Cohen’s Mythology

Reviewed by Jessica Fontaine

“I need pills . . . and red wine . . . and religion . . . and fasting . . . and cigarettes . . . and women, of course,” declares Leonard Cohen—while kissing Joni Mitchell against what appears to be a hotel room door—in Philippe Girard’s graphic biography Leonard Cohen: On a Wire (60). Cohen’s admission, which occurs across six panels midway through Girard’s book, draws together the sacred and fleshy themes of Cohen’s mythic persona—the artistic genius, the legendary “ladies’ man,” and the obsessive lyricist melding religion, culture, and sex—that the comic explores overall. Like other cartoonists who have tackled biographies of iconic musicians, such as Reinhard Kleist, who interrogated the legend of the Man in Black in Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness, Girard faces the conjoined challenges of navigating Cohen’s myth, visualizing his music and writing process, and narrating his life in the comics form. Girard embraces this task by offering us a vast body of Cohen life stories and songs in which to meditate on their intersections.


Published in 2021, On a Wire opens on the night of Cohen’s death in 2016 with a shadowed and elderly Cohen falling out of bed in his Los Angeles home. This episode’s dark blue-grey colour scheme brings to mind You Want It Darker, the last album Cohen released before his death, the title track of which concludes with “I’m ready, my lord.” In Girard’s opening, Cohen recognizes that he will die, and Girard returns to and extends this episode throughout the comic, giving the sense that Cohen is reflecting on his life and work alongside us.


Still, the 112-page clear-line comic has a quick pace. Cohen’s long life flickers by across six- to nine-panel grids in a warm palette of mostly blushes, browns, and reds. The book makes the expected stops. Girard follows Cohen from childhood and early adulthood in Montreal to Hydra and his love affair with Marianne Ihlen—the subject of the 2019 documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love—to New York and the Chelsea Hotel, and finally to the Buddhist monastery and Los Angeles. We never linger too long anywhere or with anyone, catching only glimpses of relationships and the contexts in which Cohen wrote and performed his best-known works.


As in Cohen’s work itself, most of the women in On a Wire appear as “muses—quasi-mystical figures who inspire the poet’s imagination and then conveniently disappear” (Bloom). Many of the social or romantic interactions depicted refer to Cohen’s lyrics, song titles, and albums. These moments suggest that the poet mined everyday experience for the creative sparks that inspired his songs. As such, the represented women act more as icons of Cohen’s works and legend rather than depictions of complex individuals whose lives intersected with his.


Yet Girard keeps these bursts of inspiration in tension with Cohen’s ongoing pursuit for the right words, even in moments of success or grief. In one sequence, Cohen keeps watch at his son Adam’s hospital bed after Adam has been injured in a car crash. Almost losing his son leads Cohen to work through sixty verses for the song “Democracy.” His desire to capture life in word and song is both tireless and tiresome. It’s this dynamic that On a Wire captures best. Girard offers a window into what Cohen’s long life of pills, red wine, religion, fasting, cigarettes, and women might have been.


Work Cited

Bloom, Myra. “The Darker Side of Leonard Cohen.” The Walrus, 9 Apr. 2018, Accessed 15 Apr. 2022.

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