Nellie Bly lived an extraordinary life but The Incredible Nellie Bly is more for younger readers who might not know much about her career.
Nellie Bly was an amazing journalist at a time when women were discouraged from joining the workforce, let alone becoming reporters. While she wasn’t always the only female journalist in the room, she was usually the only one getting to write about non-“female” subjects and her efforts not only opened doors for women in the field but helped instigate reforms in factories and public health institutions.
Just like when an actor dies and every headline names the same movie, even though they were in so many other things, most people, when they think of Nellie Bly, probably think of her ten day stay at a mental institution for the New York World. She went there to expose how patients were being mistreated. She also famously traveled the world in 72 days – eight days less than Phileas Fogg, the main character of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
That wasn’t the first or last time Bly went undercover but while it’s true that, had those been the only two things Bly ever accomplished she would still be a hero, her entire career is worthy of attention. That’s why, in its best moments, The Incredible Nellie Bly goes beyond the headlines to show some of the other stories Bly investigated, or how much thought went into designing her travel outfit.
What the book struggles at is adapting Bly’s story for a graphic novel. Starting with Luciana Cimino’s writing, none of the dialogue sounds naturalistic, and while the book is being translated from Italian by Laura Garofalo, every line has an ulterior motive. Characters don’t talk. They look for openings to insert information about Bly, and it all reads like a straight biography instead of a story that was written for the comics medium.
Then there’s the stale set-up of having Bly be interviewed by an up-and-coming reporter about her life. The reporter, Miriam, is barely fleshed out as a character while Nellie is written as this crotchety old woman which feels stereotypical, even if it’s true. It’s implied, for instance, that the only reason Nellie agreed to go undercover at the mental institution is because, “…if this is the only way to get hired by the World, I accept!” but was that how she really felt or is the line poorly phrased? Cimino leaves Bly’s personality so ill-defined it’s impossible to tell, which then puts the artist, Sergio Algozzino, at a disadvantage because some of Bly’s facial expressions, for example, could be read as smug, but was she smug? It’s hard to tell what’s intentional.
The timeline is also messy. Bly, as the main narrator, jumps around a lot, and while that might be realistic, and letterer, David Sharpe, tries to keep things straight, in terms of who’s talking – Bly or Miriam – it’s ultimately confusing to have the story backtrack so much. For younger reader wanting to learn more about Bly, this graphic novel has it’s uses, but as a graphic novel The Incredible Nellie Bly is less successful.
The Incredible Nellie Bly goes on sale Tuesday March 2nd from Abrams ComicArts.