Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Jam In The Band

I reviewed a mini-comics preview of Robin Enrico's Jam In The Band last fall, and I noted that I looked forward to the larger work to come. The resulting first volume of what looks to be at least a three-volume set had all of the charms of that mini and added a great deal of depth as well.

There are two competing narratives at work here, though that doesn't become clear until the end of the first volume. This is the chronicle of the rise of an all-female rock band, escaping from a tiny Pennsylvania town to some small measure of national recognition. The story centers around Bianca, the obsessive and ambitious lead singer who by force of will bosses around her bandmates with the singular goal of success. This volume explores the nature of her obsession in the form of an ongoing dialogue she has with this idealized Rock Star version of herself, a clever conceit that reveals much about her character. Jam In The Band's competing narratives are that of the unrequited love between the book's lead male protagonist, Nathan, and Bianca; and then the eventual relationship that arises between him and the band's drummer, Tiara. The clash between those two narratives doesn't come to a head in this volume, but it's strongly hinted that it will be a major part of the next.

I discussed some of Enrico's influences and similarities in my first review, which included the rock scene comics of Jaime Hernandez and the video-game influenced comics of Brian Lee O'Malley. Enrico discusses a specific video game which inspired his highly-stylized design sense (Jet Set Radio) and Seth's Wimbledon Green, which helped him organize the book. The influence of the latter allowed him to strike a number of humorous oounterparts that riffed off the main narrative, using a third-person documentary-style cutaway. This gives the book a very fluid, unpredictable quality that makes it exciting to read. We're led to believe initially that this is Nathan's story and that he would dominate the narrative, even if he was just giving us details in flashback. Instead, Enrico flits from character to character, sometimes to move along the narrative, sometimes for laughs, sometimes as a commentary on what the main characters were doing, and sometimes for pure stylistic effect. I especially liked the scrapbook pages that gave us bits and pieces about what life was like on the road.

One influence that Enrico mentioned that I thought was interesting was Pagan Kennedy's novel The Exes, about the rise and fall of an indy rock band and the interrelationships of its members. Enrico shares Kennedy's keen ear for dialogue, ability to depict the uniqueness of a certain time and place for youth culture and the bittersweet realization that youth is fleeting. What makes the story so strong is the way he's able to clearly sketch out character arcs and motivations without telegraphing his attempt in too heavy-handed a fashion. Band member Corbin hides her essential aimlessness and loneliness through drinking and hooking up. Tiara has a sense of wonder and adventure that is balanced by her love for Nathan.

Bianca is obsessed with becoming this kind of Rock Star ideal (whose eyes are always obscured--hiding what she knows?), and we see her appear in this form at the very beginning of the book. Enrico takes an interesting risk in making Bianca the focus of this book, because she's an interesting bundle of contradictions. She's the sort of vibrant personality who draws people into her orbit but doesn't always either understand or care about the effect she has on others. Her casual interest in the art of a local girl named Janette gave her the confidence boost she needed to become a successful graphic artist, for example. On the other hand, Bianca seems incapable of forging any deep, meaningful relationships with anyone around her.

If there's a single weakness in this volume, it's that the character of Nathan seems underwritten. We never get a real sense of who he is and what he cares about other than his feelings for Bianca and later feelings for Tiara. We know he's now a successful writer, but we don't get the same understanding of his life that we do even for a minor character like Janette. Hopefully in the second volume we'll get to see more of his story, since in many respects he's every bit as pivotal to the overall narrative as Bianca.

Enrico's visual sense gives the reader something exciting to look at on every page. His character design is simple but distinctive, and it's clear that he especially loves drawing interesting-looking women. There's a clarity to his aesthetic style that is enhanced by his video game influence. It's a different kind of energy than the sort of motion that is depicted in most comics; there's that sort of vaguely two-dimensional video game quality to his characters, but that allows them to move and interact with their environment in unusual ways without breaking the reader's sense of continuity on the page. The sort of excitement that Enrico manages to depict on the page will be familiar to anyone who's ever been part of a scene--either as participant or observer. The sense of the possibility of youth, the crackling energy of potential, the feeling that something special is happening (or about to happen)...Enrico captures that ascendant moment in this volume. It will be interesting to see how the conflicts he sets up in this volume play out and how well he can capture how it feels when youth is misspent and potential isn't met.

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