Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Things Fall Apart: Jam In The Band 2

Rob reviews the second volume of Robin Enrico's chronicle of the rise and fall of a rock band, JAM IN THE BAND.

The first volume of Robin Enrico's JAM IN THE BAND focused on all-girl rock trio Pitch Girl's beginnings and what turned out to be their peak moment as an up-and-coming band. In a very "This Band Could Be Your Life" manner, the second volume is about the cracks that form and eventually break the band apart. Visually, this is a stronger volume because Enrico plays to his strengths and hides his weaknesses as an artist even more. He's not adept at depicting naturalism or gesture in a way that feels realistic, which could be a real drawback in a story dominated by character interaction and personalities. Instead, the art is deliberately stylized so as to resemble an old-school video game at times, complete with weird angles, "energy levels", people moving flatly through space instead of fully inhabiting an area, arrows pointing out activities and energy flying off characters like special effects. This approach works remarkably well, given the glitzy and fantasy elements of being a rock band. It also helps convey the feeling of music being played, which is the most difficult aspect of representing music on paper. Lastly, it acts as a handy shorthand for conveying the larger than life emotions expressed by the characters.

Enrico's hyperstylization and narrative choices elevate the book from being a fairly predictable story about the rise and fall of a band and into a comic where every page holds an interesting surprise visually. The band, Pitch Girl, has the sort of archetypical problems we see in stories about musical groups: one member is in a long-distance relationship and isn't fully committed to the band; the guitarist is a lush and skirt-chaser; and the bandleader is a megalomaniac. The leader, Bianca, remains the most interesting and complex character in the book. Enrico's decision to deemphasize her a bit in this book was a wise one, if only to give the perspective of the other characters on the situation.

Once again, Enrico cleverly broke up the narrative (WIMBLEDON GREEN-style) with after-the-fact interviews with various people in the band's orbit, website articles and other ephemera. My favorite pages were journal entries from Bianca, which combined song lyrics, random emotional outbursts, graffiti, and details that served to humanize her a bit. The dialogues she held with an imaginary superstar future version of herself were some of the most interesting sequences in the book. That WIMBLEDON GREEN influence also popped up in how light-hearted and witty the book was, even when more serious issues arose. Part of that played out in Enrico's clever character design, which really played to his strengths as a stylist. Every character had a sort of distinctive personal flair that made them stand out, and Enrico created sparks by bouncing them off of each other.

The source of the conflict between Bianca, Corbin the guitarist and Tiara the drummer was one of conflicting priorities. Bianca's only goal was total world domination, winning over every audience no matter how resistant they were at first. Tiara was in it for the experience, with the sense that once its time limit expired, she'd grow up and become a real adult. Corbin had no goals other than the immediacy of the moment and deadening her social anxiety. Drinking and having random sex were her ways of staying in the moment and not worrying about the void in her life. Both Corbin and Tiara are pretty simplistic characters, especially in comparison to Bianca. Once their motivational paradigms became clear and they were locked into them, it became easy to predict what they were going to do. Of greater interest were the ancillary characters we only get glimpses of, like the sex blogger, and the vaguely crazed heads of the label Pitch Girl was on (which included Bianca's ex-boyfriend). For the less defined characters, a little detail went a long way, especially with the wild visuals that Enrico created for them. Corbin and Tiara weren't quite interesting enough to command the amount of "screen time" they received, except when they were reacting to (and against) Bianca.

That said, the sequence that dominated the second half of the book, when the band goes on a disastrous tour of Germany and has it filmed by a documentarian, was by far the most vivid and dramatic portion of the story so far. All of the enthusiasm of the first volume was slowly drained away as each character was cut off from their support systems and faced with openly hostile and even violent crowds. Enrico really got at the claustrophic feeling each band member was experiencing, desperately trying to find ways to survive on their pittance of a per diem. The self-consciousness of their actions as they were being filmed added to this tension, especially when comparing an early, delighted jaunt through one city in a montage and the lifelessness of the band when they tried to recapture this feeling in another city.

Bianca's idea that their struggles were something to be endured as part of the band's journey to success became an exercise in masochism, something Tiara tired of. When she left, Bianca finally understood that she'd gone too far and didn't know what to do next. The book's final scene offered a bit of hope for her as a person, but the key conflict in the final volume will be if she's capable of balancing her obsessive need for success with developing a sense of empathy. Enrico's most impressive achievement with this project is creating a character who is fundamentally unsympathetic in many ways but still manages to create reader goodwill for her. It'll be interesting to see how he finishes the character's story arc; somehow, I don't sense a conventional happy ending in her future.


  1. I have not seen that comic but from your scans that looks like one of the coolest covers I've ever seen.

  2. The visuals in this comic are really striking. There's a lot to look at on every page.