The explosion of nonfiction comics in the past twenty-five years has included a wide range of genres: the biography-autobiography hybrid of Art Spiegelman's celebrated Maus; the corporate-crime exposé of Josh Neufeld and R. Walker's Titans of Finance; Joe Sacco's journalistic accounts from Palestine and the former Yugoslavia; and, of course, encouraged by Harvey Pekar's influential work in American Splendor in the '70s and '80s, an ocean of comics autobiographies in all varieties, from the grandiose to the relentlessly mundane. King, Ho Che Anderson's newly collected biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (previously published as three volumes, the first in 1992), joins a lengthening list of historical, comics biographies which already includes works as diverse as Jack Jackson's accounts of Texas notables Juan Seguin and Quanah Parker, Chester Brown's revisionist look at Canadian radical leader Louis Riel, and Osamu Tezuka's exuberant life history of the Buddha.
Historical accounts in comics form often struggle with the question of how to balance words and pictures. A common pitfall is the tendency to form narrative structure by alternating dense patches of text-heavy exposition leading up to dramatic, often abrupt, moments of visually arresting historical tableaux. King's life certainly lends itself to iconic instances of static hagiographyóthe leader behind bars in Birmingham; delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington; caught in the crosshairs of the sniper's rifle on a Memphis motel balcony. Even so, Anderson's bold solution is to fragment King's story into a kaleidoscope of moments, public and private, told by a multitude of contrasting voices and rendered in an array of visual styles. The big moments are here, but so is the social, political, and personal context that knocks the crust of familiarity off the high points and charges them with a new resonance.
Anderson eschews any attempt at a definitive biography of King or a comprehensive account of the civil rights movement in favor of evoking the immediacy and complexity of the man and his times. He deploys all the visual techniques of cutting-edge contemporary comics narrative to fashion what he calls "one man's riff on the life of another, part truth, part ephemera." Pages of mostly unidentified talking heads, generally including political allies, moonstruck schoolgirls, and venomous racists, deliver pointed commentary on King as a man and as a public figure. Strategy meetings fraught with political and personal ramifications alternate with panoramic street marches and sudden eruptions of violence as the rendering swings wildly from realistic photomontage to highly stylized expressionism. Furthermore, the decade-plus trajectory of the creation of King showcases Anderson's growing audacity as a cartoonist. Although the collection starts out strong, as it progresses it becomes ever more confident in its manipulation of word balloons, vivid color, and dynamic panel layouts in the service of communicating intense and complex emotional tones, tangled political dilemmas, and lingering moral ambiguities. Ultimately, Anderson's riff on King achieves its aspirations, offering a vivid, if sometimes idiosyncratic, take on the life of a man, rather than a totalizing historical synthesis.