Thursday, January 26, 2023

Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi

Every life is a story. I definitely believe that. Every life can be told, in some way, as some kind of story, in a meaningful way. But that doesn't mean every life can be told well in every kind of way.

Writers' lives are mostly interior, so they tend to be told best in ways that can show that interiority, to explicate what was going on in their heads. Visual media tend to prioritize external action, so those are best for the lives of people who did external things, politicians or activists or business leaders or sports figures or entertainers.

So I was concerned there was a mismatch of substance and style in Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, a 2017 life by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi, translated from French into English by Edward Gauvin.

Dick was a guy who sat in a room and pounded a typewriter, for thirty-some years. He was a guy who had a shattering experience that he called his Exegesis, in which something he considered the Godhead touched his mind directly and gave him a radically different vision of the world. He was a guy whose books were stylistically similar and formed a generally consistent world-view and set of concerns, but where plot and character details are less important, often generic. Writings about his work need to range across his corpus to make connections - a few individual novels are important in themselves, but the ways they return to the same concerns and ideas is even more characteristic and central.

That did not look to me like a life that would work terribly well in comics form.

And this comics biography doesn't really engage deeply with his work - it's what he does, and titles pop in here and there, but the focus is more on his multiple marriages, his engagement with SF fandom and the drug culture, and the standard life-stuff of a bio. We open with Dick seeing an early rough-cut of Blade Runner (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to set the scene, near the end of his life, and then drop back to see his story chronologically, starting with the death of his infant twin sister Jane and then running quickly through a couple of childhood moments and then into his writing career.

This book has a succession of events, which as far as I know are all true, and which line up throughout the life of the writer Philip K. Dick. So it is a biography. But I didn't find it a very satisfying one - all of the products of his mind are hidden here, mentioned in passing at best, and the reason anyone would want to know more about Dick are those stories and ideas: Perky Pat. Can-D and Chew-Z. Second Variety. Kipple. "The Empire Never Ended."

I don't think any of those words appear in this book. I don't think Palmer Eldrich or Ubik are mentioned; there's just not enough space in a book like this.

In the end, though, it might be that I'm not the audience for this book. This is not for anyone who already knows who Philip K. Dick is, not for anyone who's read more than one or two of his novels. (I've read most of them, I think: I was collecting the Vintage editions of his SF in the '90s and think I got through all of those at least once, but not his mainstream novels.) This is a book for probably younger readers, probably having to do an assignment for school on a famous person, and the hope is that this book, or a book like it, will let them complete that assignment successfully and maybe even more on to the actual works of the biography's subject.

Maybe that will happen. Good luck to Queyssi and Marchesi in that aim; they do make Dick's external life interesting here. But if you know anything about Dick already, this will be at least a little disappointing.

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