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David Bowie fever has officially hit New York. But before you head to the Brooklyn Museum, you may want to get a little bit of non-Wikipedia background information on the Thin White Duke — you know, in case you want to impress your fellow museum-goers with some captivating anecdotes. No need to read a 500-page biography; the graphic novel Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie is just the ticket.
In this meticulously researched book — which came out in French in 2012 and was translated into English just last year — Tunisian-born, Paris-based artist Néjib provides readers with a glimpse into Bowie’s life during the years he and his girlfriend (and future first wife) Angie Barnett lived in Haddon Hall in the London suburbs. The couple moved into the Victorian house in 1969, and it soon became a commune for artists and creative types. It’s where Bowie wrote some of his most iconic songs, like “Changes,” “Kooks,” and “Life on Mars,” and where he first envisioned his Ziggy Stardust character.
Néjib starts his Bowie exploration from the perspective of the house itself. “It was the end of the Swinging Sixties,” the story begins. “That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad like a cold cup of tea.” But Haddon Hall wouldn’t remain sad for long, as the new tenants were soon to arrive: “When they said yes to the estate agent, a delicious shiver ran the length of my roofbeams!”
The house as a character pops in and out of the narrative at key points; the rest of the story revolves around the principal couple and their friends and colleagues, people like John Lennon, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan and Herbie Flowers. Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, and his manager, Tony Defries, also play central roles in the story, as does Bowie’s brother, Terry Burns.
What’s most remarkable about the book is the representation of the relationships between various characters. Bowie’s brother, who suffered from schizophrenia, appears often in black-and-white flashbacks as an inspiration to his younger sibling, giving him his first cigarette and introducing him to amazing live music. Bowie’s at-times tense relationship with Bolan began when their manager (both, who were struggling musicians, had the same one) accidentally booked them both to paint his office on the same day. They painted together, testing each other’s musical knowledge through humming obscure tunes by Biff Rose and the Velvet Underground. By the end of the day, they were fast friends: “The two of them were cut from the same cloth. The two biggest egos in London. And from then on, true friends.”
These Frog and Toad-like moments of friendship are what hold the whole story together. In tandem with inanimate objects as characters, these give Haddon Hall the aura of a picture book. (It should come as no surprise that Néjib has also written children’s books.) Even Terry Burns’ schizophrenic delusions, with a lamp post morphing into a monstrous toothy creature, and orgy scenes and sex parties seem almost quaint in their portrayal. In fact, if you want to teach your kids about free love and mental illness, this might be the perfect book to use.
As for Néjib’s visual style, it’s reminiscent of the hugely influential musical illustrations of the 1960s and ’70s, like Heinz Edelmann’s work for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Milton Glaser’s 1966 Bob Dylan poster. Néjib’s most memorable panels transcribe the weight of music into drawing. The raw power of the Stooges playing at a music festival, bolts of lighting coming out of Iggy Pop’s mouth, provides a completely different feel than Bowie’s blue-tinged songwriter’s block at the piano, eventually blooming into the psychedelic flowering vines of “Life on Mars.”
Haddon Hall thrives in its sharp focus on a specifically influential time in Bowie’s life, the beginning of his metamorphosis from an ordinary folk musician into a glam rock superstar — with some help from his friends, of course. And even though the stories in the book are true (yes, the BBC did use “Space Oddity” as the background music in its 1969 coverage of the moon landing), they’re so neatly and sequentially arranged that they create a sense of destiny for its main characters. David Bowie, creator of destinies for his own multiple personas, would certainly be pleased.