The Stereotypical Freaks
Written by Howard Shapiro
Art by Joe Pekar
Letters by Ed Brisson
Supersonic Storybook Production
Release Date: November 14, 2012
Cover Price: $11.95
Pro tip – The right rock and roll makes reading awesome comics more awesome. I discovered this when, as a much younger man and without thinking much about it, I happened to rock Pink Floyd’s The Wall while reading Batman vs. Predator. The drama heightened, the pacing slowed and then sped, and the violence got, in my mind, gorier. I swear, by the end I felt right in the middle of that climactic battle. For the next 5 years after that I had my disc-man blasting every time I thumbed through a book.
It’s a delicate alchemy, though – getting the right tunes to the right book – but when you get an experience as transplendent as listening to Green Day’s Insomniac with X-Men 2099 #21-25 with being 13 years old, then you know that it’s something you must explore.
And then, when you get a little older you sometimes stumble upon hip small press books that provide suggested soundtracks during the big fight sequences, Rob Schrab’s Scud: The Disposable Assassin being exhibit A. And it gets really cool when you can even discover music you’d never have heard of without these books. I’d likely never have gone through my Specials phase if it weren’t for Jim Hill’s unsung Caffeine.
Comics and rock are peanut butter and jelly. But here’s the tricky thing – Comics about rock. The old saying goes that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, i.e., they’re different mediums – our bodies consume them in different ways. They trigger different senses. Does that mean books shouldn’t be done about music? Of course not, Scott Pilgrim fer chrissake! But the challenge is that you do need to find some way to make it pop off the page without actually having it pop off the page (pop-up books aside).
So, let’s talk about The Stereotypical Freaks – there’s a lot about this book that doesn’t work and there’s some stuff here that does. The plot: four different high school boys in a Pennsylvania suburb start a rock band to compete in a battle of the bands competition. Like a haiku, it’s a deceptively simple structure, yet so many artists or authors or filmmakers are always bringing to it a unique take.
The main characters of The Stereotypical Freaks have fairly distinct backgrounds, personalities, reasons for competing, etc. Tom’s a stock lead character trying to impress a girl, Mark’s his childhood bestie, now a jock struggling to be comfortable in his own skin, Dan’s an angry nerd carrying around issues about his dad, and Jacoby is a foreign exchange student who’s got an After School Special-esque secret.
Yeah, I said there’s an After School Special-esque plot twist. No, that’s not a bad thing, per se, in fact it’s done in the best After School Special-esque fashion (though, straight up, if you can’t get down with an episode of Degrassi this definitely isn’t a book for you). What is distracting is some of the rookie pratfalls in Howard Shapiro‘s writing – internal crisis are largely told and not shown, the character journeys occasionally curve-ball but invariably conclude with a vanilla bow, the teens never come off as… well… teens but rather a writer’s concept of teens (hip-hop and bubble gum pop are noticeably absent from this modern story in what I gleam as a middle class suburb, along with smartphones and social media), and while music is what drives the story, scenes where they’re actually playing just involve the characters with joyous looks on their faces playing their instruments jamming with banners of sheet notes waving in the background. These sequences lead the action in the story to grind to a screeching stop. They feel dead on the page… and there are a lot of them. The book is in black and white and let me go on record as being very pro B&W, more comics should be, and not just quasi-noir titles. But while there’s some pretty solid art by Joe Pekar in here, it doesn’t lend itself to the format. I don’t know if it’s that the book is light on the inks or what, but the absence of color gives it a work in progress feel… and that permeates throughout the piece as a whole.
That Shapiro deeply loves the music he loves is also ever present, though. And the music is as diverse and non-sequitor as anyone I know. From Rush to Led Zeppelin to Green Day to The Afghan Whigs to Buddy Holly to The Who, and more specifically “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who. My god, do these characters go on about that one song a lot. Musical tastes are a lot like personal politics, we hold them so deeply to our identities and can feel so passionately and protective of them… and that in no way means anyone else is going to give a damn about them. Still, it’s admirable to see them thrown out so front and center like this and while much of this isn’t my cup of tea I found myself Youtubing a lot of the recommended tracks while I was reading. Except for the Tom Cochrane. Sorry, no way in hell I’m touching that stuff.
I find I don’t rock out while I read comics much anymore. Being older now I find my peace and quiet time to be much more valuable, Goll Dernnit! But that experimental period was great for helping me both refine my taste in tunes and deepening my love of reading comics. On a not unrelated note, while researching this article I discovered that Shapiro has a number of kids books under his belt and that’s what I think The Stereotypical Freaks works strongest as – it’s perfect for adventurous 9 – 12 year olds looking to broaden what their graphic novel horizons. And, hey, it might work for their music horizons, too.