Review of Alfonso Zapico's James Joyce Portrait of a Dubliner—A Graphic Biography by Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
Portrait of the Artist’s Strengths and Flaws
In James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner, cartoonist Alfonso Zapico approaches his subject with a mixture of whimsy, reverence, and attention to his many eccentricities. While Zapico clearly has the utmost respect for Joyce as a writer, Portrait highlights both the fawning praise of lauded contemporaries for works such as Ulysses and lifelong struggles such as Joyce’s bouts with alcoholism. Zapico’s attention throughout the graphic biography to offering a full depiction of the author’s life, further contextualized by references to the historical events occurring in the background of his career, make Portrait a compelling telling of the life of a giant of twentieth century literature.
Zapico tells Joyce’s story chronologically, beginning with brief summaries of the lives of his father, grandfather, and great-grand grandfather. Details in the overviews, such as the description of his great-grandfather’s nationalism and his father’s excess of prodigious talents, suggest some of Joyce’s most famous and infamous qualities to be genetically inherited. Zapico’s depiction of life in the Joyce family prior to James’s birth also introduces the text-heavy style that characterizes most of the rest of the book, with images primarily used to illustrate key points from the captions adorning nearly every panel.
Both the textual focus and introduction of Joycean characteristics to be fleshed out as he grows up continue in the representation of James’s early childhood. Father John’s fawning builds his son’s ego from a young age, establishing his conviction about his own greatness early on. The younger Joyce clashes with both his religious governess and a priest in his Jesuit boarding school, which foreshadows later fights with moral authority figures over the content of his work. Joyce’s famed sexual appetite also makes an appearance through a sex worker who literally whisks him off his feet as a young teenager while his hat flies parallel to his head, an image highlighting the humourous touch with which Zapico furnishes many of his drawings. Zapico complements these personal details by depicting some of the political turmoil happening in Ireland simultaneously, such as British military repression of Irish citizens.
As Joyce reaches his early adult years, Zapico introduces one of the key figures in the author’s personal life: his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. In Portrait’s telling, Joyce meets her while exploring the streets of Dublin with his young male friends, who drunkenly court various female passers-by as part of their regular nightly outings. She rebuffs his initial advances, but eventually agrees to a date with him, which leads soon enough to romantic images of the two kissing and holding hands. A panel- and text-free page of the couple lying together on a grassy hill early in the relationship is among the book’s most striking moments, with Zapico taking a break from the book’s verbiage to let the images breathe. As befits the storied love affair, Zapico depicts it with some of his most memorable drawings.
Despite the focus on Joyce’s relationships, Portrait also captures key moments in his development as a writer. In a particularly notable incident, an adolescent Joyce publishes a review of a Henrik Ibsen play in a Dublin literary magazine, to which Ibsen himself responds enthusiastically. The young Joyce has yet another encounter with a literary heavyweight when he meets William Butler Yeats, to whom Joyce laments with hubris, “What a pity we met so late: you’re too old for me to have any influence on your work.” In addition to these cameos, Zapico constructs his küntslerroman in part by highlighting the influence of the French author Édouard Dujardin, who inspires Joyce’s early writings, including the famed first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Although the comic describes it, unequivocally, as Joyce’s “first great piece of literature,” Zapico also calls attention to the adversarial stance of many publishers due to the book’s literary difficulty and obscenity.
Both Zapico’s admiration for Joyce’s genius and depiction of his many personal and authorial challenges only become magnified further as he ages. Struggles with publishers and censors increase in the subsequent phases of his literary career, with Zapico vividly depicting the resistance to both Dubliners and Ulysses. Joyce develops a robust teaching career as he navigates the tribulations of publication, supporting his family as they move around Europe. As Zapico shows, the Joyce family grows to include two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and the latter in particular receives a moving portrayal of her struggle with mental illness (Lucia’s life story is depicted in a graphic novel by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes). Fatherhood only appears to aggravate Joyce’s proclivities for alcohol and pursuit of women, leading to squabbles with Nora. As with the depiction of Joyce’s early years, Zapico contextualizes the biographical narrative with brief references to the surrounding political events, including both World Wars.
Portrait conveys both the context and Joyce’s story with idiosyncratic, black and white images offering an artistic perspective both detail-rich and fantastical. Zapico’s faces receive some of his most expressive work, as exemplified by a page with consecutive panels showing Joyce’s bust as he demonstrates each of the seven deadly sins. The details also extend to Zapico’s depictions of the many European settings of Joyce’s life, such as in a gorgeous splash panel of rooftops amidst the Paris cityscape. The cartoonist’s taste for fancy comes through in his lack of care for physical realities, as seen in a panel of Joyce’s friend Francis Sheehy-Skeffington having his glasses fly off his face as a British soldier shoots him in a bar. Zapico combines such images with the level of detail to provide a unique and humourous take on the often dark incidents of Joyce’s life.
The visual humour befits Joyce’s joie de vivre and devil-may-care attitude, two attributes highlighted throughout Portrait. Zapico’s brief but informative look at Joyce’s life doesn’t fail to emphasize his literary genius and accomplishments, while still calling attention to the arrogance, infidelity, and alcoholism which haunt him throughout his adult life. Portrait shows Joyce as the giant of letters he was, and doesn’t posit him to be the saint he most definitely was not. As a result, Zapico offers an honest and hugely entertaining account of an icon of modernist writing.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Penguin, 1993.
—-. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dover Publications, Inc., 1994.
—-. Ulysses. Wordsworth, 2010.
Talbot, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. Jonathan Cape, 2012.
Zapico, Alfonso. James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner. Translated by David Prendergast, Arcade Publishing, 2016.