Posted by on December 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Cover by Jamie Hernandez

Just look at that cover (thankfully unspoiled by publisher’s logos or blurbs) — that’s punk — that’s CBGB’s,  the venue that launched bands like Television, the Ramones and Blondie and became a mecca for alternative music. It’s a no-brainer to have Jaime Hernandez involved with any project that involves punks and comics; this shows exactly why.  Aside from his obvious skills as an illustrator and Love and Rockets pedigree, he knows punk better than most. Look again. How many white faces do you see there?  One, and he’s not only mostly hidden, but a ginger to boot.  It’s a far cry from the punk that’s sold in malls today to bratty teenagers.  Jamie lived it — he knows that punk was a melting pot for all the kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else.  You can see it in the haunted look on the blonde girl’s face — a face that’s distressingly older than its years.  She’s eyeing us with suspicion; a learned response from years of defensive posturing, for having the wrong clothes, the wrong hair, the wrong color of skin — but here, she belongs.  Here, her torn thrift-store coat is as much a sign of attitude as the middle finger of the grinning guy standing behind her, or the photobombing arm in the foreground.  Everyone there has their story, and it’s these tales that this anthology sets out to tell.  Not to not mourn the loss of the legendary New York club (closed since 2006), but to show what made it such a vital part of musical history for the people who went there.  CBGB’s accepted all-comers and for that group of misfits, weirdoes and outcasts, it wasn’t just about the music —it was so much more — it was the people, the stories, the sense of adventure.  It was life lived urgently.

That idea carries into several of the stories in this appropriately rag-tag anthology.  “A NYC Punk Carol” by (another no-brainer) Kieron Gillen and Marc Ellerby feels practically wrenched from the pages of Phonogram in its combination of musical-anorak ranting and sly in-jokes with the joie de vivre of punk rock.  Using Dickens’ three ghosts as a starting point, the story looks back on the importance of the venue as a catalyst for genre-defining music and just what would galvanize artists in the wake of its demise.  Riffing on the legendary image from the Sideburns fanzine that presented three guitar-chord diagrams and said, “Now form a band,” Gillen and Ellerby present their own anarchic blueprint for the future of punk.  Like the best pieces herein, it uses CB’s as a backdrop, or a symbol, against which life and art can be played out.

Words by Kieron Gillen, art by Marc Ellerby

Possibly the stand-out contribution is Kelly Sue Deconnick and Chuck BB’s “Count 5 or 6” that uses a couple’s history as a metaphor and optimistic eulogy for the now-defunct club — from their awkward, angst-ridden 20s, through marriage and children, to moving to Portland and beginning a new life.  BB’s art is a treat, as always, bringing a manic, bug-eyed energy to his figures and lacing scenes with subtle musical references (part of what made his work on Black Metal so enjoyable).  These pieces revere, but never overly romanticize the club.  The message from Deconnick and Gillen is that CBGB’s was important, but life goes on and music will always find an outlet; sentimentalism only detracts from what’s important.  Like the cover, its message rings true — these people know their music.

Art by Chuck BB

When the treatment becomes overly mythologized — like Kim Krizan and Toby Cypress’ primeval tale — or cloyingly hyperbolic — in the case of Mr. Sheldon’s frankly ridiculous tale of “ear pussies” and music sex — the results ring completely false, becoming shallow Phonogram imitations about music in general, rather than capturing any of the spirit or ideas that made CBGB’s what it was.  This is precisely the sentimentality that Gillen and Deconnick warn against and underlines the implication that for creativity to truly ignite, there needs to be a void for new talent occupy and build its own scene, rather than continue to scrape the barrel of 40 years ago. (Isn’t appropriate that this rallying cry is made in the medium of comics?)

Whether it be duct-taping effects pedals to your body and blasting out anti-social noise (as in Sam Humphries and Rob G’s strip) or making awful music just because you’d die if you didn’t (the advice from Robert Steven Williams and Louise Staley’s contribution), the creators in this anthology (for the most part) understand what made CBGB special and why creativity drives us.  When people want to remember the club, they would do well to look to these stories and realize that, even though the building is gone, the people, the attitude and the imagination that made it what it was, is still out there.

Words by Sam Humphries, art by Rob G

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6 Responses to “CBGB

  1. michael says:

    A nice, well-written article! But I probably won’t ever read this.

    This anthology, as you’ve explained it, leaves me a little exasperated. I can’t stand these sorts of superficial, commodified punk icons. I understand that, at the time, conspicuity was a necessary part of the nascent punk ideology — but the way that this image has been diluted, corrupted over the decades by layers of artificial imitation, leaves CBGB and its ilk an outdated, hollow signifier, posing just as much cultural virulence as the mall punk that you denounce.

    I agree that we ought not “continue to scrape the barrel of 40 years ago,” so why is this anthology content to revel in its antiquated portrayal of “punk rock” without any relevance to the state of punk today? At heart, punk is meant to be a social and cultural imperative, right? So why would should it be frozen in time, cut off from the modern era and celebrated within an ancient vacuum?

    Sorry, but this is bumming me out!

    PS: Gavin, I also recall reading Phonogram upon your recommendation and it remains one of the least enjoyable comics I have ever subjected myself to (though here the alienation is likely as much geographical as it is temporal).

  2. michael says:

    One more thing: if I am supposed to be reading this on a more basic level, under the supposition that it’s the pure visceral aesthetic of punk that is being examined, then shouldn’t the artwork be a lot less polished? How is a story supposed to successfully evince the “not giving a fuck” vibe, when formally these illustrations look positively commercial!

    Except Jaime’s, of course — that dude’s work always seems effortless, even at its most deliberate.

  3. Gavin Lees says:

    It would be interesting to know why you disliked Phonogram so much. I could understand being a little alienated if you didn’t get more than half of the references, but there’s way more to it than just the sly winks to the reader. (Although if I remember rightly, you didn’t like The Invisibles, so maybe there’s no hope for you…)

    I also think you’re being a bit harsh on a book you’ll never read. CB’s is gone and music will move on – that’s the message I got from the anthology. The comics exist in order to look back at what the venue meant, why it’s become such a sacred cow, but also to avoid sentimentality. For the most part the writers and artists here are trading on their own experiences – they know exactly what “CBGB” means to music and avoid the empty signifier of kids wearing CBGB t-shirts in an attempt to channel some nebulous idea of what “punk” is.

    I think, perhaps, that’s what you’re doing in your assessment of the comics. You have your preconceived notion that CBGB’s is punk and so the comics should reflect your idea of that genre (hence your criticism of the art, which completely misses the mark). In fact, the venue was integral to far more genres than that, and bridged the gap between the punk of the 70s and the hardcore punk of today (all of which is reflected in the anthology). If anything, it cuts through the commodification of CB’s and reclaims its significance. Nowhere does it claim that it was the be-all-and-end-all of punk (or any other genre) and it celebrates the fact it’s now gone and we can avoid sanctifying it.

    I also don’t think that presenting a historical look at a defunct venue denies the vitality or ability to innovate of new music. Had CBGB still been a going concern, I could have criticised a mawkish, rose-tinted view of the past – but it’s not, so I didn’t. There are plenty of other comics and anthologies that fulfill your desired remit quite nicely: Side B, This is Not a Souvenir, Jim Mahfood’s work, How Loathsome and the aforementioned Phonogram. Likewise there are many other venues that are becoming hubs for emerging musical scenes.

  4. michael says:

    Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to one-dimensionalize CBGB as a purely punk place — I just thought that was the aspect of its history that was being emphasized in this anthology/review. I mean, you did use the work punk a lot.

    “The comics exist in order to look back at what the venue meant, why it’s become such a sacred cow, but also to avoid sentimentality.” I find it hard to believe that this anthology is looking at CB’s history with a critical gaze, given that CBGB is a brand, and a partner in putting out this comic. And the examples given were so sentimental it borders on the hagiographic.

    Hey, I think my criticism of the art stands! I leafed through some more samples online, and it all seems to be this this typical mass-market detritus for the pop consumer. Although I suppose a BOOM! Studios release would have to be instantly and blatantly marketable.

    But the art styles make sense if we agree to drop the punk facade (an image that CB themselves espouse in reference to this book) and accept this book for what it seems to be: a cash-grabbing veneration of a pop culture caricature.

    Whoops! Maybe I should actually read the anthology before I continue ~*~arguing about it on the internet~*~.
    And cool, thanks for the book recommendations!

    PS: (I just didn’t care for the first issue of The Invisibles, and that was a fault of its art more than anything else. I still like the series on principle!)

  5. Gavin Lees says:

    What exactly is a “pop consumer”? As for “mass market” and “cash grabbing”? I seriously doubt Mark Waid’s coffers are bursting because he partnered with a defunct music venue. If anything, this is riding on the coat-tails of other successful (at least, critically successful) music-based comics. I doubt you’ll see this on the shelves of Hot Topic, or even Barnes & Noble. Anyway, trying to dismiss something on the basis that it will make money is pretty redundant. Boom’s “The Muppets” comics sell like hotcakes, but does that mean it’s not some of Roger Langridge’s best work?

    Kieron Gillen’s story is the first one in the anthology and so sets the tone for what’s to come – it is anything but a hagiography. He openly chastises one of the characters for attempting a characterisation of the place as some kind of punk/new-wave ground-zero. Like I said, the better stories all do this – and, sure, not of all of them take this approach (and those are the pieces I summarily dismissed). But, you know what? It WAS important – try denying the influence of Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, et al – what’s wrong with looking back at the cultural milieu that they emerged from?

    I think you want this to be your own platonic ideal of a punk anthology – and it’s not, nor did it ever set out to be. You don’t like the art – fine – but don’t try to dismiss it as populist. What are criteria are you even using to judge the art that way? Were the creators trying to ape the styles of “hot” mainstream artists like Adam Hughes or JG Jones (or even indie artists like Templesmith and O’Malley) I could understand, but I just don’t see that at all. Also consider that Jaime’s Love and Rockets of the 80s is one of the most punk things in comics – and looks like it could have come from an Archie book – you don’t much more populist than that.

  6. michael says:

    I’m sorry, Gavin, you’re probably right! It’s just the provided excerpts give me a sense of glossy superficiality, which is contrary to my understanding of punk (and is that understanding, one of grittiness and substance, really a platonic ideal?) But perhaps my overall impression will totally change once I sit down with damn thing! I trust your review.

    And I would never dismiss something for being populist! I adore a pop sensibility in comics — it just seems inappropriate for what I thought was the subject: CBGB the punk venue. Now that I know what the real subject is (CBGB the congenial pop culture artifact), the art seems totally fitting.

    DeCarlo influence or not, there’s an intimacy and authenticity I instantly grasp from Jaime’s artwork that appears absent from the above examples.

    And I apologize if I seemed too contentious — this has been a valuable conversation for me. Would that this kind of parley followed all TCJ reviews!