REVIEW: Willie Nelson: A Graphic History Will Always Be On Your Mind

Willie Nelson - a grey-haired musician with long braids and a black cowboy hat - smiles out from a maroon background

NBM’s Graphic History series focuses in on the forefather of the Outlaw Country movement, fearlessly exploring Willie Nelson’s best and worst qualities and wrapping the whole package in some truly breathtaking art.

Willie Nelson: A Graphic History

Havard S. Johansen (Art); T.J. Kirsch (Writer and art); Coskun Kuzgun (art); Jesse Lonergan (Art); Jeremy Massie (art); Jason Pitman (Art); Adam Walmsley (art); J.T. Yost (art)
September 15th, 2020
NBM Publishing

Willie Nelson - a grey-haired musician with long braids and a black cowboy hat - smiles out from a maroon background

NBM Publishing has a long history of putting out handsomely-drawn biographical graphic novels about famous people. From Rick Geary’s true crime graphic novels covering everything from the Borden murders to the Lincoln Assassination to handsome biographies of everyone from Elvis to Janis Joplin, they’ve been slowly working their way through America’s pop canon.

Willie Nelson: A Graphic History is no exception to the rule. Pooling together the work of eight artists to tell the life of country music legend Willie Nelson, the book takes us from the singer’s humble origins in Hill County, Texas, to his hardscrabble life as a young father trying to scrape together a living from gigs, deejaying jobs and songwriting, to his self-propelled rise as a notable performer and songwriter for other artists (he’s the man who penned Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”), to a wild and unpredictable life as an actor and proponent of the Outlaw Country movement and one of country music’s biggest advocates. He founded Farm Aid and did commercials for Pizza Hut. Willie’s life has been long and varied, and the book reflects that fact thanks to the wonderful variety of artists employed.

Each artist brings something completely different to the table visually. Coskun Kuzgun’s lush ink drawings of Nelson’s Texas childhood are an immediate contrast with Jeremy Massie’s more cartoony coverage of Nelson’s first marriage and struggle to break through to the mainstream country world. Harvard S. Johansen goes more impressionistic; the hair on his characters are scratchy, loose ink splotches that suggest a playful mystery and dark emotions as Nelson’s career begins to gain momentum – and Lonergana employs a more impressionistic example as Nelson loses his first family due to his own on-the-road infidelities. Jason Pitman and J.T. Yost’s pen and ink illustrations cover Nelson’s second marriage, first career decline, and 80’s rise as a sort of elder statesman of the genre. And T.J. Kirsch’s thicker linework tells the tale as Nelson enters his golden years, becoming a marijuana entrepreneur and providing a stately endpoint for the novel and does well in encapsulating Nelson’s ongoing career.

Adam Walmsley’s graceful endcap and chapter breaking illustrations are lovely standouts as well–portrait work that well-resembles its subject. The entire book is done in washed-out inks and with hushed blue and grey tones–beautiful and even a hair melancholy, which fits Nelson’s oeuvre very well.

A greywashed page introduces musician willie nelson to the readership

If you have no curiosity about Nelson’s work, or you don’t have an interest in country music, then you won’t enjoy this book. Writing-wise, it does an excellent job of combining several sources close to Nelson to give the reader a warts-and-all impression of his life up to this point. His songwriting techniques and influences in the music world are given equal space to his alcoholism and adultery; wild adventures and tender moments with his children share a spotlight. Kirsch’s style is immediately accessible, and the book taught me new things about Nelson’s fun-packed and yet incredibly difficult life.

If you like Willie Nelson — if you like country music, or are a proponent of marijuana, or just like wild true stories about celebrity life or stories about the creation of good music — or if you like good art — NBM has added to their illustrious history and this book will find a wonderful and welcome home. Willie Nelson: A Graphic History will make a great holiday present for anyone who fits into any of those categories.