July 2, 2014

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Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Record Stores?

Written by Bela Koe-Krompecher
Adapted for comics by Ken Eppstein
Illustrated by Andy Bennett
Published by Nix Comics

A man looks back on his time working in a record store, which results in an odd encounter involving the Ramones, shady ticket deals, a bar fight, and memories the author will never forget in this memoir piece that will register with comics readers of just the right age.

Anyone who is a fan of autobiog mini-comics or personal zines will immediately feel at home with the tone of this comic, as it fits squarely within that territory, even if it's published at the size of a superhero comic. Koe-Krompecher, with the help of Nix publisher Eppstein, is relating a story of his youth to the reader here, probably polishing things a bit here and there to make it more interesting. Regardless, this is just like reading a chapter from a Jeffrey Brown book or something that Nate Powell or John Porcellino might share with their fans.

Now, some folks are masters in this genre, like the names I dropped above. Others bury the reader in minutia, mistaking autobiography for exactness. Quite frankly, if not done right, a story about yourself can be incredibly boring. Fortunately, this one is anything but, which is no surprise given Ken's talent for finding quality work to publish under his Nix Comics banner. The story here, as told by Koe-Krompecher, is engaging, entertaining, and will touch on things anyone between 30-50 should be able to remember vividly.

After a framing device that's probably not necessary, we move quickly to the past, when record stores were able to make a ton of money off people replacing their vinyl with compact discs. Naturally, there's some nostalgia here, as both the writer and adapter are former record store owners. Soon, the point of the story crops up, as Joey and Johnny Ramone come into the store as part of their Columbus swing. When Johnny invites the narrator and his friend to join them backstage, it turns out to be more complex than just showing up. In the end, the pair get to see the band, but not before having an adventure that will keep the reader turning the pages.

The comic ends with Koe-Krompecher talking about how he still has Johnny Ramone's forgotten record, a nice touch that puts a real human aspect to the story--and the band--as we remember that our rock idols age and die, no matter how much we think of them frozen in time.

It's a very smooth narrative with just the right mix of narrative box reflection and in-the-moment dialogue. The idea of being backstage is the thrill for any fan--even if it's not always the best view!--and you can tell the joy the pair experience in getting to see the Ramones that way, even if they were past their prime. The hijinks involving a bad bar decision, free drugs, and trying to get the girl are all stories that most folks have, but there's enough here to make it entertaining, thanks to a combination of script and storytelling.

Andy Bennett's linework, entirely in black and white, is extremely strong. He does a great job here of keeping the story flowing, even when having to work around blocks of text. At one point, it's cleverly placed on the side of a wall in a half splash, leaving the rest to be the outside of a rock club, setting the scene. In other cases, Bennett adjusts his character placements to ensure that the reader can both clearly read the text and see what's going on in the visual parts of the story. It's nice to see the artist work with the material he was given instead of fighting against it, and I'd love to see what he'd do with a bit more freedom to work in a less text-heavy comic.

Another area in which Bennett excels are the character designs themselves. The Ramones look like themselves, but aren't photo-referenced. They move and change their looks slightly, depending on what's going on. He captures their aging, but still unnaturally thin style very were hell. The narrator is a typical 20-something who could easily be your friend or mine. The people who appear at the various clubs and bars fit the time period and the setting, so we don't have clones showing up at the goth club who want to rock out to punk.

The final nice trick in the visuals are the backgrounds themselves. I already praised his blending of the text and art scenes, but when you look at panels like the one where the pair are walking down a dark alley, it's a spot-on representation of what this might look like. The reader is behind the characters, who are suitably shadowed because there's no light where they're standing. Street lights illuminate the far part of the view, and you can see the details of siding, fire escapes, and barrels. It's attention to detail that takes a comic from good to great artistically, and Bennett understand that. The entire comic has that sensibility, and helps pull this one out from other similar works and makes it stand out.

Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Record Stores is a fun nostalgia trip, but it takes an extra step thanks to strong writing and Bennett's art. If you like autobiog comics, records, or remembering when punk was still, well, punk, this is the comic for you.

You can pick up a copy of Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Record Stores at Nix Comics.