Tunes: A Comic Book History Of Rock And Roll (Universe) edited by Vincent Brunner
This is an odd thing to see stateside, a French comic strip anthology of basic rock history. It has a pretty simple format – one band to one cartoonist, the bands all well within the pantheon: Sex Pistols, Beatles, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Nirvana, and a variety of others probably equally familiar, with, let’s say, LCD Soundsystem and (maybe) The Stranglers as outliers. With that in mind, it probably isn’t too surprising to learn that most of the stories hew close to the myths there to be found – most musicians viewed during their heroic phase, the faces all youthful enough so that the sneers don’t seem stagnant. (Notable exception: Ruppert & Mulot’s take on Elvis, a plain middle finger extended to the artist or America or both, which alternates between Elvis’ ignominious end on the toilet and a giant Elvis climbing atop various skyscrapers in the New York landscape, with possible allusions to King Kong or 9/11 – it’s hard to parse; either way our final image is that of the King expiring on his restroom floor, pants down and strewn in vomit.) And even when the content escapes that status quo of “glorification”, there’s always the two pages of big honking prose from editor Vincent Brunner attached to each strip, replete with a recommended discography, just to ensure the pre-set history of ROCK is unavoidable.
As I started off with, it’s just… weird to encounter this, a European comic so determinedly aimed at the mainstream, or rather a mainstream of the meat and potatoes variety, with a pungency of conservative rockist nostalgia expected to overcome, for the curious passerby, all the mostly unfamiliar names contained herein – a book seemingly bent on the Film/TV/Music section of your local big box bookstore, a few feet from Leonard Maltin. I’m not complaining of course; I realize that, by broaching the subject, I risk the lack of any further similar publishing ventures crossing over to these not-so-welcoming shores, and maybe even the entirety of Eurocomics just disappearing in a puff, the fates willing foreign language comics (and maybe even Europe itself!) into a dream or a rumor that never was, rendered non-existent in the span of a blink by one lowly blogger’s doubt. Anyway, Killoffer is always welcome and, hey, there’s an actual Jean-Christophe Menu comic on ready display, not just another view of him from afar as the preferred villain in the bande dessinee scene at the moment.
The better pieces tend to be nice and blunt first person pieces, like Charles Berberian’s (one half of Monsieur Jean fame) take on Elton John, here done in his casually anecdotal style, expressive scratches against a page more blank than not; it’s also probably the only strip which crosses over into something like criticism (said criticism consisting of “Ignore Elton John after 1975”). Olivier Josso’s strip on The Clash is pretty swell as well, a personal memoir with an emphasis on the intersection of the band with his life. Luz delivers something similar with his take on LCD Soundsystem, but his approach is less intellectual and far more in the key of “unconstrained fanboy” – he’s actually friends with James Murphy, so whatever mythmaking is absent from Brunner’s synopsis you’ll certainly find present in the strip which follows it. (Murphy‘s jolly misadventures in semi-homelessness! Murphy’s love for his dog Petunia! Actual quote describing Mr. Murphy: “With any more integrity, you’d be the Mother Theresa of groove!”) It’s fun and giddy, livelier than most.
At the other end of the conceptual spectrum you’ll find Jochen Gerner’s Pixies piece, a work-intensive six-page catalog of every damn concept, situation, meaningless hoot from Frank Black’s voice, whatever, found in a Pixies song and rendered in ideogram form; it reads a lot like one of Mark Newgarden’s Meet The Cast strips, except not funny. Also in a similar “fuck narrative” sense is Killoffer’s piece on Led Zeppelin, which isn’t so much a strip as a very busy bit of design layout in search of an album cover or an article, a frictionless explosion of symbols and fun w/ lettering.
Neither of those are especially grabbing, but they do buck the trend of this book, which is to mount a hazy one note altar to the band in question, simultaneously overly earnest and lazy – a wordless Beatles piece with goony psychedelic avatars floating around a recording session, an Alice In Wonderland pastiche featuring funny animal Iggy and The Stooges (‘cause “Fun House” is a lot like “Wonderland” or something), a wake for Ziggy Stardust in the light of his Rock N’ Roll Suicide, followed by a Rock N’ Roll Rebirth with an attendant new Bowie persona, Nick Drake in a pastoral landscape and then the complete lyrics to “Time Of No Reply”, et cetera. They either plod there, inert, or suffer from conceptual strain, the first few panels far too much heavy lifting so the artist can ensure whatever pretext he’s chosen meets up with the musician(s) in question.
The best strip is, almost certainly, Sebastien Lumineau’s take on The Ramones and this is the best page from it:
It’s the opening page, two stark images which work at a gut level – it may not easier to ignore them than otherwise, to paraphrase that Wally Wood anecdote about Nancy, but it is close. Context may play a part – relative to most of the strips in the book, the immediacy of this page is exhilarating.
It’s a simple premise – a distillation of the Ramones’ mid-to-late-70s touring experience into nice basic images, a thousand shows in six pages. The visual logic of these first two Stations Of The Cross is pretty clear – a shift from immensity to intimacy, vast white scale to dark cramped interior, this opposition bound by a wide angle sense of perspective, a tactic which, notably, only appears on this page and nowhere else in the story. The first panel is dominated by a sky as wide as can be and the land equally flat, the van a degree or two above a speck, just off center, with the smoke emitted a nice touch. It’s very studied – the Middle of Nowhere, U. S. A., cut through by that inexorable piece of logic known as The Road; a place that’s only a place between a place and another place. Absent any context, it’s a nice depiction of an archetype – that vision of America which cultural criticism dictates may drive the unwary to either madness or serenity, an unkind expanse and an unspeaking God (courtesy of those clouds) your only points of reference.
In the second panel you’ll find, naturally, the Ramones. They’re stuck in that van, heading to the next show, a ritual they’ve experienced before and will experience again. As packed in as they are, each is clearly bearing a bubble of isolation, guarding it as best they can; judging by their demeanor, we can guess that they are, if not sick of each other, content to keep quiet, aware that, by this stage of the tour, any attempt at conversation will just be repetition and irritation. Funny ‘cause it’s true, y’know? This image comes with its own baggage of iconography and artifice – if it seems familiar, that’s because the character placement of our Blitzkrieg Boppers is taken from the cover of their first album (l-r: Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee). The canned-sardine sense of tension and expectancy works well enough that you’re willing to forgive the lapses of logic: Who’s driving? Bands that play shows ground level to the audience – as per Lumineau’s vision – at clubs called Mondo Bizarro are more inclined to drive themselves around than not. A van with that seat would possibly (maaaaaybe) have room enough to hold the instruments, but where the hell would you put the amps?
Still the show must go on, and it does, for another twelve panels over five more pages. From here we head to the backstage of a club for a pre-show beer surrounded by flirty girls and scenesters, and then the show itself, the strip climaxing here with the opening 1-2-3-4 battle cry and actual panel-to-panel movement, followed by a coda of the band separated into various post-show jollies: Johnny watching tv in his motel room with cookies and milk, Joey chatting up some girl, etc. Lumineau’s naturalism takes its cue more from the photographic instant than photorealism proper, the odd aura that accrues over stray moments captured in media res; he seems to have digested as many Ramones performance photos as possible and then conjured up this. And of course there’s the drabness and amiable cracked-wall decay of an average rock club, which gets nice and precise portrayal here, DIY ambiance being an international language.
The strip probably makes the top five of an unlikely “band on the road” comics pantheon, with Jaime Hernandez’s “Jersualem Crickets” an obvious number one. It’s easy to think that Lumineau took inspiration from the songs themselves – after all, the band did write some of the better tunes about touring, which view the process through neither an entitled or ennobling point of view, just songs about one soul being put through the ringer; “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Danny Says” are the songs I’m thinking about.
Not much need be said about “Sedated” – sometime in the next week or so, it’ll probably be static in the background while you find yourself preoccupied with something else. It manages to stick, maybe thanks to the compressed intensity of the song’s first person scenario, which seems fitted to suit the group’s de facto energy, never mind the all-powerful tool of identification: not everyone has the threat of psychotherapy hanging over their head, but there’s a good chance you’ve recently been run ragged enough by the world that temporary oblivion sounds appealing – many weekends are guided by this internal mandate.
If that song is about the exhaustion and breakdown touring can induce, “Danny Says” is more mundane approach to same, without any implied exclamation marks, just a catalogue of little details, everyday loneliness – being stuck in your hotel room with nothing to do but watch old tv shows, hustling for promotion to the night’s show, the bits of displacement that shouldn’t affect you so strongly but do. It’s one of the few songs to survive Phil Spector’s shellacking on End Of The Century, which, by then (the late seventies), had receded from the sixties exuberance into a mere bag of tricks, bells and whistles that now only sounded like bells and whistles. Spector’s presence here is very careful to emphasize the song’s dramatic structure, a lullaby which grows into reverb and noise while still, weirdly but undoubtedly, remaining a lullaby. It’s quite nice, wonderful really, but it may be best viewed as a clever remix of the demo, which, natch, sticks to the tried and true Ramones template. Here the song isn’t an event, just a song, its shifts less theatrical but still there – you take more notice of them when you’re not being led by Spector’s hand, the song’s melancholy more resonant when you have to dive into that familiar sea of fuzz for it.
No matter how far you venture, it’s always good to have a place to return to.