BOOK REVIEW: Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool
By Gerry Miles
Did you know what made Steve McQueen cool?
Coolness or sprezzatura, according to quora.com, is derived from the creative class in Renaissance Italy where the effort needed to achieve a great performance is never seen yet perceived.
Or, to paraphrase the tagline of Dry Idea’s deodorant in the 1980s, he never let them see him sweat.
McQueen’s legacy coolness might have just gone up a few degrees with his life chronicled in a black-and-white graphic novel format, “Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool.”
While today’s graphic novels written that are underbelly-centric with gossipy celebrity details, McQueen’s also features the travails of his life in illustrated panels with dialogue bubbles sans the Biff! Zam! Zowie! callouts of Batman.
Rather Dwight Jon Zimmerman , who spent time at Marvel comics and has researched military histories as well as Bill O’Reilly books, chronicled McQueen’s life in detail that provides a thorough roundup of childhood to his final days when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and passed after suffering a heart attack after the surgery at age 50 in Mexico.
McQueen, whose first name was Terrence yet used his middle name, achieved his coolness due to a simple matter of timing, according to Zimmerman.
“(McQueen) started coming into his own in 1960s,” explained Zimmerman, who has worked at Marvel comics where he worked on Spiderman, Ironman, X-Man and also researched military history books. “His upbringing gave him an edge. In his movies he has a presence. He had star presence especially in way he carried himself that resonated with a lot of people.”
Illustrated by Greg Scott, the comic book style compares to the look of the “Speed Racer” TV cartoon as well as the pencil-sketch animation video, “Take On Me” by A-ha, a Norwegian band in 1985, which used a technique called rotoscoping. The video won six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards.
“Full Throttle Cool” can be picked up at any point and draws the reader back in. It’s a brisk read that hits all of the salient points without the weight some 200-plus page turners bogged the reader down.
While McQueen’s life was played out on movie theaters, and perhaps immortalized in “Bullitt” where he arguably set the standard for action-movie car chases in a Mustang through the streets of San Francisco. Those factors, plus how his life unraveled as a child and evolved with some hard work and “timing” or a lucky break, without the stress or strain on the silver screen, perpetuated McQueen’s coolness that is synthesized into a 96-page biography. Does that arguably him that much cooler? In the graphic novel genre, it might.
“He had successes and failures. His successes were definite successes – like ‘Bullitt’ – because of his motorsport experience he focused on the chase scene,” Zimmerman said. “It defined car chase scenes on TV and movies screens from that moment on.”
Zimmerman felt a kinship to McQueen and other motor sport enthusiasts for details, having owned a British Norton 850 Commando motorcycle that he rode across country, and as a child watching “Magnificent Seven,” “Great Escape” and “LeMans” used the Internet to ensure his period details were exact and paid homage to the man, the myth and the movies.
“He asked himself ‘am I an actor who races or a racer who acts,’ “Zimmerman said.
“I found myself in this almost unique decision because I owned a motorcycle and was sensitive to motorcycle side and as a fan of his acting roles. This is the only book that I’ve seen that actually is as much as possible of equal time to his two passions: motorsports and acting. I’m proud of that.”
Experiences like McQueen’s struggles in his marriage to Neile Adams, driving in LeMans with a broken foot, and wrecking a car to get out of his contract – with a rented Cadillac in Boston – a publicized romance with Ali McGraw before he married Barbara Minty, his time in the Merchant Marine and later the U.S. Marines are just a few of the interesting details.
“If it wasn’t for his time serving in the Marines, McQueen would never have gotten the permission to film ‘Bullitt’ because he had the connections,” related Zimmerman.
McQueen’s time behind the wheel of race cars is well-documented, especially in “LeMans,” which was a commercial failure.
“When I rescreened LeMans decades later, I’m saying he did (‘LeMans’) as a French existential movie. It required the audience to be proactive and step forward and think about what was taking place because the dialogue was minimalist.,” Zimmerman exclaimed. “I was impressed by what he achieved there even though it was not a commercial success. Of course the racing community loved it for its action and being true to form.”
You may or may not judge McQueen’s life to be a success despite his short life. He was abandoned by his father, sent to reform school, had almost as many failed movies and TV shows as hits while succumbing to lifelong habits of what the book called “smoking marijuana, drinking beer, riding his dirt bike and bedding blondes.”
“He was a very complex individual. I found there was a lot to his character and in one sense a very private man,” Zimmerman said. “And he was also emotionally hurt through his early experiences that definitely impacted upon his relationships with women and his promiscuity.
“I think I discovered the man behind the image. Anyone who comes away from it at least knows there was a person there that was not an iconic actor or a dedicated racer,” Zimmerman said. “There was a man, flawed, but also who had good traits and some bad traits, but that they know the person.”
Gerry Miles is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer, and a two-time past president of the New England Motor Press Association.