By various authors, edited by Ian Brill
BOOM! Studios, $14.99
CBGB is a graphic novel anthology of short stories about the legendary punk nightclub CBGB and the people who hung out there. The music of the era plays a huge part in the stories, especially the introductory tale, but overall the book is really about the things that went with the music—drugs, sex, ambition, rebellion, being young and living in New York City—and most of the characters are on the floor watching the music, not onstage playing it.
For an anthology about punk rock and New York life in the 1970s, CBGB is remarkably colorful. The art leans more toward neon colors than the blacks and grayed-out colors one might expect, although there is quite a range of styles and story types.
The first story sets the scene and provides a mini-introduction to the genre. It’s told as a parody of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with two snarky ghosts of punk rock past, one a hipster and the other a stickler for facts, who walk a hapless would-be musician through the history of punk rock and of CBGB itself.
Most of the rest of the stories are about what the music means to people, rather than the experience of making it. “Rock Block,” written by Ana Matronic and illustrated by Dan Duncan, starts out with a description of the down-at-the-heels feeling New York had in the 1970s and then focuses on a young would-be novelist who goes to CBGB to escape her writer’s block and ends up finding her muse there. In “Advice to a Young Artist,” written by Robert Steven Williams and Louise Staley and drawn by Giorgio Pontrelli, a college professor smokes a joint and travels back in time to his CBGB days, where he comes to a new realization—and inadvertently changes history. And “Count 5 or 6,” written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Chuck BB, is a cheerful, cartoony story about a young girl who comes to the big city and finds love in the unlikeliest of places—CBGB.
Not all the stories work this well. Kim Krizan’s “Of and Concerning the Ancient, Mystical, and Holy Origins of That Most Down and Dirty 20th Century Rock and Roll Club” is, just like its title, a tad pretentious and way too long. The story of primitive musicians rebelling against their tribes is nice, but there isn’t enough there to sustain the number of pages. Fortunately, Toby Cypress pulls it off with beautiful, colorful art.
The weakest story is also, in some ways, the most touching. “Oozi-Suzi-Q-Tip,” written and drawn by Mr. Sheldon, is about a girl who is nervous because she is seeing her favorite band for the first time, and their music always evokes an unwanted response. That’s a great theme—this is the only story that admits that underneath the studied cool and gritty exterior was a bunch of awkward teenagers and young adults. Unfortunately, the physical response is bizarre and icky: The girl’s ears blow up and turn into giant vaginas. As the crowd jeers, the lead singer of the band breaks the fourth wall and reminds them that their music is all about being yourself, and that means accepting differences. The crowd roars their approval and shoots phallic beams of approval into all Suzi’s orifices. It works really well on one level but on another, it’s just gross.
There is a wistfulness to many of these stories. CBGB closed down in 2006, and the punk-rock scene ended many years before that. The book takes a romantic view of a time and a place that were better to look back on than to have lived through, a time when anything was possible, as long as you wanted it bad enough, where everyone was cool, the music was hot, and rebellion was everything.