It’s grapic and it’s a biography: Hellraisers

Hellraisers is new from Self Made Hero, a comic adaptation of Sellers’ 2008 book Hellraisers – The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. With a title like that, you know exactly what you’re getting: anecdotes, stories, fables, myths, all related to the tremendous capacity for mayhem and alcohol shared by four of the greatest actors ever to walk the stage and screen.

I read the original book and loved the light touch with which Robert Sellers wrote. He let the stories tell themselves, allowing the personalities of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed to bounce off the page at you. The same happens here – the stars are the stars – although there’s some clunky op-ed stuff about the nature of celebrity in Sellers’ (prose) introduction which doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with the main narrative.

But the characters are what you want and the characters are what you get. They are beautifully rendered by artist Jake in a style that you start by thinking might be too primitive for the material, but come to recognise as being perfect for capturing the essence of the individual. Lee Marvin makes a cameo appearance (drunk) and is spot on; Elizabeth Taylor is fabulous, beautiful and tragic, as she should be; Humphrey Bogart is an aphorism in a hospital bed.

As for the four leading men, they each bring their own tales of hedonism and decadence along with an absence of regret or recrimination. It’s the lack of apology that is central here. Each does things that would make a sailor blush. Why? Because they could? Because they were insecure egos seeking solace in a bottle from the pressures of fame? Because they were the children of alcoholics, or fatherless boys adrift in a changing world? In a sense, it doesn’t matter why – and Sellers doesn’t labour it – because what matters is what they did, not why they did it. They were behaviour in extremis and in essence. They lived through their actions.

So, how does the transition to graphic novel work? In the main, extremely well. Sellers and Jake make the most of the form. There are some fantastic transitions between scenes and sections of the story, some laugh out loud visual moments (Harris and Burton quitting booze whilst filming The Wild Geese; a panel of Elizabeth Taylor and Burton with the caption “You could say our marriage was disintegrating fast”; Harris and O’Toole shinning up drainpipes), and some moments of real, deep tragedy, particularly the later years of Harris’ life.

There are also layers in here. The framing device for all of these stories is a “Christmas Carol” type experience for a wayward husband, father and boozer called Martin. He is visited by the spirits of the four stars and he hears their stories: sometimes he is a passive listener, sometimes an active participant, sometimes he talks to other characters about the four men in their absence. It is part comic, part dream, part reality, part hallucination, part commentary, part vague memory of a 40 year piss-up.

There’s a lot in here on the theme of fathers and sons – which does work – and there is a leaning towards a wider moral message – which, for me, doesn’t work. The moment you try to pin down a moral message about the behaviour of these four drunken, violent, cheating bastards is the moment you start to miss the point of them. Sellers knows this, I think, and may have resisted trying to draw regret, recrimination or a message of “good, clean living” from all of this, but every story must have an ending.

So aside from a quibble about the introduction and an uncertainty about the ending: I loved this book. And now I know there’s a prose follow up called Hollywood Heroes (featuring Brando, Nicholson, Beatty and Hopper), I am adding it to my Christmas list and looking forward to Sellers’ and Jake’s follow up adaptation. More please!


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