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‘The Rock Gods of Jackson, Tennessee’ (review)

Written by Rafer Roberts
Art by Mike Norton,
Allen Passalaqua, Crank!
Published by Image Comics

 

The Rock Gods of Jackson, Tennessee is not content with being either a story about teenaged losers in a small-town wasteland, nor a story about mutant pigs rampaging through said town.

And, frankly, I’m not sure if either story is compelling enough to care.

Of course, this is a problem ever since Shaun of the Dead, which masterfully managed that two-track story of a down-and-out loser getting his life together while running the gauntlet of a zombie outbreak.

Folks want to combine a horror story with a slice-of-life dramedy, and Rock Gods shows how hard that is because it doesn’t quite work.

In May 1989, high-school dork Doug and his rock band buddies luck into opening a concert Friday for a local rock legend. But, unbeknownst to them, a horde of mutated monsters break loose from a local research lab on their big night.

Roberts and Norton do a fine job building out our four outcasts as distinct from each other, giving them various things that made them outcasts in the first place and shows music as an escape. Doug, on vocals, is a clueless dork with a mullet and Coke-bottle glasses. Lenny is very large kid and a taciturn goof, perfect for a bass player. Drummer Jonny is a sheltered, formerly homeschooled kid and son of the town’s preacher state rep. And Marty on guitar is a poor-trash miscreant who can’t catch a fair break.

Moments of deeper richness do show through at times in the story, layering on various personal and social issues.

A day in the life of Marty shows family discord and material struggles that build one on another alongside class prejudice. As his bandmates gab in the kitchen, Jonny tearfully whales on the drums in frustration over his family’s repressively religious household. Or, even amid disasters, some perpetrators still escape justice and broken people remain behind.

Another thing that gets in the way of liking this book more is that, well, do these kids come off as endearing? Doug doesn’t feel likeable at all because he manipulates people, tunes out when people talk to him and doesn’t seem to take the band seriously while also wanting to hog attention for it. Marty is the best character, but it’s also not his story because Doug is narrating the whole thing.

Norton’s art is bright, clear and vibrant during the human parts in a way that reminds of Evan Dorkin. Particularly, his ability to create distinct-looking characters that were easy to pick up page to page is commendable. Even the look of local bully Clay feels exactly right for that time period of school quarterback and son of the town sheriff. And how nice to see panels with full backgrounds and lots of geography and details.

Going back to Dorkin, Rock Gods does give off a whiff of Eltingville Club gang, but does anybody show enough expertise about anything in the way those comic book nerds would?

Lenny the bassist has the potential to be the real rock nerd, but the knowledge displayed here is too surface-level and can’t allow his character to get in the weeds. On the other hand, showing the kids goofing off in Doug’s basement adds to teen spirit on display.

That said, the human side of the tale doesn’t have it all together, either. The storytelling mechanics themselves get wonky. Older Doug tells this story, but his narration includes events he did not and could not witness. And how was his narrating the scenes happening at the lab?

And how do these mutant pigs swallow people whole and can run through a coach bus, but the kids can hold them off physically? Help it make sense!

I wonder if there’s another version of this story, minus all the mutant pig horror show, that would be another rip on Stand By Me. Perhaps a young adult book depicting four clueless outcast boys enduring family drama, bad bosses, jerks and bullies, and each other, in a 1989 small Southern town.

Either way, it was refreshing to hear Adult Doug say he’s in therapy over everything that happened.

Grade: C-

 

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