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Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock and Roll
posted January 5, 2006

Creator: Joel Orff
Publishing Information: Alternative Comics, $6.95
Ordering Numbers: 189186727X

Alternative Comics' most interesting book in 2003 features two surface elements that for the first few minutes hinder one's appreciation of the material inside. The first is that it's remarkably ugly, with a strange green cover that features a muddy drawing of gray shapes dancing and playing instruments on a mound. The logo scans well, but the name of the author pops out like a typography error. Its overall "look" is some teenagers' unofficial sequel to Where the Wild Things Are, and practically screams "avoid me." The second noticeable element is that the book is actually very cheap as far as alternative comics go these days, $6.95 for 72 oversized pages. Mason and Orff have blown up each square cartoon so that the book is nearly the size of an LP cover (more like a 16 rpm sleeve), whether that comparison is intentional or not. And because Orff's artwork is reasonably dense and features quite a bit of wordplay, Strum and Drang becomes a comparably hefty reading experience in this day of decompressed storytelling.

Once you penetrate the cover, Joel Orff's comics prove to be really charming and unaffected cartoon diary, like the drawings of an older boy one of Lynda Barry's female characters has a crush on in study hall. Orff draw anecdotes, tiny stories that reflect a "rock and roll" moment, whether or not the incident described can be connected directly to music or performance. He draws his own material but also solicits tales from others with whom he's acquainted or who contacted him after the strip began appearing in a Minneapolis free weekly. The more fascinating strips detail the humble minutiae of music playing, moments that are recognizable but only really significant to those experiencing them -- playing at the school's "fall jam," the punk scene in Minot, North Dakota, or playing the kiddie stage at a local arts festival at the invite of the local horror TV show host. Orff's characters struggle to negotiate the space between responsibility and freedom, life lived in a slouch for as long as it can be maintained, and a great emphasis is placed on moments of lucidity, awareness or even spectacle that shocks someone out of their normal routine. Orff's no Lynda Barry as an artist, and displaying more technical accomplishment on the page would only improve his comics, but the pages seem loose and carefree more than they do crude. As comics, Strum and Drang is a pleasurable minor moment in spirit with the stories it portrays. Tom Spurgeon

This review was written in the late 1990s as part of a then-ongoing freelance gig; I apologize if it reads oddly or seems incomplete.