Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Garage Band

This article was originally posted at in 2007.
Every time I'm introduced to the work of yet another masterful European artist, it feels like the sort of dream where you're shown a mysterious treasure trove of beautiful art that you'd never seen before. Of all the great comics published in Fantagraphics' Ignatz line, it was Gipi's Wish You Were Here that impressed me the most. Those comics are nuanced character studies that hint at but don't fully reveal dark secrets and plans gone awry. Garage Band is a somewhat sunnier tale, told using his same bag of tricks, where he skillfully reveals just enough of his characters to make us empathize with them.

Gipi's line is delicate and restrained, perfectly balancing the muted watercolors that give the entire book a washed-out look. Above all else, he's a master of body language, gesture, and expressiveness. His ability to convey feeling with often minimalist or cartoony faces and figures is not just remarkable--it's the key to getting those feelings across. This is one of those comics that would be worth looking at even if one didn't read a single word of it.

What makes this one of my favorite comics of 2007 is the way Gipi uses his images to create such vivid characters. With just the barest bones of a plot, Gipi takes us into the lives of several individuals and allows us to understand each of them, even if we don't necessarily like them. The result of his mastery is simply a feeling of enormous satisfaction as a reader. As a critic, it takes time to figure out exactly what he did.

The plot revolves around four young men who decide to form a garage band. Giuliano's father allows them to use an old garage for practice, and the band becomes a vehicle for each of them to express themselves and escape their lives. His friend Stefano is the engine behind the band, hiding pain behind a sneer and a series of outrageous acts. Alex is an oddball whose fascination with Nazi paraphernalia is his own way of dealing with an strange childhood. Alberto is obsessed with the possibility of his father dying, and music is the one thing that removes him from that mindset.

The book is divided into five canzones (songs), each ending with music, the promise of music, or music halted. The first chapter introduces the characters and hints at their problems and backgrounds. The first time Gipi shows the band playing is a revelation. Giuliano is our narrator, filling in bits of background for everyone but himself. During that first practice, he tells us what the songs are about--about each person's joy, pain and the sense of camaraderie. The narration gives way to a page of the band just playing, with Stefano sensing what they're all capable of.

The second chapter introduces Giuliano's girlfriend, perhaps the one person who truly appreciates him and certainly the person who encourages him the most. Later, she reveals some of his secrets. We see bits and pieces of other family life. Alberto's glazed eyes at the dinner table, ignoring his mother haranguing his father, were quite telling--as was the way his face lifted when his father suggested another project revolving around his model plane. That chapter ends with the revelation that Alex's father had run off years ago, and the performance of a song fueled by that feeling.

The third chapter is about the band committing a crime to replace broken equipment, and the fourth chapter is about the price they pay for that. Every character is presented with a series of choices at this point, and Stefano gets the toughest choice of all. The band was recording their songs for a demo for an A&R man that Stefano's father had managed to get the ear of. That record executive was the cruel voice of pragmatism: it's not about talent or music, it's about product. He offered him a job and told him to abandon the band. He said that the only thing that counted was the desire for success.

We don't see Stefano agonize or even think about the decision. All we see is him showing up at the band's new home that Alex has put together after he made his own crucial decision. Though Stefano is obsessed with the idea of making it big, it's clear that it has to be on his own terms--and that he truly believes in his friends.

There isn't much that's resolved in the pages of this book, really. Alberto is still haunted by his father's potential death and Giuliano still has a strained relationship with his father. Alex, despite his act of generosity, is still trying to come to terms with his father's disappearance. Stefano's move will clearly not please his own father, who is mostly concerned with commercial success. That dysfunctional father-son dynamic is at the heart of the book, and the primary fuel for the band's expression. What we do see is the band's affirmations of each other, though they are unspoken, or conveyed through the friends ragging on each other. As a reader, these tacit emotions are palpable because of Gipi's expressiveness. I've rarely seen an artist so adept at using a scribble or set of scratchy lines to get across so much information, feeling and wit. This is character-based narrative at its finest and typical of the best offerings from First Second: accessible but sophisticated comics. Gipi is not pushing the envelope of what is possible with comics here, but is rather more concerned with telling a story with characters and themes that will resonate.

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