Review: The Provocative And Important Book ‘A Boy’s Own Story’ Is Retold As A Graphic Novel

In 1982, after several years at work on the manuscript, writer Edmund White published his semi-autobiographical coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story. It was a tale that attempted to describe, and make understood, the author’s experiences with his broken family, his relationships over time and, most importantly, his own homosexuality.

A Boy’s Own Story became a literary success and a touchstone in gay culture, remaining so even today, four decades later. An immeasurable number of people cite the book, the first of what became a trilogy, as a needed voice for their own, often closeted experiences. As a novel that speaks so loudly and so clearly for so many marginalized people for so long, only now does it reach for new audiences – in the form of a wonderfully produced graphic novel.

No less important or less literary than its original novelized older sibling, the A Boy’s Own Story graphic novel, published by Top Shelf Productions and adapted by Brian Alessandro, Michael Carroll and evocatively illustrated by Igor Karash, is a wonder and joy to read. Where the first ran for over two hundred pages, this new visual version is over 250 pages in length, a testament to the care and visual detail found within the covers. Although it may seem to skip through the details that a novel may deliver in sentences and paragraphs, this graphic novel highlights the original text’s major moments, each page full of sumptuous illustrations that wholly envelope a reader into the sorrowful, frustrating, thrilling and moving life of a young Edmund White.

Like the original novel, the graphic novel adaptation is non-linear in design. Chapters skip back and forth across the decades, showcasing how one moment experienced at a particular point in time can have profound affects for the decades that follow. In A Boy’s Own Story, it’s Eddie at fifteen and his burgeoning sexual summertime experiences with a twelve-year-old male friend to begin to define the making of a man. Later, it’s the fractured relationship he has with his incestuous father and, perhaps more so, the dysfunctional connection Eddie has with his mother, who harbours a sexual attraction for him to prove out his exploratory and experiential tendencies in all aspects of his life.

Whether it’s finding work in the fashion industry, being taken in by live music bands or academia and scholarly debate with beatniks, poets, artists and authors, many of whom are closeted homosexuals loosed by Eddie’s smarts, charm and good looks, each character in A Boy’s Own Story describes characters in search of some form of identity. Eddie is at the center of it all, searching for his own station and status and understanding from playful summers at Walloon Lake, Michigan in the 1950s, to familial discoveries in Cincinnati in the 1950s, to sexual explorations in New York in 1960s and through to Paris in the early1980s, those last years spent shielding himself and partners from America’s AIDS crisis, each decade shines more and more light on Eddie and his fascinating makings.  

Published in landscape format, the art throughout the graphic novel is a wonder to behold. There is no garishness or bombast of colour here. Instead, each frame is rendered with muted paints, images almost whisper their story. Still, Igor Karash has created figurative works whose emotional impacts are deep and long-lasting, akin to Degas’s series of keyhole paintings. The reader is often voyeuristically intruding upon Eddie’s story – and most intimate moments – just as Eddie himself reveals glimpses of himself in his narrative actions. By way of Karash’s hand, it’s a very modern visual take on a very modern story.   

A Boy’s Own Story is a highly recommended graphic novel that any lover of fiction or sequential art, LGBTQ+ or straight, can identify with because A Boy’s Own Story is a story about the important things in a human existence – self-identity and life.

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