It’s Jim Rugg! And late-1970s German politics! That’s pure gold, right?
One Model Nation is a new graphic novel by C. Allbritton Taylor (who’s listed as “writer”), Donovan Leitch (who’s credited as “historian”), Jim Rugg (who draws most of it), and Cary Porter (who draws the framing sequences). It’s colored by Jon Fell and lettered by Rowan Aldrin, published by Image, and costs $17.99. Oh, and one more thing: It’s HUGELY disappointing.
I had such high hopes for this book. It tells the tale of a band, One Model Nation, who disappeared in the late 1970s after the kerfuffle over the Baader-Meinhof gang, with whom they had ties. At the beginning of the book, a documentary filmmaker is trying to find out what happened to them, so he asks a dude who was in a different band to tell the story. Then we go back in time and see the events of the 1970s unfold, extremely compressed (Ulrike Meinhof helped free Andreas Baader in 1970, Meinhof was found hanged in her cell in 1976, and Meinhof “committed suicide” in 1977, all events that are shown in the book, with the implication that they occur over a few weeks or at best months), while the band tries to reconcile the fact that they’re considered “terrorists” by the authorities even though they don’t want to have much to do with politics. The entire book is about how they try to extricate themselves from the politics of the day but can’t, as much as they want to.
The premise of the book sounds terrific – Germany in the 1970s (when I lived there, even though I was extremely young and wasn’t exposed to any of it) was a hotbed of extremist politics (all of Europe was, I guess, but it was often focused on Germany) and also at the forefront of electronic music (I assume One Model Nation is supposed to remind us of Kraftwerk, but that’s just a famous example of this kind of music), and blending the two, especially because young bands always seem drawn to extremism, is a great idea. Unfortunately, this book fails in almost every way.
Let’s start with the best part of the book, Rugg’s art, even though that’s not as good as some of his stuff. He does several things well – the character design is quite good (with one big exception, which I’ll get to in a bit) and although he doesn’t do a ton with backgrounds (a lot of the comic takes place indoors, often in dimly-lit and banal spaces), we do get a good sense of where the book takes place and even the time period. He does a good job showing the band as slightly scared teenagers, and Meinhof’s transformation from somewhat reserved television reporter to terrorist is handled well. The music scenes (something else I’ll get back to) give us a nice sense of claustrophobia and noise that is endemic to all concert scenes, and Rugg’s David Bowie (who has a cameo) is weirdly correct, Bowie-as-drawn-by-Mike-Allred, which fits. Rugg’s art seems to lack the manic energy that he brought to Street Angel or (from what I’ve seen of it) Afrodisiac, but it’s possible that’s because this is a work-for-hire job or because Taylor really doesn’t give him a lot of opportunity to cut loose. And the fact that One Model Nation is a Devo-type band means that it’s kind of hard to tell the band members apart, with the exception of Sebastian, who gets the most “screen time.” They’re introduced a few times, which helps, but in between, they all look like dark-haired, sallow-faced youths in pseudo-military uniforms. It’s not too big a problem, because the other band members aren’t as important as Sebastian, but it’s still kind of vexing. Despite this, Rugg’s art is still the only reason to check this out.
Taylor and Leitch (even though Leitch is listed simply as “historian,” I’ll lump him in with Taylor as a writer, too), however, don’t make this book anywhere near competent on a literary level. I certainly don’t mind the compression of seven years of the Baader-Meinhof gang into a short graphic novel, because that kind of thing happens all the time in fiction.
However, the politics of the time are almost completely lost. There’s not a lot of depth to the political ranting in the book, no indication why the Red Army Faction (of which Baader and Meinhof were members) was formed or what they wanted, no reason why the cops are always breaking up concerts (beyond the fact that they’re “illegal assemblies,” but that doesn’t really tell us too much), and nothing that connects the band to the gang itself. Sebastian is sweet on Meinhof, but it’s not like she lures him into the gang or anything. The band is targeted by the police, but although we know why, it doesn’t seem like the cops have any proof behind their suspicions. By the end, the band still hasn’t really gotten involved in politics beyond the fact that they have a run-in with the fugitive gang late in the book. We see early on why the cops wouldn’t dig the band – a member is apparently an actual terrorist. Later, he bombs a building full of people. However, these events have no impact on the band, because the band never seems to know about it, and unless one scene shows him getting arrested (we’re back to not being able to tell the members apart), it’s never mentioned again. Even if he does get arrested, why don’t the other band members seem to care or even notice? There’s a lot of this in the book – plot points are brought up but never go anywhere. Sebastian leaves the band and returns to his father’s home in Bavaria, has a conversation with him, and then returns to the group. He made a big deal about never returning, but when he comes back, nobody finds it strange. They barely notice him! Sebastian later wanders off to find Meinhof, but when he doesn’t initially, he simply gives up and goes to a gig. It’s very odd. Finally, there’s the case of the band’s disappearance. First, the man telling the story to the documentary filmmaker does not appear in the flashback, nor is there any reason for him to know the events that transpired (it’s possible that he’s a random unnamed character in the book, but that makes no sense). Second, the writers never tell us the fundamental reason for the book’s existence: What happened to One Model Nation? In fact, there’s no indication that they ever disappeared! The documentarian asks “What really happened” to them, but the story doesn’t even imply anything happened to them.
The entire book is set up to answer the question of where the band went, but by the end, we aren’t even sure they went anywhere. It’s odd.
Finally, we get the music parts. It’s difficult but not impossible to convey the idea of music being played through the comics medium. Americans UK, which I reviewed recently, might not be something I liked, but at least we get a sense of what kind of music the band plays and even a sense of what it’s like to see the band in concert. This book shows us concert scenes, but the writers don’t bother to invent any lyrics or even have people talking much about the band’s music, so we have no sense of what One Model Nation sounds like or whether they’re incendiary in the way, say, The Clash were. If we’re going to believe that the police are cracking down on the band because of their music, it would be nice to get some idea of what that music is like. If the cops are coming down on them because of who they are, that gets back to my earlier point. But for a graphic novel about a band, One Model Nation is strangely “silent.” Taylor and Leitch are musicians, so the fact that the “music” in this book is so lacking bums me out.
I really hate not liking stuff I buy, because that’s just no fun. I think the idea behind this book is really good, and it would have been so cool to see it work. But it’s just a big disappointment. And that’s too bad.