There are many, many layers of undercurrents within the graphic novel Rockstars; but really what we have here is an homage to the innocence of old school rock and roll and its contrast with modern cynicism and the current era’s fascination with urban fantasy. Told around the mythos of a thinly disguised Jimmy Page (lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin), our hero will traverse the modern day Los Angeles in search of his own family’s history. Those not invested in 1970s rock may feel like much isn’t happening as endless pages of monologues begin to feel redundant. But especially readers who grew up obsessed with album oriented rock should readily appreciate just how much Joe Harris has seamlessly woven in to his take on the cult of rock music.
Story: Young Jack has always channeled into the undercurrents of rock bands. Now an adult, he has become fascinated with tales of murdered groupies – both historic and current. Following the trail of a hard rock band guitarist from the 1970s, his single-minded earnestness will contrast with a cynical independent reporter also on the hunt for answers. What they find is a much larger and very supernatural conspiracy involving the death of famous musicians from Buddy Holly to Kurt Cobain.
Rockstars is best read with a Led Zeppelin album playing in the background since so much of the story revolves around a character named Jimmy James, member of a dinosaur band that is obviously modeled after Led Zeppelin and especially guitarist Jimmy Page. Page was well known for his fascination with the occult and even Page’s “Zoso” symbol (from the fourth album) is re imagined here as having a much more sinister implication. And although Alistair Crowley isn’t mentioned directly, the references are there in the graphic novel (Page was an avid collector of Crowley memorabilia and even bought the mystick’s former house). But Harris’ Los Angeles isn’t dark or gritty so much as a dreamy drug fueled urban fantasy landscape.
What’s distinct about Rockstars is that each of the chapters feel like they were inspired by a song or album author Harris was listening to at the time. E.g., one whole section seamlessly fit into the Pink Floyd Roger Waters school of cynicism/disenfranchisement in the song Comfortably Numb. It’s an interesting task to translate a song or album into a part of a story, especially for readers aren’t fluent with the music/feel of the AOR era. In some areas Harris really succeeds and in others, perhaps a lot less. But the easter eggs are there in the dialogue or monologues – from casual bon mots (Gonzo as a reference to Gonzo Bonzo Bonham, drummer of Zeppelin) or throw aways such as a reference to the music dying in a scene about the plane crash of the Big Bopper/Buddy Holly. There are other cultural references as well, including an amusing one riffing on the Magic: The Gathering card game.
In Rockstars, Harris is asserting that it wasn’t about the drugs in the 1970s so much as the occult. The problem here is that we have five full issues compiled in this volume and nearly no answers whatsoever to all the questions raised. Hints should build upon hints but instead we pretty much get the same musings over and over: Jackie’s obsession with his occultist father and something called “the game”. While this book stays fairly tame with the underworld musings (e.g., no one religion is mentioned though I kept expecting to hear more lines from the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”) and grounding our wispy main character Jackie with a similarly young but down to Earth female journalist both works and doesn’t work: there’s a diametric flavor problem between the two that splits the story uncomfortably. What worked in the X Files for Mulder and Scully somehow hasn’t coalesced here.
I’m going to have much of the same criticism as I think others will have with this series: it’s repetitive and rambling. I had expected by the end of this first volume for a major reveal that brought focus to the story. Instead, it continued to spiral outwards, unchecked and not really maturing in a way as to be more definitively palatable. Ironic, really, because I probably am near the same age as the author and also went through the same fascination with 70s rock as a grew up. I kind of wish there was a soundtrack reference at the start of each volume or sequence so I could spotify it while reading Rockstars. So much seems to be lost in the focus on mood and subtle referencing at the expense of plot.
Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of all the silly occult things that went on in the 1970s – from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin. That was the late 1970s and contrasted with the India Guru fascination from the pop bands of the time (Beatles, Beach Boys, etc.) of the early 1970s (which isn’t broached in the story at all, oddly). Also, although Jimmy Page is the reference, nothing is really brought up about the other band members, which is disconcerting. Ultimately, I may not have been the most receptive audience since I found the whole black magic thing silly. But certainly I enjoyed all the different easter eggs and how Harris wove them into the story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.