Trotsky: A Graphic Biography reviewed by Marc Sobel

Posted by on December 16th, 2009 at 9:15 AM

Rick Geary;  Hill & Wang; 102 pp, $16.95; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 9780809095087

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Actually, I was assigned Trotsky. I wouldn’t have chosen him. My first choice would have been Rasputin. I suggested him to the publisher, but he said, ‘Let’s do Trotsky instead.’” – Rick Geary

Rick Geary is one of the most ubiquitous creators in comics.  A stalwart of the industry for more than three decades, his work has appeared everywhere from small-press anthologies to The New York Times. This decade, Geary is mostly associated with his excellent Treasury of Victorian Murder series (published by NBM) with nine volumes released to date, as well as an additional three focused on Twentieth Century Murder.

Recently, however, Geary took a break from the true-crime genre in order to work on the graphic-biography series for Hill & Wang.  His first book, J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography, was a fascinating portrait of perhaps the most powerful man behind the scenes of American politics in the last century.  Trotsky: A Graphic Biography, is the second in the series by Geary (and, sadly, may be the last, as Geary indicated in this interview with Chris Mautner at Robot 6) and once again focuses on a powerful, yet lesser-known political figure.

Leon Trotsky (originally named Lev Davidovich Bronstein) was one of the key figures in the Bolshevik revolution and the mastermind behind the Communist restructuring of Russian society in the early part of last century.  Trotsky was a prolific and articulate writer, but a politician more than an activist.  As a result, his biography is a tale of ideas rather than actions, which made Geary’s task challenging – how to create a visually dynamic story about a man whose primary contribution to society was as a bureaucrat (according to Geary, “I tried to find the most dramatic aspects of his life because most of his biography is pretty un-visual”).   In this sense, Geary is successful.  The artist’s subtly exaggerated caricatures of Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin and other key figures always retain more than enough likeness to be instantly recognizable.

Geary is also a master at depicting architecture, and one of the real pleasures of this book, as with many of his other graphic novels, is the way he brings old Russia to life on the page, from the pogroms and peasant homesteads of the rural country to the pre-industrial cities of to Moscow and Leningrad.  Geary also makes frequent use of maps to establish a sense of place and help orient readers, which is particularly effective since Trotsky was a man constantly on the move throughout his life.  Transportation vehicles, clearly photo-inspired, are also a particular strength of the artist, and this book features several carefully-researched and beautifully-rendered illustrations of trains, boats and cars from the period.

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But the key to Geary’s aesthetic appeal is his distinctive inking style, which makes broad use of carefully-drawn parallel lines.  However, these lines are not mere gestural hatches, or simple background patterns.  Geary uses this technique to define forms in a three-dimensional space, giving his figures and objects shape, depth and texture.

Yet despite Geary’s wonderful artwork, something is missing from this biography.  In an article entitled “What Makes a Good Biography or Autobiography?” Stefani Twyford, President of the LegacyMulitmedia blog, writes that the key to writing a good biography is to “choose a perspective that transcends the mere facts and allows the reader to peer into the heart and soul of the person you are writing about. Get into their heads, get to know all you can about them as individuals and think about the events of their lives as adventures that nobody else has experienced in quite the same way.”  This is something Geary’s biography fails to do.  Trotsky: A Graphic Biography reads like a chronological retelling of his major public actions and writings, but never penetrates deeper to illuminate the man behind the Communist symbol.  Geary does a thorough job presenting the key events of Trotsky’s life in a clear and straight-forward manner, but the book feels cold and dispassionate, like a college term paper.  For example, we are told in the text that all four of Trotsky’s children died during his lifetime, yet these facts are glossed over; Geary never shows readers the emotional impact these tragedies must have had on Trotsky.

In the end, there’s plenty to enjoy in Trotsky: A Graphic Biography, both as a comics fan and as a history student.  Readers wanting just a taste of Russian history, without having to immerse themselves in a lengthy biography, will find the level of detail in this concise little volume perfect.  Fans of great comic art will also certainly enjoy Geary’s beautifully rendered pages.  But for readers interested in delving deeper and getting to know what kind of man Trotsky was, this graphic biography has little to offer.

Further Reading
Cory Doctorow’s review at Boing Boing
Jim Martin’s review at Comics and…Other Imaginary Tales
John Hogan’s review at Graphic Novel Reporter
Jay Diamond’s review at The Faster Times

Images [©2009 Rick Geary]

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3 Responses to “Trotsky: A Graphic Biography reviewed by Marc Sobel”

  1. johnrplatt says:

    I enjoyed the “dispassionate” approach Geary takes with this biography. It creates a uniform tone and allows for maximum information in a fairly short book. It’s also consistent with the tone used with most of Geary’s other non-fiction works.

    What was your take on the reproduction of the book? I found the lettering to be too low-res, and many of Geary’s lines also suffered from heavy dot patterns.

  2. marcsobel says:

    I can definitely see what you mean about the artwork being a little pixelated in spots, but I don’t think it detracts from the story at all.

  3. eric p says:

    I checked this out from the library but felt is was nothing more than an illustrated wikipedia article. there was nothing really substantial to this, which was unfortunate as i had nothing more than a passing knowledge of the man but i was interested enough to read more about the man.

    this did not satisfy my cravings at all, though the illustrations were pretty good.