Banksy: A Graphic Novel

Banksy: A Graphic Novel
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Prestel - 978-3-7913-8881-6
  • Release date: 2022
  • English language release date: 2022
  • UPC: 9783791388816
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

Arts imprint Prestel’s series of graphic novels about artists share the strapline ‘The Story of His Life’. Franceso Matteuzzi penned the impressive Hopper and Rothko volumes. However, he faced a fresh challenge with this book about a street artist known only by their ‘tag’. Banksy: A Graphic Novel tells the law-bending artist’s story indirectly, through a pair of fictional street art enthusiasts. 

Matteuzzi organises the book into thematic sections titled ‘Art Versus __’. These are bookended by a before and after chapter focussing the young pair themselves. It starts in youth-friendly style, with Claire live-streaming her search for Banksy. She instead finds rookie spray-artist Adam, and is arrested as his accomplice. They’re sentenced to Community Service removing graffiti, so she guilts him into helping make her Banksy documentary. It’s a flimsy fiction, but a fine approach to creative non-fiction. 

Opener, ‘Art Versus The Multinationals’, convincingly roots Banksy’s work in the contemporary anti-globalist/capitalist movement. ‘Art Versus Walls’ rewinds to consider the artist’s methods, like studio-prepared stencils to speed up his spray-and-scarper time. ‘Art Versus Complacency’ considers art as a driver of social change, feeding back into Clare and Adam’s own Banksy-inspired ambitions. Finally, ‘Art Versus Art’ explores Banksy’s mischievous, ambivalent, relationship with the art world. 

The arguments are exemplified by some some well-chosen Banksys. Napalm reappropriates a Pulitzer-winning photo – a Vietnamese girl fleeing U.S. bombardment. Banksy has her handheld between a smiling Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse, creating an unforgettable image of Globalism. Throughout, Matteuzzi adds illuminating analysis, anecdotes, and memorable details, like the Vietnamese girl now being a Unesco ambassador. Also poignant, is Banksy spray-painting the Gaza-Israel Barrier, only to be told locals don’t want the hated wall ‘beautified’. Some anecdotes may be apocryphal, but still reasonably part of the mystery and myth of Banksy. 

Throughout this, we follow Adam and Claire’s progress, from visiting sites of Banksy artworks, to Adam narrating to Claire’s camera, then editing the video together, and finally realising their own artwork. That’s an apt way to end what is billed as a ‘novel’ rather than a biography. However, beyond the teacher/student set-up that lets Matteuzzi unpack the subject, Claire and Adam reveal little character. True, Adam has a journey, from ignorance to expertise, and from ambivalence to action, but it’s more convenient than convincing. The dialogue at times, is too obviously author addressing reader, and some of the grand pronouncements would be more convincing if attributed (biography style) to sources. So, the fictional device does require some suspension of disbelief, but most readers will accept it as an easy way into the elusive Banksy’s story.

Artist Marco Maraggi avoids an overdose of close-up talking heads, populating his pages with the props and places of their work, and visualises discussions without directly recreating Banksy artworks. Instead, he weaves in his subject’s inspirations and imagery, like two policemen reaching out (pictured), as if the moment before Banksy’s Kissing Coppers. Another poetic touch is the recurring motif of the bouquet from Flower Thrower. Though easily missed, there’s also a hint of Banksy style to the stiff-as-stencilled figures, solid blacks, mechanical lines, and spray-can tones. However, in contrast to Banksy’s whitewashed backgrounds, every page is drowned in sickly peach colours. This sets up a transformation at the end, but doesn’t justify the preceding hundred pages of queasy viewing. Maraggi may not enthuse graphic novel connoisseurs, but he carries an idea-heavy, action-light, book that would challenge many artists.

Overall, Matteuzzi and Maraggi’s approach succeeds, delivering a wide-ranging, rich and engaging, account of Banksy. Few will be left wanting a traditional biography.