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The Best Graphic Novels About Music

On September 25, 2017

Marshall McLuhan memorably coined the phrase “The Medium is the Message” in 1964 with his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. What’s less remembered is that he dedicated a whole section of that landmark text to the ways he considers comic books, like television, to be a “cool” medium, which is to say that it requires more participation on the part of the consumer.

Think about it. You see two separate images, with some word bubbles tossed in there, and your brain fills in the events between them, connecting the sometimes very complex narrative across the great divide and directly involving you in the story. Artist Scott McCloud calls this “the very heart” of the medium.

Comics (graphic novels, if you’re nasty) are a more uniquely complex medium than most people give them credit for, and in the right hands they can convey way more than the superhero tights and capes stories you most immediately associate with them.

When it comes to adapting music biographies, America might be a little bit behind the times, since this list pulls from all over Europe more often than not. But as you’ll see, the entries here are an eclectic mix of stories about musicians from a wide range of genres and eras, with their stories being told by other talented artists at the top of their game, working all the angles on how comics books can get under the reader’s skin with a good story.

Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles

It’s a tall order to find a new and unique angle on the most over-exposed group in the history of pop music, but Arne Bellstorf’s adaptation manages the feat magnificently. Focusing in on one-time Beatle bassist Stu Sutcliffe and the German woman who stole his heart while the Lads from Liverpool were cutting their teeth in the bierhalls of Hamburg, Baby's in Black is one of the most artful and outright affecting looks at those pre-fame early years. As the title says, this is Astrid and Stu’s story, with John, Paul and George playing all but second bananas to the unlikely couple’s love story. Bellstorf’s crisp style, which feels like an even more manga take on Scott Pilgrim with the twee knob cranked all the way up, is perfectly matched for the wistfulness of her youthful yet mature subject matter.

California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

History has been cruel to “Mama” Cass Elliot. Despite whatever urban legend you may have heard, she died of heart failure. If you are looking to have the record further set straight about her, there’s no place better to start than Pénélope Bagieu’s California Dreamin', which was only recently translated from French. Despite having a few of the most iconic singles to come out following the folk music fad, the Mamas & the Papas are maybe equally well known for having collapsed thanks to the group’s love triangle, which is covered here. The irony of their whole short-lived career is that Cass was far and away the most talented of the bunch, despite being the one who record labels knew the least what to do with. Her story, as told here, is deeply affecting, with a kicker that’s as devastating as it is impossible to see coming.

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

Royalty of country music, the Carters are much more than just the first super stars of the genre. "A.P." Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle were practically some of the first folk musicologists, helping to catalog and record the music of Appalachia. Written by Frank M. Young and illustrated by David Lasky, the story of the family as told here is a deeply researched and undeniably fun read. Lasky’s visual style is pleasantly reminiscent of R. Crumb, which is fitting given Crumb’s love of old time music. The colors belie the drab Great Depression era setting and pop off the page. The amount of Carter Family lore that Young manages to cram in here without weighing down the flow is a miracle, and the bittersweet kicker at the end more than seals the deal.

Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness

How fitting that the Man In Black gets a graphic novel that is drained of all color. Named for the haunting Will Oldham song that he covered on Solitary Man, his third album produced by Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness spins on the axis of Cash’s 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, featuring a subplot giving voice to Glen Sherley, whose song "Greystone Chapel" was written from inside the confines of the prison and who sat front row at the concert unaware that Cash would close his show with the song. The rest of the book is filled with a lively retelling of Cash’s remarkable country music success, drug-addled fall and ultimate salvation thanks to June Carter’s tough love. Reinhard Kleist’s art is good, but I can’t help thinking that the stiff prose, originally written in German, could benefit from a better translation.

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

I know, I know... “Two Beatles books?” you’re saying to yourself, and you’re not wrong. Like Baby’s In Black, though, The Fifth Beatle is only sort of about the Beatles, concerning itself more with the fringes of the Fab Four, specifically Brian Epstein, who was the band’s manager from 1961 to 1967. He was the one who launched them to stardom, more or less. Written by Vivek J. Tiwary, who co-produced the Broadway production Green Day's American Idiot, Epstein’s comparatively unsung life story comes alive in The Fifth Beatle. It’s not all fun and games, sadly, since Epstein’s life was one of secrets—including his homosexuality—that he was forced to hide, and an addiction to sedatives that would eventually kill him. The Fifth Beatle is apparently in the process right now of being developed into a multi-part TV event series, but you’re gonna want to check it out in this form first, if only for Andrew C. Robinson’s painstakingly painted panels that burst with colorful life.

Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo

It’s honestly surprising that Glenn Gould’s story hasn’t been adapted more broadly, but thankfully Sandrine Revel’s gorgeous graphic novel is here to fill that niche. Widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, Gould was a prodigy whose debut album, Bach: The Goldberg Variations, still stands as one of the greatest piano recordings ever, and the Canadian wunderkind laid it down just a few years out of his teens. Revel’s dreamy art, which falls comfortably near American indie comic legends Chester Brown and Chris Ware, pulls from a broad palate of pastels, manipulating panel structures laid on the page to great effect in order to convey the balance of intense genius and subtle melancholy of Gould’s life. He’s a frustrating character, who was very demanding and particular, but this depiction is perfectly digestible without sacrificing any of its subject’s dense brilliance.

Hip Hop Family Tree

Not the biography of any one individual, Hip Hop Family Tree is Ed Piskor’s epic (and ongoing) retelling of hip hop’s early years. Easily up there in the hallowed halls of hip hop history texts, along with Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback, Piskor’s crazily researched set of comics is required reading. With a style that apes the mighty Marvel look of funny books from the ’70s, we get to see old school legends like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa as presented like the superheroes they are. The loose format of comics allows Piskor to chase tangents as well, when he’s not stuffing nooks and crannies with inside jokes and references. He’s dropped four volumes in as many years, and only covered the first decade, so there’s more than enough time to take the Family Tree train to the Bronx’s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.

Billie Holiday

The oldest entry on this list, José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s Billie Holiday is also the most frustrating. Muñoz and Sampayo take an interesting approach to the legendary jazz singer, surrounding snippets from Holiday’s life with a few other narratives which are all nebulously related to her. It’s a bold and inventive way to go about telling her story, but dilutes the power of her personal narrative a little bit more than a comparatively straightforward presentation would have. Call it a rewarding misfire if you want, but the lasting effect of this slim volume is appropriately as heavy and surreal as her tragic end.

Love In Vain: Robert Johnson 1911-1938

Robert Johnson’s life was woefully short—he was 27 when he died of causes that are still uncertain (Alcohol? Syphilis? Pneumonia?)—but his lasting impact on music history is incalculable. Writer J.M Dupont and artist Mezzo manage to get the bulk of Johnson’s brief biography down well enough, hitting the well-researched hallmarks of his life, but the real joy here is Mezzo’s illustrations, which have the distinct feeling of old-timey woodblock prints—but with a beating heart somehow still intact and pumping blood through every inky line with a soulful intensity. To prove the provenance of the tale that they’ve related, Dupont and Mezzo include a songbook of lyrics and a long list of the resources they referenced.

Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm

The only entry on this list that qualifies as an autobiography, Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm tells the story of Percy Carey, better known to hip hop production spotters as MF Grimm. Illustrated by Ronald Wimberly in the same style as a straight-up superhero comic, Sentences does a handy job of charting Carey’s life. Starting with his childhood in the Upper West Side of Manhattan we get a quick and dirty first-person view of the roots of hip hop (and an unexpected backstage pass to Sesame Street), but things take a turn when in 1994 a drug-related attack leaves him paralyzed. MF Grimm isn’t nearly as well known as his friend, collaborator and one-time roommate MF DOOM, but he was a big name in the NYC battle rap scene and ghost-wrote bars for rappers on Geffen and Epic Records. He’s more than paid his dues, as this excellent book can attest.

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Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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