Book Review: Oprah Winfrey by Joshua LaBello

In 1986, when I was 12 years old, Oprah Winfrey came out as a survivor of sexual abuse. Her candor was stunning.  Her national talk show had been on the air for only one year, but she had already busted through the ratings set by talk show superstar Phil Donahue, a remarkable feat for a young, black woman.  Winfrey was winning viewers’ hearts with her bravery and honesty, mine among them.  I watched her show every day after school, and this moment in 1986 remains one of the most important in my life.  From Winfrey, I learned the words for my own experience.  I learned that there are adults who work full-time advocating for abused kids.  I learned that something could be done to stop the cycle of intergenerational violence that imprisoned my family.

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I’d been hoping for an opportunity to write about the importance of Winfrey’s story in my life, and then I came across this glossy 22-page biography. Writer Joshua LaBello focuses on Winfrey’s early years, writing, “… to me, this is the story of the girl who became Oprah Winfrey.”  The first half of LaBello’s short bio comic covers her life before the debut of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1985, when Winfrey was just 31 years old. Using language and images accessible to teenage readers, LaBello walks us through Winfrey’s traumatic childhood years.  Raised by her stern grandmother on a Mississippi farm and then by her single mother in Milwaukee, young Winfrey was raped at the age of nine by a cousin, and things went from bad to worse when a new stepfather entered her life. Although she was a popular and successful student, she acted out at home, stealing money from her mother and running around with older men.  Winfrey’s father in Nashville was a bright presence during this tumultuous time and, when her mother sent her to live with him when she was about 16, her life changed for the better.  LaBello swiftly summarizes Winfrey’s many early successes, from beauty pageant winner to Nashville news anchor at age nineteen.

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Halfway through the book, we watch Winfrey exit a taxi in Chicago, the city where she will build her media empire. The book then shifts to a recording of inspirational moments and life-affirming Oprah-isms of the “It’s about achieving your dreams but not stopping there” variety.  “We are all beacons of light for each other.” Are we?  I’m pretty sure Bill Cosby isn’t.  Maybe we can’t separate Winfrey from the self-help culture she has become associated with, but I’d like to hear more about her experiences as a business woman, her work with girls’ education, or even her relationship with her dogs.  Labello’s nonlinear smattering of affirmations reflects my deepest concern for Oprah’s legacy: Will her precipitous slide into the role of self-help guru overshadow the bravery and depth that I witnessed as a kid?  I’m going to duck the temptation to dive into a feminist critique of Winfrey as a pawn of neoliberalism (Nicole Acshoff does an apt job with that) and simply say that I want the Oprah that I knew as a 12-year-old to be the Oprah that I carry with me.Oprah 5The art and layout have a floppy comics feel, appropriate for a team production: Written and penciled by LaBello, the art was colored by Michelle Davies and lettered by Wilson Ramos, Jr.  Along with ’70s- and ’80s-inspired coloring by Davies, LaBello’s skillful drawings of clothing trends give each panel the feel of a specific decade.  Skin color is an important theme early in the story when we learn that Winfrey’s mother favored her younger, lighter-skinned daughter, and colorist Davies pays respectful attention to the subtleties of skin tone.  My critique of LaBello’s drawings of Winfrey is that he seems to draw from precious few reference images, particularly during her teen years, limiting the range of her facial expressions.  LaBello’s depiction of Winfrey’s teen self reads as flat and spiritless, especially when considered next to the many current images of her in the public eye.  In this way, LaBello’s use of the comics form fails the reader.  Winfrey is one of the most dynamic personalities of her era — she had my full attention when no other adult did! — and it would have been a treat to see a young Winfrey illustrated with that same energy.

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Like the other comics in the Female Force series by BlueWater Comics (now Tidal Wave comics), this floppy gives teen readers a 20-minute read on a modern hero. In that context, I appreciate the comic book’s honest depiction of her deeply traumatic childhood.  I feel a tremendous gratitude that I witnessed Winfrey telling her story on television at a moment when I was in need of such honesty.  For young people today who are looking for similar truths in a confusing world, LaBello’s tidy re-telling of Oprah’s difficult story might at least be a fine place to start.

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