Leonard Cohen: On a Wire from Philippe Girard and published by Drawn+Quarterly is a whirlwind tour of the life of famed singer-songwriter Cohen, itself a whirlwind. “Singer-songwriter” does not even begin to encompass Cohen’s C.V., which goes from composer to novelist to performer with expansive poetry in between. As the graphic novel shows, Leonard Cohen was someone who could not be put into a category.
The story of Leonard Cohen: On a Wire begins at the ending, with the aged Cohen falling out of bed in 2016 and thinking, “Let’s hope this won’t be too uncomfortable.” Its narrative then flows through flashbacks, leaping through time. It shows him as a teen in Westmount, Quebec, mourning the death of his dog Tinkie, whom he found alone under the neighbor’s porch. He resists his mother’s urging to go into the garment business, instead being inspired to play with words. As his career with poetry and novels drags, he flees London weather for Grecian sun and then New York, where he finds his place writing songs.
Much of Leonard Cohen: On a wire is dedicated to Cohen’s many relationships with women. Many of them are already married when he meets them, and as their marriages end, he picks them up. Other relationships are flashes of passion and even violence before Cohen returns to a lifelong sense of loneliness, even and especially when surrounded by people. As discussed in the final scenes, flashing back to Cohen’s loss of his father at an early age, young Cohen pets Tinkie while his mother comments, “He’s working out his mythology. I think it’s Leonard’s way of trying to be free.”
Like Cohen’s romantic relationships, Leonard Cohen: On a Wire is packed with famous names. A handy “Rogues Gallery” in an appendix shows many of the famous crossovers in Cohen’s life. From Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell to Janis Joplin and numerous artists in the Velvet Underground, it is as if there was an invisible web connecting the influencers of rock. The music industry plays an enormous role through faces like talent scout John Hammond, arranger Jeff Chase, and volatile producer Phil Spector. Numerous dramas play out through the story, including the longtime struggle for recognition on writing “Hallelujah” as a running gag as other characters attribute it to artists who covered the song long after Cohen’s 1984 album.
The pages of Leonard Cohen: On a Wire are packed with six or more panels, but Girard gives focus to the faces. There are just enough detail of the scenes to paint the setting, showing that life is about the characters. Cohen himself evolves continuously not only in aging and different directions for his career, but as a person. His early days of growing out of orthodoxy become wild years of drugs and escapades. He leaves that behind to join the Zen community at Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles, leaving that to rejoin the music world with tours. In just over 100 pages, Girard has somehow encompassed the life of a man who contained multitudes.