Saturday, December 23, 2023

Mingus: The Graphic Novel

Charles Mingus was a lot and a lot of things, including a genius. It is even tricky classifying his music: Bebop, ranging into free avant-garde, but also experimenting with classical Third Stream orchestrations, or something like that. He will always be tough to do justice, so this graphic novel shrewdly takes an impressionistic approach to biography. Key scenes from his life are recreated, along with symbolic representations of some of his greatest compositions in writer Flavio Massarutto & artist Squaz’s Mingus, which is now on-sale—for last minute shoppers you are cutting it close, but this would be a cool gift for a Mingus fan.

Following the course of the bassist’s life,
Mingus touches down in Los Angeles, New York, and finally ends with the ailing Mingus in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Nat Hentoff, the great jazz critic, producer, and libertarian commentator gets a surprising number of pages, but it is appropriate. It is also interesting to see Mingus essentially blow the opportunity to compose music for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (but you can still hear some of him and saxophonist Shafi Hadi in there).

Mingus addresses Mingus’s politics, vividly exploring the themes of his viscerally angry “Fable of Faubus.” In retrospect, he might have been a little unfair to Eisenhower, who dispatched the National Guard to integrate the Little Rock schools. Regardless, Massarutto also reminds readers that the musician’s union used to be two racially segregated unions.

Some of the trippier “musical interludes” are the expressionistic rendering of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (which sort of brings to mind the early scenes of
2001) and “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.” Some Mingus fans might have mixed feelings regarding these “musical interludes,” but it is still cool to see Massarutto and Squaz really engage with Mingus’s music. These sequences also harken back to the Grateful Dead Comix published by Kitchen Sink in 1990s, which commissioned stylistically diverse artists to illustrate Dead lyrics.

Squaz’s use of color is striking, defining various eras of Mingus’s life with two or three aptly selected dedicated hues. As a result, the LA section feels very California and the Mexico period feels very Latin American. It is not definitive, but it doesn’t try to be. In fact, it does quite well by Mingus. Recommended for jazz fans and comics readers who appreciate its subjective representation of the artist,
Mingus is now on-sale wherever books and comics are sold.