Jessie Hartland’s “Insanely Great” tells Steve Jobs' life story as a graphic novel

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this comic tale can hang with the sprawling biographies.

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Despite being cut short, Steve Jobs’ life was legendarily full and accomplished—and the recollections of it are expectedly lengthy and robust. Walter Isaacson’s eponymous biography, issued weeks after Jobs’ death, weighs in at 657 pages, while the more recent Becoming Steve Jobs is still hearty at 464 pages. Even 2013’s rough Jobs film starring Ashton Kutcher dragged on for more than two agonizing hours. 

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By contrast, the newly released Steve Jobs: Insanely Great embraces brevity—it’s a quick read at about 225 pages. Also important to note: It’s a graphic novel, translating the Apple co-founder’s upbringing, storied career, and personal life into a series of black-and-white, pencil-drawn panels. 

Insanely Great is written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, a commercial artist and author whose work has spanned an array of topics and formats. She’s had illustrations published in The New York Times and Vogue Japan, done corporate work for the likes of Swatch and Target, and published several previous books for children—notably 2012’s acclaimed Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, another biography that got the graphic novel treatment.

Hartland began the project in early 2012 after turning in Bon Appetit!, not long after Jobs’ death. A longtime Mac user herself, she realized that she knew some basics of Jobs’ life and career, but wanted a more complete picture.

“I had heard he was a rebel, an iconoclast, and that he’d started a little business in his parents’ garage and it became the world’s most valuable company,” she explains. “I wanted to know more. Who wouldn’t want to know more?”

author Isabelle Dervaux

Author Jessie Hartland 

It’s that spark that eventually led to Insanely Great. Random House took her pitch, and she dove into a diverse heap of research. The book’s bibliography is extensive, including Isaacson’s biography and other books, numerous magazine interviews from across Jobs’ career, and even his memorable Stanford commencement address found on YouTube. 

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A peek inside Hartland’s work-in-progress sketchbook for Steve Jobs: Insanely Great.

But that was just the start: Hartland, based in New York City, ventured out to California to check out Silicon Valley for herself, tour the Pixar studios, see Jobs’ childhood home, and visit other locations where his story actually unfolded. It was a lot to process and try to present in a relatively compact fashion—even though that seems to be one of her specialties, if the Julia Child book is any indication. 

“I’m drawn to simplifying complicated material using pictures and words, but this book was a real challenge,” she concedes. “Steve Jobs died relatively young, yet he did 10 times more than most people do in a long lifetime. To piece the story together, understand it completely, winnow it down, and get it all in the right order took some time.”

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For being a streamlined look at an impressively packed life, Insanely Great is a complete and multifaceted story. It begins with his childhood, painting him as a mischievous kid who finds purpose in tinkering, yet also one who struggles with the knowledge that he was given up for adoption. His spiritual life isn’t lost amidst the focus on his career accomplishments with Apple, Pixar, and NeXT, nor does the book skip his family life, relationships, and late life illness. And it uses the thrust of that Stanford speech to put an optimistic note on his passing.

The book is nuanced without being sprawling; comprehensive but not exhaustive—or exhausting, for that matter. That meant picking and choosing which aspects of Jobs’ life got significant attention, and which were quickly touched on. While his relationship with Bill Gates might get a full chapter in a hulking biography, here it’s two pages covering their philosophical differences regarding computing, as well as their shared debt to colleagues and competitors. Both share a word bubble on one page, saying, “You know what they say: ‘Good artists imitate, great artists steal.’”

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Insanely Great has a broader appeal than her earlier children’s books, but it never becomes too complex or bogged down in jargon: Computing terms are explained right there on the page, and the book has multiple illustrated spreads that add context to the events. They show the technology of each era—like digital watches and the Sony Walkman in the late ‘70s—or break down something like the history of computing, or the purpose-driven architectural design Jobs oversaw for Pixar’s Emeryville, California studio.

It’s the illustrations, of course, that help each page say much more than the words alone can. While they clearly come straight from the pencil—and seemingly not fussed with too much after the fact—the representations of Jobs and the people, gadgets, and places of his life are expressive, despite the oft-sparse approach. Insanely Great deftly balances its whimsical, stirring, and important moments, and the ever-fluid page design keeps things interesting throughout.

“You can say a lot with drawings, of course. A scrap of frustration, some glee, a hint of mania, a giant triumph,” explains Hartland. “I absolutely love working in this graphic novel format.”

And it shows. Steve Jobs: Insanely Great is available now in hardcover, paperback, and digital formats.

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