James Spooner is a Los Angeles artist and activist who may be best known as director of the documentary Afro-Punk, a film that focuses on the experience of Black punks. Similarly, in the graphic novel The High Desert, Spooner uses his uses his visual art skills to tell the autobiographical story of a young Black punk rocker growing up in small town USA. While his dealings with parents, school authorities, peers, bands, and drugs are ultimately eclipsed by the enduring grasp of American racism, Spooner tells a story that’s just as compelling and relatable as it is substantial.
In his early teenage years, the author’s family returns to the small desert town they had left behind earlier in his life. However, as the saying goes, “You can never go home again,” and Spooner finds his old town and old friends unrecognizable. He discovers skateboarding and punk rock and eventually meets Ty, another Black punk kid. The two become fast friends and share a good chunk of their formative years. They even start a band. Over Christmas break, Spooner’s mom sends him on a trip to visit his absentee father in New York City where he gets his mind blown by underground punk rock and DIY culture. On his return to the desert, Spooner feels even more out of place, and the events that unfold from there on out cement this alienation on many levels.
The pages of The High Desert are visually stunning. Spooner’s graphic style takes notes from modern comics and graphic novels as well as more traditional Marvel/DC-style publications, resulting in a style that is unique yet familiar and aesthetically very pleasing. The organization of the panels and the layout of the pages are clear and efficient and foster the developing emotional content of the story. One cool device utilized in the art here is that a lot of the “normals” (and other characters who seem to be simply a nuisance to the young Spooner) are filled in with much less detail—just faded blobs of memory in the process of being successfully forgotten. I’m sure most of us have a few of those dumb blobs lurking in our memories.
The story of The High Desert is driven by three main components. First, there is a coming-of-age element, which is as brutally honest and as charming as can be. Then there is the author’s relationship with punk rock, which has shaped so many of our lives in so many ways that it would be impossible not to relate to. Finally, and probably most significantly, there is the prospect of dealing with being a Black teenager in America. Now, I don’t pretend to have walked in the author’s shoes, but I’m glad I’m here to listen, because Spooner’s combination of these elements results in an emotionally compelling yet impactful and thought-provoking work of bound art. –Buddha (Mariner Books, marinerbooks.com)