Review by Win Wiacek
The list of people who lived hard, died young and changed the world is small, but still somehow painfully overcrowded. Tragic, influential, yet latterly largely unknown is Janis Joplin, a born rule-breaking rebel who defied all conventions and became THE icon of doomed youth-with-big-dreams everywhere during the 1970s.
Author, filmmaker, journalist, publisher, educator and music documentarian Nicolas Finet has worked in comics for more than three decades. He’s generated a bucketload of reference works – such as the film Mississippi Ramblin’ and the graphic novel Forever Woodstock, as yet not translated into English. His collaborator on that last one was veteran author, journalist and illustrator Christopher, himself with a graphic novel track record, with Love Song available in English. Their compelling treatise on misunderstood and self-destructive Janis – just like her music, poetry and art – is something to experience.
After a quick dip into early life and influences, the story proper opens in Texas in 1947 as ‘Forget Port Arthur’ zeroes in on key childhood traumas and revelations around the homelife and schooling of little Janis Lyn Joplin at the start of the most culturally chaotic and transformative period in American history.
Brilliant, multi-talented, sexually ambiguous, starved for love whilst desperately directionless, her metamorphosis through Blues music mirrors that of many contemporaries (a fair few of whom comprise the infamous “27 Club” of stars who died young). However, as this book shows, although something indefinable was always just out of Joplin’s reach, her response was never to passively accept or ever surrender. We see wildly rebellious teen years, an uncomfortable educational life, a brief brush with conventional conformity and a near-lethal counter-culture encounter in San Francisco detailed in ‘The Temptation of Disaster’. Her meteoric rise in the era of flower power, liberal love and drug experimentation, and subsequent record company exploitation lead to her return to California and triumphant breakthrough in 1966, all carried along by ‘Spells and Charms’.
Stardom with hot band Big Brother and the Holding Company, a host of legendary encounters and even greater personal dissipation makes wild child into living myth at the Monterey Festival and other landmarks of the Summer of Love, before success and acceptance prove to be her darkest nightmare in ‘Lost and Distraught’.
Global stardom and media glorification are balanced by heartbreak, betrayal and too many brushes with death. As Woodstock confirms her status and talent to the world, the landscape inside her head turns against Janis. Endless exhausting tours and brief amorous encounters further destabilise the girl within and the end – when it comes – is no surprise to anyone.
There’s a moving preface from comics legend and childhood friend Gilbert Shelton, a huge and star-studded character gallery and suggested further reading and viewing. This forthright, no-nonsense yet extremely imaginative interpretation of the too-short flowering of “the Rose” offers insight, but no judgement into a quintessentially complex, contradictory and uncompromised life.
NBM’s library of graphic biographies are swiftly becoming the crucial guide to the key figures of modern history and popular culture. If you haven’t found the answers you’re seeking yet, then you’re clearly not looking in the right place.