Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NOW IT CAN BE READ! Reviews salvaged from the circular file

As a holiday gift to you and yours I thought I'd start a new feature here at P&P. "Now It Can Be Read" is basically my way to pawn off reviews/think pieces/whatever that were meant to see print but for one reason or another, never did.

I'll kick it off with my review of Joel Orff's "Sturm and Drang," which was published back in May of 2003. This review was originally supposed to run in The Comics Journal, but got pushed out due to limited space and a lack of timliness on my part.Enjoy

“Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll”
by Joel Orff
Alternative Books

What is wrong with me that John Porcellino’s work can send me into spasms of delight, yet similar minimalist comics, like Joel Orff’s “Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” leave me utterly cold? Actually scratch that. Let’s use my prerogative as a critic to switch the question around. What the hell is wrong with Orff’s work that it doesn’t fail to achieve the same thrills and insights that King Cat does with such seeming effortlessness?

Certainly, both works are rife with similarities. Both seem to avoid a more realistic style in favor of a simplistic, almost primitive art work. And both prefer a “small is beautiful” approach to storytelling where heavily convoluted plots and characters are discarded in favor of a focus on the more minute aspects of everyday existence.

However, attempting to adhere deep spiritual meaning or at least a good bit of humor to minor or even mundane events in modern life – never mind attempting to do so in comics -- is a bit of a Frankenstein effort, one that only really skilled surgeons should attempt. Orff does his darndest, but his stories more often than not lie there flat on the page, like the dead air that follows a bad joke.

If you haven’t guessed by now, the book’s title is a wee bit deceiving, having little to do with rock and roll at all and barely anything to do with music. It’s more of a collection of somewhat amusing anecdotes told by Orff and his friends, some of them having to do with music, some not. Anyone hoping for a great collection of debauched, hard-living tales from famous or at least edgy rock bands would be better served with one of those oversized Paradox Press volumes. Or perhaps a few hours watching VH1.

Anyway, one of the central problems in a work like this is that just because the author has a strong emotional attachment to a particular trivial event in his or her life doesn’t mean that said event will resonate for the reader. If you aren’t able to imbue the story with any sort of weight, then you’ve left the reader hanging. Most of the stories included here come off as minor ramblings that don’t have any real point or point of view. They’re the kind of stories that might go over well at a party among friends or over coffee with work mates (“Hey, an odd thing happened to me at the concert last night . . .”), but overall it’s an awfully slight conceit to hang some comic strips on, never mind a book.

Part of the problem also lies with Orff’s art style. It seems all wrong for the type of material he’s trying to present, overly busy and heavily inked when simplicity and cleanness should reign. Again, not to endlessly and unfairly compare the two cartoonists, but part of what makes Porcellino’s work so enjoyable is the marriage between his zen storylines and his barely there, connect the dots pen lines.

Orff does manage to knock a few out of the park, -- I enjoyed the story about a sparsely attended Metallica concert, and the last strip, of a pregnant woman playing guitar for her unborn child is touching -- but really, the hit to miss ratio is far to uneven to recommend the book to anyone. For a book with a title as loaded as Orff’s, it’s kind of amazing how much he misses the mark.


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