In the ’90s, the publishing community saw an explosion of the memoir genre, especially among young first-time authors who detailed their battles with just about every demon possible. Today, the memoir has found a new popular home: the graphic novel. Now, you can not only read about the sordid details of anyone’s life, but you can also see every gory detail. It’s the ultimate narcissism for those without a movie budget to bring their lives to the big screen. (And yes, it’s ironic for a format that has the word “novel” in its title that nonfiction is such a large part of its output.)
Sorting through the plethora of biographical graphic novels out there can be daunting, which is all the more reason to draw attention to those that do the form proud. The beauty of graphic novels is that they allow a you-are-there immediacy to their stories through panel art, and they can combine it with dramatic, poetic and urgent prose. There on the page, the combination can be jarring and stunning. Such is the case with SENTENCES, which is as bold and in-your-face as its subject, the rough-edged Percy Carey, aka M.F. Grimm.
Carey has led a grim life, indeed, and he has the scars to prove it. He grew up on New York City’s Upper West Side during the gritty 1970s, long before the city’s squalor and seedy underbelly had been cleaned up. As the son of a single mother and a deadbeat father, he grows up in a tough world and learns quickly how to fight. He doesn’t stop there, though, crossing the line over into the territory of crime, finding hapless victims in the city’s many neighborhoods.
From these crime-ridden streets a new cultural movement is emerging, and Carey knows he wants to be part of it. Hip-hop sounds are dominating his listening habits, and he knows what he wants to do with his life: become an emcee. What happens to him in between making that decision and actually achieving it forms the heart of SENTENCES, and it makes for compelling, unflinching reading. Carey, born in 1970, comes of age in a city undergoing an onslaught of change, and as a young man, he’s not only determined to find his place in it, but also to succeed, whatever it takes. Carey and his artist, the evocative Ronald Wimberly, manage to imbue the pages with the realistic perspective needed to make sure the story hits home in all the right places.
Carey has a storyteller’s voice, an old-school talent to combine words cleverly so that hidden meanings and double entendres pervade the entire work. He has the pacing of an emcee on paper just as much as he does on stage (although the work is clear prose). The image on the cover makes it clear where this story is all leading for Carey, a sad but also triumphant finale to the story of his youth and the mistakes he made along the way. If SENTENCES is part of a larger trend of memoirs in graphic novel form, it certainly stands out as one of the most honest.
Reviewed by John Hogan on October 20, 2008
Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm