entirely focused on that first phase of her adult life, the decade when she was a working investigative journalist. Bly married an industrialist after that, retiring from journalism to (as far as I can tell) mostly do what was expected of a woman in her era, before taking over the business and transforming it when her husband died less than a decade later and then (another bunch of years later) returning to journalism in middle age after the business failed because her financial advisor ran off with all the money. Either of those phases could be interesting books or parts of books, I think: the marriage, bereavement, and taking over a business successfully story or the financial smash turning into a rejuvenated vigor for positive journalism story.

But neither of those are the story Cimino wanted to tell. She closes this book with a line-up of great female reporters - mostly investigative - inspired by Bly, and I would not be surprised if she counts herself as some part of that lineage, as well. And that's a strong focus: I can't fault it. It's what we most remember Nellie Bly for, and it's well worth remembering.

And, for all the unnecessary frame story, Incredible tells that story well. It does get out of its own way, most of its length, to tell us what it has to say in Bly's own words, and Algozzino gives it all a bright sheen, clearly historical but cleanly seen from the viewpoint of a hundred years later. I suspect this is largely seen as a book for younger readers - biographies of inspiring figures often are - and it's good for that, as well as for older audiences.

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