Posted by Graig on October 16, 2008
One flip through this new original graphic novel from alternative cartoonist Derf and I was preparing to hate it. It wasn’t specifically the illustration, which is odd but not unappealing, or the cursory glance at the subject matter, which seemed full of potential, but the combination of the two. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks appeared to be yet another loser-outcast-nerd-rebel-hero drawn in underground comic style, and while I do try to read and enjoy all types of comics in all different genres, the subgenre of agony-humor featuring “angry and/or ignorant geek protagonist v. the world” (typically semi-autobiographical), from even top-talents like Jeffrey Brown to Chris Ware (well over three years later and I’ve yet to finish reading Jimmy Corrigan) is one I have the most difficulty sustaining interest in. I’ve been through my awkward stages in life, and I’ve grown from them, and while I can relate to all different kinds characters, the redundancy of the stunted man-child incapable of resolving their past and facing the real world without hostility or fear of rejection wears predictably thin, and is, quite frankly, something I can’t relate to. Within 20 pages of Derf’s new book, however, I realized this wasn’t the same old story.
Set in the turn-of-the-decade 1980’s in Akron, Ohio, we’re introduced to Otto, a towering geek, replete with nerd glasses, bad acne and a tragic sense of style. Otto is the prototypical rebel; having been branded the outcast he’s embraced his role. He does things to his own tune, like recording every fart on tape for his senior project, and doesn’t really care what people think of him anymore. Instead of hanging his head he looks up to the sky. Though the sense of inferiority has been, literally, beaten into him, he’s come to the realization that maybe in his school he’s the bottom of the food chain, but he’s one of few who can actually escape the food chain altogether, which in a sense makes him better. An optimist and dreamer, Otto devises the guise of “The Baron”, a persona which he refers to always in third-person that lets him be tough, hyperintelligent, sexual, and uber-geeky all at the same time.
Two sophomores befriend Otto, primarily to get a ride around time, and through them he’s introduced to the punk scene in Akron, which at that time was “the” punk scene in the country. Otto quickly feels a kinship with the music, it’s rebellious attitude and it’s do-your-own-thing mantra, and a series of events winds up placing him smack in the heart of the scene, getting a job at “The Bank” as bouncer/courtesy ambassador to the bands that come through town (like the Ramones or Joe Strummer ). Otto winds up becoming a legend in his own right throughout the punk scene, eventually joining a band himself, and actually enjoying the dichotomy of his dual life as both loser and icon. His relationship with his junior friends grows as he exposes them to his life in the trailer park and his philosophies, varying between the absurd and the all-to-real.
The book is more romantic about the past than it is nostalgic, with exuberant highs and some pretty gut-wrenching lows. Though not a true story, Derf obviously draws upon his own experiences and his own knowledge of the punk scene in Akron to craft the tale, and deftly recreates the atmosphere for the reader to vicariously experience what it was like to be there. Otto’s life as a teenager is obviously not one of great joy, but by the end of it he found a way to cope and a way to live that didn’t conform to all the other people who would put him down.
There’s very little that’s typical about Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, I found from one moment to the next that I had no idea what would happen, which is to say that Otto is unpredictable, yes, but also that Derf is never out to get him. Too often in underground comics, the writer/artist hates their character (or themselves) and puts them through shame after shame in attempts to break them. With Otto, Derf doesn’t. He admires his character and has him triumph even when he fails, which seems to be another punk philosophy (where getting arrested is a good thing).
If I were to sound byte the book, I’d say it’s Freaks and Geeks by way of James Kolchaka, illustrated in a style that alludes to a theoretical offspring from a cocktail of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Crumb and Don Martin, but it’s so much more. It’s funny, smart, and insightful, and presents something different but not so different as to be off-putting (except that there is punk rock, sex, nudity and language, which obviously may not agree with all audiences). There’s no South Park-style extremes here, the book isn’t out there to push buttons. It’s creator has a story to tell and he tells it with a style all his own.
4 and a half out of 5 Vikings
4 out of 5 Vikings