Rock ’n’ roll is an art form of gesture and mood, and the skillset it requires does not always translate to the demands of telling a story. The rockers who successfully manage the transition to fiction are those who approach it from a position of strength.
Read the last Popdose on Groucho Marx.
When Nick Cave made the jump to screenplays and novels (The Proposition and The Death of Bunny Monroe, most notably), you could see the groundwork in the narrative songs he’d been writing for years. Leonard Cohen was a novelist before he was a songwriter. And before embarking on his literary career—which included a stint as an acquisitions editor at Faber & Faber—Pete Townshend had been rock’s foremost storyteller, experimenting with sustained narratives on iconic albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia.
With these musicians, as with younger artists like Joe Pernice and Colin Meloy, a parallel career in prose functions as an extension of their musical careers—a different way of exploring the themes and voices that also inform their songs.
Now Courtney Taylor-Taylor, frontman of the Dandy Warhols, is making the leap with the newly reissued graphic novel One Model Nation. First published in 2009 to very little fanfare, the book has been given a lavish hardcover repackaging by Titan, complete with revisions and tweaks to the story, a new foreword from comics glamour-boy Michael Allred, and 25 additional pages of notes, essays and previously unpublished art. There’s even a companion CD of music inspired by the book.
For this go-round, Taylor is making sure that his reputation precedes him. Contrast the 2009 publication, which bore the semi-pseudonymous author credit “C. Albritton Taylor,” with the cover of this edition, whereon the words “from the Dandy Warhols” appear prominently in a typeface fractionally larger than the name of Jim Rugg, in fact, and he’s the one who actually drew the damn thing.
It’s a transparent gambit to raise expectations, and it works in as far as it goes, but it cuts both ways. The Dandies are a tremendously fun and exciting band, and you would expect One Model Nation to abound with the usual rock ’n’ roll virtues of attitude, atmosphere and a killer—and you’d be right. But Taylor has never been particularly interested in narrative as a songwriter, and so it comes as no surprise that One Model Nation never really gels as a story.
The hook, though, that is a killer. The comic, which started life as prospective film script, is set amid the Berlin music scene of the mid-’70s, the heyday of experimental rock artists like Can, Neu! and Popol Vuh. One Model Nation is a four-piece rock group, a band on the rise. They dress in Laibach-style uniforms, and their stage show appears to have elements of Kraftwerk’s synth-pop and Einsturzende Neubaten’s industrial noise.
The band unwittingly find themselves embroiled in the terrorist attacks of the Red Army Faction. The members of One Model Nation are determinedly apolitical, caring only for their art, but RAF violence continually plagues their gigs. Worse still, the police—and the band themselves—begin to suspect that someone in One Model Nation’s entourage has direct ties with the terrorists.
The insertion of a fictional band into an historically significant setting provides a great setup. But as any musician will tell you, coming up with the hook is only the beginning—it’s what you do with it that counts. And Taylor fumbles the execution with a combination of baffling artistic choices and blatant rookie mistakes. One Model Nation is obviously influenced by Allred’s hipster classic Red Rocket 7, which similarly uses a fictional construct to examine rock ’n’ roll history. Allred, though, fits his counterfactual narrative in around the edges of the historical record. For instance, RR7 depicts the death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones as having secretly been caused by a shootout with hostile spacemen—but Jones is still dead in the end.
One Model Nation, by contrast, is entirely fictional, but references real-world persons and events to little perceivable purpose. There’s a character named Andreas Baader, and one named Ulrike Meinhof, but they bear so little resemblance to their real-world counterparts that the effect is simply distracting. The portrayal of Meinhof as a sexy 20-something TV reporter is inadvertently hilarious.
Part of the blame must fall on Rugg. His work here is the book’s greatest disappointment. In previous graphic novels like The Plain Janes (written by Cecil Castellucci), Rugg showed a real flair for character and expression. But the four members of One Model Nation are mostly undifferentiated, pallid, whisper-thin lads in matching uniforms. Rugg wrings some interesting variations on the nine-panel grid layout, and his action sequences have their characteristic pacing and flow, but they only work inasmuch as the reader can tell who’s who, and that’s not always the case.
One Model Nation has its moments of near-greatness, stunning images shining out of the murky storyline. A son glances at a photograph of his father in Nazi uniform; army helicopters roil the sky above a rock festival; hardened political revolutionaries whoop like teenagers as their getaway car hurtles through the night. But these moments never quite add up.
There’s nothing more frustrating than a story that could have worked, that should have worked, had the fantastic and the factual elements of the story been more effectively integrated, had the characters been more vividly drawn. I can’t remember a recent graphic novel that I’ve wanted to like as much as I wanted to like One Model Nation, but in the end it squanders both audience goodwill and its terrific setup, remaining an intriguing near-miss.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.