“The music shouldn’t compete with the image, but instead must be a counterpoint of grace and charm.”

I’m beginning to realize that biographical graphic novels can be a really hard sell when it comes down to it. As much as I adore Chaplin and as excited as I was to read this, The Stars of History: Charlie Chaplin wasn’t great. Author Bernard Swysen and illustrator Bruno Bazile really did their best, of course. But, at the end of the day, this book had a lot of issues, some more difficult to solve than others.

A Biography as a Graphic Novel

Part of the problem with this book ties directly into the fact that it’s a graphic novel in the first place. With each new book that I read in this format, I find myself realizing that it’s incredibly difficult to tell someone’s life story in this way. There are a lot of things you have to account for and adapt and if you don’t do it the right way, it all kind of falls apart.

Charlie Chaplin, unfortunately, suffers in a similar way that the one I read about Albert Einstein did.

Too Much in One Novel

Something I’ve noticed with biographical graphic novels is the ones that try to tell an entire life story usually fail. In my experience, if this is the type of story you’re looking to tell you really need to split it up into several books and focus more-so on the really important aspects of their life. In a similar vein to Einstein, this Chaplin has the misfortune of following Chaplin from birth to death.

And there’s just far too much in a lifetime, especially one as full as Chaplin’s to fit into a single volume. As a result, we get a lot of time spent with Charlie as he is growing up–which is great, mind–but it all ends up tapering off as he is an adult. The author had to rush through many moments of his life in order to fit in all the events that he wanted. And the book suffers for this. it would have been infinitely better if this had been split into multiple volumes and followed a similar pattern to that of Irena.

Namely, Swysen should have chosen big and important events from various stages in Chaplin’s life and focused singular volumes around those moments.

Show, Don’t Tell

I never thought I’d have to say this about a graphic novel, but damn did this book have an exposition problem. It’s deeply ironic to me that this happened because the whole purpose of a graphic novel is to have the visuals there for you. You don’t need to tell the reader things because you have one of the best tools for showing them possible. And yet, for some insane reason, Swysen thought was necessary to have this overlaying commentary telling the readers everything that was happening.

This honestly just kind of blew my mind and I’m still a little baffled by it. There were far too many instances of this and it just got so ridiculous after a while.

That said, the show part of this graphic novel was pretty fantastic. I loved Bazile’s artwork. Not only was it excellent, but the continuity over time and the subtle differences that you saw in Chaplin as he aged was exceptional. I had a lot of fun with the visuals and getting to know the characters this way. In fact, this was probably the best part of it all.

So, There You Have It

And that’s really what it comes down to. Biographical graphic novels are incredibly difficult and should probably be split into parts. This one, in particular, really needed to cut back on all those moments of exposition in which shoving information into the readers’ faces somehow seemed necessary. There are a lot of different ways that Swysen could have given us that information without being very tell-y about it.

In the end, I wanted to love this, but I can’t help feeling disappointed.

I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


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