Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Rock Gods of Jackson, Tennessee’

“The music’s so loud you can hear the sound, reachin’ for the sky and churnin’ up the ground”

Rafer Roberts and Mike Norton bring us The Rock Gods of Jackson, Tennessee, with colors by Allen Passalaqua, letters by Crank!, and edits by Brett Israel and Sanjay Dharawat. It’s a Dark Horse publication, and it’s listed as a Young Adult book, because nothing brings in the moolah like a YA designation!

This is a fun book about an apocalyptic event that the so-called “rock gods” – a band of teenagers – has to stop. Yes, fun. I mean, a lot of people get killed, certainly, but there are plenty of fun works of fiction in which a lot of people get killed, and this is one of them! Roberts does a good job with telling the story – each chapter focuses on one of the members, and then the final one on the apocalyptic event, so we get to know the band members and bit and it allows Roberts to play with stereotypes a bit. The first stereotype is that the band really, really sucks. I mean, I know that’s not too unique – they’re teenagers just starting out, and Bill and Ted mined the “we suck” territory thirty years ago … in the same year that this comic is set! … but Roberts really commits to it, which is nice to see. In the first chapter, we get to know Doug Cowen, who puts the band together. Doug is a big nerd and he gets bullied a lot, but he has two things going for him: his mom works second and late shifts, so he’s able to have kids over without repercussions, and his uncle works for Tommi Tungstun, a local kid who became a big rock star and is returning to town to play a concert. Thanks to the first thing, he’s able to have band practice in his garage, and thanks to the second thing, he’s able to convince Marty Ward, who actually knows how to play guitar, to come to the practice. Doug tends to exaggerate to make himself sound more important, and he claims he can get a band on-stage to open for Tommi, which lures Marty in. Marty is, according to Doug, a “bad boy,” but Roberts is clever about this – as I noted, each chapter shows us a different person, so while Doug narrates the entire thing, in the second chapter, we get to see things in Marty’s life, and it’s clear his “bad boy” image is just others projecting on him, and he’s much more complicated than most people think. In Chapter Three, the focus is on Jonny, the drummer, whose parents are strict Christians, and while a teen rebelling against that isn’t quite as interesting as the other chapters, Roberts still subverts things a bit by making Jonny a decent kid who respects his parents … he just likes banging on a drum all day. Even his father, as venal as we expect minister-politicians to be, isn’t completely irredeemable. The fourth member of the band, Lenny, doesn’t get as much development, but it’s clear he’s more complex than the kids at the high school think he is, and he’s the kind of person you want in your corner because he’s fiercely loyal to his friends. Of course, Roberts deflates some clichés about rock stardom as well, as Tommi Tungstun isn’t quite what they expect, but that just allows them to rise to the occasion when the mayhem starts. Because of course the mayhem starts!

Roberts does a good job taking these elements – outcast kids trying to fit in, disappointments in adults and school, the yearning to leave town because the wide world is far cooler than wherever you happen to be – and mixing in the horror element. The apocalyptic event – which is related to those weird-looking pigs on the cover, yes – is also interesting, because it’s tied up in the economic problems facing small towns in the post-farming era, as the major employer in town was facing a downturn (which might have been their own fault, true) and needs to get financing from some shady people to stay in business, and the employees were all too eager to look the other way. Roberts doesn’t make too big a deal about it, but it is clever. Of course, we do get the mayhem, as those pigs start destroying the town and Doug decides that it’s up to the Rock Gods (that is, officially, their name) to save everyone, and the final chapter is the action-oriented part of the story, when the band and others are trying to save the town and make sure as few people as possible get horribly killed (this event takes place on Friday, 19 May, 1989, which means the Rock Gods were saving Jackson on the same day that I turned 18 and attended my senior prom). They might be a terrible band, but their bonding over the course of the week helps them in that situation, naturally. You knew that it would!

Norton is a tough artist to write too much about, because he’s always solid but never spectacular. He gives us nice, distinctive characters, with a touch of cartoonishness (Doug wears Coke-bottle glasses that make his eyes grow large occasionally, which makes him look a bit weirder), and he does a nice job with the giant pigs and the chaos at the end (although there are a few places where it’s unclear if someone is killed, even though we can assume they are). He does a nice job with the ’80s touches – he doesn’t overdo it, but a cheesy, mousey moustache on one of the douchebag characters goes a long way, I’ll tell you that much. Norton is the kind of artist who’s not going to dazzle you, but he always does a good job and his storytelling is always on point (mostly, as I noted). It’s just good, solid art.

The Rock Gods of Jackson, Tennessee isn’t going to change the world, and that’s fine. You might think it’s a bit too “Stranger-Things” for you, but kids fighting monsters is not exclusive to that show, and the 1980s setting is simply because, I would imagine, that Roberts is comfortable with the time period because he was a teen then (he was born in 1976). It’s a fun adventure with some nice commentary on stereotypes and how insidious they are, which is never a bad thing. Check it out at the link below!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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