Don’t let the graphic novel Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams fool you. Written by Steven Horton and Michael Allred, drawn by Allred, edited by Mark Irwin, and kaleidoscopically colored by Laura Allred, it starts on a demure note, introducing the singer to us with an anecdote about his eye condition (anisocoria, in which one pupil is permanently dilated): It was caused by “a fight over a girl with lifelong friend George Underwood.” Readers thus meet Bowie when he is still David Jones, sporting an unremarkable mid-1960s look consisting of side-swept bangs, sideburns, and a buttoned-up, Beatles-esque style.
Yet, the “creatively restless” and “tirelessly musical and artistic” artist soon takes the stage thanks to the Allreds and Horton. We follow him during the creation of the single “Space Oddity,” whose aesthetic is inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (both 1968) and, later, to America, where he begins to conceive his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.
The book also takes us through Bowie’s artistic relationships and friendships with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, his screen test by Andy Warhol, and the material steps (costumes and makeup), as well as the development of a mythology that went into the Ziggy Stardust persona. Ziggy’s extravagant looks are illustrated in all their glory before the character’s retirement (with the release of Diamond Dogs in 1974) and the premiere of his Thin White Duke persona. The authors follow with a montage of his work from the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, up through his death in 2016 and the release of his final album, Blackstar.
Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. Most stunning in this oversized book is the sheer amount of detail in each panel, especially those with relatively little plot development or dialogue. For instance, when Bowie receives a test-pressing of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled 1967 debut, with the famed Andy Warhol banana as its cover art — a scene that occupies roughly one third of the page — the Allreds fill the remaining space with illustrations of other seminal albums from 1967, including The Who’s The Who Sell Out and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced. A full page is devoted to Alice Cooper’s 1967 show at the Rainbow Theatre in London, depicting the singer getting hanged at the guillotine and toying with a snake.
It looks like the Allreds had a ball recreating Bowie’s iconic looks of the Ziggy era in painstaking detail. The book portrays his photoshoot with Brian Duffy for the album Aladdin Sane (1973), where he debuted his lightning-bolt makeup. We see Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, who inspired Bowie to create the Ziggy persona, deliver costumes to Bowie in 1973, including a vinyl-disk-inspired jumpsuit and the asymmetrical jumpsuit that he would sometimes adorn with feathers. As a palate cleanser after the Kansai Yamamoto maximalism, we see the sky-blue suit Bowie wore (with matching eyeshadow) for the videoclip of “Life on Mars?” followed by yet another onslaught of glam-rock capes, shoulder plates, and unitards. These eventually subside in favor of the sleek suits of the Thin White Duke era, of which, unfortunately for this writer, we see very little.
Nuggets of trivia come in the shape of elaborate and refined panels: “Girl with Mousy Hair” depicts a woman named Hermione Farthingdale, with whom Bowie and his longtime friend John “Hutch” Hutchinson formed a trio first named Turquoise, then Feathers. They are portrayed in miniature, dancing on a record and then embracing on a paper moon. Relevant cultural figures of that era make cameos in the graphic novel. We are told that Bowie auditioned for the musical Hair, along with actors Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry, whom Allred portrays in their iconic Rocky Horror costumes; he crossed paths with a certain Farrokh Bulsara — better known as Freddie Mercury — at Kensington Market, when searching for costumes. Barbra Streisand, who expressed interest in recording “Life on Mars?” when it was first released, is featured in a full-page background portrait, with Bowie clutching a piece of fan mail in the foreground. The photograph captured by Mick Rock on June 17, 1972, in which Bowie play Mick Ronson’s guitar with his teeth while clutching Ronson’s buttocks also gets the full-page treatment.
The richness of the visuals contrasts with the frantic pace of the story: Together with Bowie, we tirelessly hop between England and America, meet dozens upon dozens of characters, including fellow legends Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Elvis Presley, and guitarist Mick Ronson, as well as producer Gus Dudgeon and girlfriend (later, wife) Angie, but they are treated as props that propel the Bowie legend forward rather than individuals. The dialogue is sparse, too, consisting mainly of characters making mutual introductions, and the majority of the story is narrated through a kind of comic-book equivalent of a voiceover.
“I didn’t really get pop music at that age,” writes Neil Gaiman in the preface, recalling how he randomly became acquainted with Bowie’s songs at age 11. “I loved songs that were stories, and most rock and pop wasn’t. ‘Space Oddity’ was a story, even if it left its ending wrapped in ambiguity.” It’s an assessment that could also be applied to Bowie the graphic novel — despite the minimal narration and occasional flaws in its 180-plus pages, it makes for a mesmerizing and visually arresting journey.
Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Daydreams by Steve Horton, Michael Allred, and Laura Allred is published by Insight Comics and is available online and at bookstores.