guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2007

Gipi, Garage Band (First Second, 2007). $16.95, paperback

By Matt Dube

I should confess to my bias from the outset: I was in a garage band in high school. We called ourselves Shoehouse and I played percussion on a busted old hard-top suitcase. We practiced in the finished basement of my friend John’s house, and I observed with mixed feelings as one of my friends tried to separate his uncomfortable interest in Hitler from a contradictory desire for transcendence; we all felt a hunger to become something larger and louder than just a group of high school students. This experience might make me the target audience for Gipi’s Garage Band, a graphic novel about four Italian boys whose need to form a rock group pushes a story that illuminates them and their world. It’s easy to remember the feeling of companionship that the loose collective of us playing granted me, and it’s a spirit of masculine uplift that Gipi captures well in his book, especially in those moments when the band play together. (Look at the way the vertical line of the singer’s elbow points the way to heaven in this scene from their first great rehearsal).

Some critics have dismissed
Garage Band as lightweight, just a transitory spirit captured on paper that doesn’t amount to much. And it’s true—there is something ephemeral in the electricity that gathers around the characters when they play music together. And maybe Gipi’s pencils even add to this feeling of happenstance and synchronicity: his drawings are made of squiggly, fiddly lines always only on the verge of resolving themselves, on the verge of becoming discernible, discrete figures. The book is rich with panels like this one, where the mass of tangled lines at the bottom of the page resolves itself into wide open, airy spaces where anything is allowed. (insert image, garage0002.jpg) In this series, unlike his hard-boiled crime series Wish You Were Here (published as part of the Fantagraphics Ignatz imprint), Gipi’s drawings are in color, and the watercolor tones and shades he uses grade off at times into subtle shadings. But at other times, this technique makes the characters in the foreground pop loose from their cluttered backdrops.

Garage Band is a classic ensemble drama, like X-Men or the Legion of Super-Heroes, and this book offers some of the same pleasures we look for in those titles: the book is built from a series of small and luminous character recognitions. The book, despite being structured around five “canzones” or songs, more completely comes in two stages: the first in which the characters are introduced to us, often in warmly moving set pieces, and then a second wave of character re-definition, as we learn what we thought about the character is only a part of who they are. This is especially striking, for example, in the case of drummer Alex, who not only throws over his love for Hitler in favor of the Soviets of the sixties, but also assumes the mantle of the band’s benefactor (sort of like the role Oliver Queen or Bruce Wayne played for the early Justice League). The way the characters reveal themselves, through words and gestures, gives us as readers the same pleasure people read in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-men. What the book lacks is an overarching narrative scheme: there is no danger-room-given-corporeal-form threat to defeat, and the band don’t even sign a major label recording deal or write that breakout song (though there are hints that they are close to both).

Instead, the book gives signals that might be a little hard to interpret on a first read through: early on, Guilano focalizes the narrative through his voice-over and his use of “I,” both of which signal this is his story. But it’s not his story; he undergoes maybe the slightest transformation of any of the characters. Instead, the best moments concern the other characters: One of my favorites is the scene where Guilano’s father has to pay the death metal band Fallen Angel for the instruments the boys have stolen; in another prime moment, a conversation between Guilano’s girlfriend Nina and her mother, about Guilano’s relationship to his father and the dogs his father breeds, leads to a funny gag that incorporates verbal and visual cues. The voice-over also expands to speak for the whole band as it speaks of how “we can take life, bend it to how we want it” (85). There’s an understated lyricism in the book that builds from all three of Gipi’s strengths: his tentative but energetic line, his skill with naturalistic scene building, and his understated grace as a writer of words. The book bends all these skills to demonstrate a greater awareness of the world that surrounds the main characters than I ever had when I was a teenager in a garage band. It’s true that this book lacks a single satisfying narrative arc that climaxes where you’d expect. But Gipi’s unwillingness to undercut these smaller moments—his decision instead to let them shine for what they are—is what makes this book so satisfying to read.