Riot of Your Own - My Riot by Rick Spears and Emmett Helen

I had a certain serendipity as I waited for My Riot to load on my computer, humming The Clash’s White Riot and half-singing along in my head, replacing the titular chorus line with “my riot,” only to finally open the graphic novel and see that Rick Spears and Emmet Helen were quietly literally on the same page as me.

In My Riot, we meet Valerine “Val” Simmons as a seventeen year old moped driving high school ballerina. Ostensibly, this is a story of punk rock. The character we see on the cover looks nothing like early stage Val, by no means prim and proper, but awkwardly clad in a tutu is a stretch from the cool, snarling, dyed hair punk rocker who greets us on the cover. This dichotomy, or, more accurately, Val’s realization of such a dichotomy and her subsequent metamorphosis is what drives the plot of My Riot. This book is both a coming of age story set within 90s punk subculture and a bit of a historical document of the scene itself.

Rick Spears, no stranger to comics indebted to music and scene culture, brings an authoritative voice to the book. He understands the world that surrounds My Riot, and he ensures that the authenticity shines through without hitting the reader over the head with name-checks or scene jargon. Emmet Helen’s art rises to the top early on. My Riot is fundamentally a graphic novel of growth and identity, and he manages Val’s progression through deftly, easily switching between scenes and styles without losing consistency, but without letting too much of one world bleed into another. Spears and Helen work in unison and truly embrace nuance. I think nuance is a far too overlooked quality in coming of age stories, and I’m glad it functions as a core part of this book - both narratively and artistically. 

Val embodies a familiar restlessness of late teenage years, and that energy is apparent as the story begins. Val clearly longs for something, but we don’t necessarily know for what, nor do we entirely understand how she’ll get there. A series of chance encounters with a young rebel named Kat seems to spark some sort of curiosity within Val. This spark sees its first sign of ignition as a riot, specifically the Mount Pleasant Race Riots of 1991, erupt in the street directly in front of the ice cream shop where Val works. Spears deliberately channels Bratmobile co-founder and original Riot Grrrl Jen Smith. Smith, inspired by the energy of the riots, famously proclaimed in a letter to future Bratmonbile lead singer, Allison Wolfe, that the summer of ‘91 would be a “girl riot.” But Smith was a few steps ahead of Val, with the latter’s interest in punk rock not quite solidified and her interest in feminism and girl power only just beginning to percolate. 

Val’s newfound energy corresponds with her growing disillusionment with (and eventual rebellion from) the world of dance. It’s funny, the thing we do because we’ve always done them. More than even habits, they seem to connect with who we are if not define us at least in some significant way. Dance is a particularly powerful phenomenon is this regard. Even more so than other comparable activities, dance comes with early childhood indoctrination, and it certainly is an art that requires extreme devotion and sacrifice. It’s particularly the sacrifice that Val begins to resent, urged to smoke by her teacher in order to lose the necessary weight to perform in Swan Lake. By all accounts, Val is a talented dancer, and it seems that she enjoys the actual activity of it even as her disillusionment with the structure grows. Val's resistance to the dance lifestyle provides additional kindling for the feminist bent her version of punk rock will take. Spears paces the early exposition of the book incredibly well. He allows for Val to incrementally slide into her new identity, sometimes maintaining both versions of herself simultaneously. 

Kat takes Val to a punk show, and the rest, as they say, is history. She starts dating a straightedge front-man for a hardcore band, and he eventually passes on an old guitar that allows her to start a band that channels not only Val's newfound enthusiasm most pits and slam dancing, but also her burgeoning feminist awakening. Kat and Val are onto something, and they don't quite know it yet. That little mystery, one not necessarily as hidden to a reader with the essential background knowledge, is key to the charm of the book as a whole. And it unfolds with restraint and realistic accuracy, something I continue to find impressive in shorter work.

Punk rock in early 1991 is in an interesting place. Known as the “year punk broke,” it’s often associated with the breakthrough of Nirvana and the subsequent tidal wave of a decade’s worth of underground music crashing onto mainstream shores. What we often consider punk - DIY strategies, anti-corporate ethos, underground distribution - are truly innovations of the American Hardcore scene, one that was always united more in ethos than it was in musical style. After its initial surge in the early 80s, the first wave of Hardcore punk gave way to various offshoots and derivations before a restoration movement of the original styles took hold in the late eighties. The scene was ripe for another movement. As bands that had been plugging away for close to a decade were suddenly overnight sensations on the radio, there was certainly a burgeoning ‘return to the roots’ movement. Some people say this is when hardcore became the Hardcore we know (capitalization intentional). But the hardcore punk scene is really just the backdrop for Val, the Proper Ladies, and Riot Grrrl in general.

As you could grasp from the title, the brand of punk The Proper Ladies create becomes known as Riot Grrrl. One of the undercurrents of that book that becomes clearer as the reader finishes it is the almost accidental nature of music movements. At no point do we get the sense that Val, Kat, and Rudie are deliberately creating a sub-genre. They feel rightfully emboldened by their feminism, but it all feels appropriately gradual. Spears’ narrative as a whole works in the gradual. He understands the progression of youth is never linear, and he’s smart in the way he executes the development of both Val and the scene around The Proper Ladies. That it all essentially coalesces by the end of the book feels very natural. And therein lies Spears’ biggest gift as a storyteller. Nothing ever feels forced in this book. In 180ish pages, documenting a budding friendship and a coming of age progression all while staying truthful to the scene without squeezing or neglecting any one component is rather impressive.

Emmett Helen was kind enough to share some of his art process with me. Above, Kat encourages Val before The Proper Ladies debut set.

Underneath the narrative, or perhaps even indirectly, is a bit of a signal for a reexamination of where Riot Grrrl falls in the greater punk narrative. I could wax on for days about the ears and movement within and as a result of punk, so I’ll do my best to avoid getting in the weeds here. I spent my formative years from about 7th grade to my senior year in high school fully immersed in punk and hardcore before I allowed myself to get a little oversaturated and disillusioned. One of the reasons I was even interested in attending college in DC was because of hardcore, and while the events and structures of My Riot are a little ahead of my time, I would eventually discover and come to cherish Riot Grrrl music long after my original punkish heyday. Riot Grrrl is too often thought of as an offshoot, as kind of a complement to the greater scene, a sub-genre as opposed to a unique movement within the greater umbrella of punk. I think there are clearly sexist reasons why, of course, and it’s by no means universal. But I think that the Riot Grrrl scene and sound truly deserve the title of “Punk’s Third Wave,” one that is more often associated with mid-90s California-centric pop-punk. But it was Riot Grrrl that was the culmination of everything that had come before it - sonically as punk as anything, it managed to merge both the aesthetics and sound of punk and hardcore in a way that harnessed each of the originals’ vitality while highlighting the musicianship of late and post-hardcore experimentation, combining it with the syncretic honesty of indie rock (perhaps the truest punk-rock quality of any genre), and imbuing it with an element of harmonic pop-sensibility that was far more than just Ramones redux. 

But I digress.

I appreciate Spears and Helen for their attention to detail. Spears certainly has the knowledge base to create an authentic narrative of the scene, and Emmett Helen matches that concept with a well-executed aesthetic that feels both historical and timeless. I think it’s very easy to project onto the past, especially to idealize the imagery. But this book felt very early 90s, and that is a testament to Emmett Helen and his emphasis on straightforward interpretation of fashion and style. To some degree, what is punk is always punk, and the fashion can’t ever change that much, but I think it’s also intentional on Helen’s part to realize that and celebrate it throughout the book.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Rick Spears book, and My Riot marks my first experience with Emmet Helen, who I understand to be most recognized for his Oni work on Rick and Morty comics. In his first full-length graphic novel, he brings strong lines and sharp contrasts. The reader gets the sense that Val and Kat are young adults, still in that in-between range. It’s hard to pull off in graphic novels, because often characters end up looking far older than they actually art, especially in this age range. Helen also manages the different parts of Val’s life well, highlighting the contrast between things like the dance studio and the punk club with both color choice and line style. Unsurprisingly, the punk scenes feel wilder. The angles feel more acute; the lines are a bit thicker and wilder. The whole book is also treated with a background wash that makes the paper look a little crinkly, as if it were a photocopied zine. I felt this was a great touch. It connotes the realism of the story and adds another layer of authenticity to it. 

One piece of criticism I have for My Riot is that I wish it were longer. I usually don’t say anything like that. I generally think most books - graphic or not - should be trimmed. But My Riot is a book I feel has more to say, and if not in this particular iteration, then perhaps as a series. There is strong build up throughout the book - realistic character development rife with the type of coincidence and nuance that do as much to shape our lives as does our own willfulness. It feels like the book hits it’s peak and then the crescendo is just there, almost entirely reserved for a bit quick and highly expository resolution with an equally deliberate epilogue. None of this is bad, per se, but the final ten pages or so feel rushed. Perhaps I should stick by my original statement that I generally feel books should be trimmed? If My Riot ends with The Proper Ladies ascent, I think this is a five star book. I understand what they were trying to do with the last ten or so pages, to give both perspective and message. I think I would have just rather seen that in volume two, if that makes sense.

Another cool process piece from Emmett showing a Val who has grown a little more into herself.

But then again, I could have missed the point entirely. The whole book builds to the eventual ascent of the Proper Ladies, and tied in with that is Val’s coming of age, growing into herself and understanding her own self-identity and direction. The spirit of all things punk - whether it be hardcore, riot grrrl, or even outgrowths like indie rock - is that each individual has the right to forge their own path. And I presume, to some degree, that message is at the heart of rock and roll as a whole, but punk and its descendants were able to democratize the actual message, to make it both actionable and attainable. There isn’t the same kind of gap between performer and fan. And this is all likely fairly evident for whomever would approach this book on face. “Our band could be your life” and all, I know, but that’s precisely what My Riot is about, and thus it’s about the journey to become who you are rather than a descriptive account of what actually happens when you do. It’s about youth, and more importantly, the spirit of youth itself - that feeling, a feeling not necessarily confined to youth but most prevalent inside us when we are young, that channels restlessness and ambition and hope and this immediate self-awareness that propels us forward and allows us to become who we are.

Inked page from Act 3 of My Riot

My Riot 
Written by Rick Spears and illustrated by Emmett Helen
Published by Oni Press, available October 21