Tunisian artist draws on real life and fantasy to tell David Bowie’s story

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie is a graphic novel that tells the story of the creation of the songs for his seminal albums The Man Who Sold the World in 1970 and 1971’s Hunky Dory.

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie by artist Néjib. Courtesy SelfMadeHero
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Our infatuation with British rock legend David Bowie shows no sign of abating, a year after his death.

Next month, British publishers SelfMadeHero will release one of the more unusual tributes to the influential singer.

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie is a graphic novel that tells the story of the creation of the songs for his seminal albums The Man Who Sold the World in 1970 and 1971's Hunky Dory, as well as the subsequent creation of his Ziggy Stardust stage persona.

After releasing Space Oddity, his first single released in 1969 a few days before the Apollo Moon landing, the singer moved into Haddon Hall, a sprawling Victorian house in the suburbs of London with his then girlfriend, Angie Barnett.

It is from this set up that Tunisian-born author and artist Néjib tells his story about creativity, metamorphosis and music.

He first heard Bowie's music on the few Italian television stations whose signals strayed into Tunisia in the early 1980s. He remembers being fascinated by the video for China Girl.

In 1986, at the age of 10, Néjib moved to France where his infatuation with the singer grew after his brother brought home a copy of Bowie's 1972 album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

“From that time on, I bought every Bowie record and I saw him live many times,” he says.

The inspiration to write a graphic novel about Bowie came while reading a biography of the singer. What piqued Néjib’s interest was the author’s assertion that “it’s almost impossible to write a biography on Bowie because Bowie is very much a character created by David Jones”, a reference to Bowie’s real name.

What made Jones become Bowie is the focus of the book. Within this uncharted territory, Néjib saw an opportunity to take creative licence and interpret unknown events alluded to in Bowie’s music. He could, effectively, create a fantasy world based around a few truths.

“I read a lot of things and mostly re-listened to the lyrics and the mood of his albums from the period,” he says.

“And I incorporated the things I knew about Bowie: the illness of his brother, the lack of communication with his brother, and the fact that Angie Bowie, although not talented musically, was very important to supporting the team and bringing fantasy and some extravaganza to the group.”

He also incorporates musical contemporaries, including: Marc Bolan of T-Rex, whom Bowie toured with at the beginning of his career; Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett (a key influence on Bowie, who covered his song, See Emily Play, on his 1973 album Pin Ups); and John Lennon, who warns Bowie of the downside of fame. "I imagined that he might have met Lennon and what the conversation would have been like, as for me, Lennon was the big brother of this generation," says Néjib.

The Beatles, and their psychedelic influence upon Bowie's music, is also reflected in the book's artwork, which is a kaleidoscope of colour and bold outlines. Néjib admits to being inspired by the 1968 Beatles film Yellow Submarine, as well as the work of Romanian animator Saul Steinberg and American cartoonist William Steig.

A graduate of Arts-Déco in Paris, Néjib wrote his graphic novel before Bowie’s death. The text is infused with the purity of Bowie and his sense of being an outsider.

Half-French and half-Tunisian, it is a feeling Néjib knows all too well.

“I’ve always been fascinated by these artists, the kind of artist that are strangers everywhere they go,” he says. “Bowie never wanted to be blocked into a space – if he ever grew too comfortable he would reinvent himself, he would always go into another space. Bowie made the idea of transformation and metamorphosis positive.”

Haddon Hall will be published by SelfMadeHero on February 16