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Leonard Cohen graphic biography “On A Wire” is ‘entertainment with an undercurrent of sadness and introspection.’ Much like the bard himself

Leonard Cohen graphic biography “On A Wire” is ‘entertainment with an undercurrent of sadness and introspection.’ Much like the bard himself
Entertainment
In Los Angeles, one November night five years ago, legendary Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen lies dying on a floor. Don’t worry — it’s a fictionalized scene of his final moments, to take us through what might have been the great man’s thoughts about real events in his long, remarkable life. He has fallen out of bed and, unable to reach wine or cigarettes, faces his mortality. Luckily for us, as readers of a new biography by award-winning graphic novelist Philippe Girard, Cohen is remembering the juiciest parts.

Graphic non-fiction is rewarding for the casual reader, offering personal masterpieces such as Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” or Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” alongside direct biographies of historical figures including Winston Churchill, Anne Frank and David Bowie. As anyone might expect, they’re usually an accessible read, worth popping on a shelf and revisiting regularly for pleasure.

“On A Wire,” the somewhat salacious story of Canada’s great wordsmith, takes its place among the most rewarding graphic biographies. Worthy of interest for its subject — and undeniably for the talents of Philippe Girard, yet another remarkable cartoonist from Quebec — this book is cover-to-cover entertainment with an undercurrent of sadness and introspection. If that sounds familiar, it should. This book about Leonard Cohen is channelling Leonard Cohen.

Let’s start with the guest stars, including obnoxious Lou Reed, racist Nico, and dangerous, terrifying Phil Spector. Among Cohen’s lovers are Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Rebecca De Mornay, and we see cameos from John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and more. Happily, there’s a list of them at the end.

And there is Cohen lore everywhere. Little references to the great man’s songs are peppered throughout, including at least two Suzannes and a Marianne, plus (nodding toward “Tower of Song”) remarks about having, then losing, “a golden voice.” Even a casual listener will get a kick out of it, and there’s a persistent thought that somewhere, somebody’s dad has a deep knowledge of Cohen’s oeuvre and will call this the best Christmas gift ever.

It may be full of astonishing anecdotes — wait, Leonard Cohen guest-starred in “Miami Vice”? — but Girard’s storytelling style is the real reason this book works so well. It’s a straightforward, almost stark presentation of events, in a simple line art style carrying all the craft of the most subtle cartoonist, especially in the all-important drawings of faces. The story lands fast, with a comics equivalent of a cold open, then does not relent in snapshots of sadness and chuckles and a full life all the way to the end — of the book and the life.

It is of course correct that “On A Wire” is stuffed with outlandish events, because it’s the story of an incredible man. It’s also a successful biography in its balance, because, although it does revere its subject, it presents flaws without comment: fecklessness, infidelity and general rock star behaviour is there beside Cohen’s sensitivity and devotion to those around him.

And then there is “Hallelujah,” and a section on the song’s tortured creation, laughable length, many cover versions and, sadly, its life beyond its creator, who is shown becoming frustrated at a lack of recognition for writing it. The subject could have been pedestrian, given the ubiquity of the song, but it’s probably the funniest part of the whole book.

Leonard Cohen was a great man, and Canada is rightly proud of him. “On A Wire” might make us even more proud. His was a great life and this is great book reflects it.
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