Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, By Derf Backderf, 288 pgs.

Mar 17, 2021

For those who don’t know, in 1970 a group of National Guard soldiers were sent to Kent, Ohio to hover over the anti-war protests happening at the college. After a couple of days of mild unrest, the soldiers blindly opened fire on students. Thirteen seconds later, several were injured and four students were dead. Most of the students were just walking to class.

This comic (graphic novel, if you must) covers the shooting and the events that lead up to it. We get the perspective of the four students, the guardsman, and the small government in Kent, Ohio. The story breaks with bits of history of the college, the National Guard, and whatever else was going on politically in the summer of 1970.

Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer, Trashed, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks) did years of research and interviewed eye-witnesses for this book. The details run deep, even noting what the students were eating and what they were listening to. And if you’re not familiar with Backderf’s art style, you should be. Very bold black and white surreal style where most characters are very stretchy-looking.  Everyone looks like they were run through a taffy puller and pressed back down for packaging. I mean that in the most absolutely flattering way possible.

As you can expect, this book is very heavy. I found myself shaking while turning the last couple of pages. I had tears welling up when it was over. This book is a reminder that history repeats itself in the worst ways. How fear, lies, and misinformation can lead people to make horrible decisions.

There have always been bits of education thrown in all of Backderf’s work (Read Punk Rock & Trailer Parks for a lesson on the 1970’s small town Ohio punk scene). But Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is chock-full of information and the twenty-five pages of notes in the back are an interesting read on their own. This book should be taught in school. Shit, maybe even in church. –Rick V. (Abram Books, abrambooks.com)

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Hard Stuff, The: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Possibilities By Wayne Kramer, 296 pgs.

September 26, 2018
Mike Faloon and I did a Midwest tour in support of Mike’s new book The Other Night at Quinn’s this summer. When we hit greater Detroit, a guy at the bookstore there told me that he, too, was reading The Hard Stuff. “I wish Wayne had run some of the stuff by me,” the guy at the bookstore said. “His chronology is all fucked up.” I don’t doubt this for a second, because “fuckup” is the operative word for most of The Hard Stuff. Wayne Kramer, of course, was the guitarist for agitprop protopunks the MC5, who manage to immediately shoot themselves in the foot upon the release of their debut album Kick Out the Jams. They pal around with a biker gang called the Motherfuckers, who get the band blackballed from any number of East Coast clubs by inciting violence from the stage—and that’s before promoter Bill Graham gets his nose broken in New York City, and before the band takes out an ad proclaiming that the biggest record-selling chain in Detroit can go fuck themselves. The MC5’s records don’t go anywhere because of these missteps—all of which take place in the first third of the book. From there on out, Kramer has chance after chance to turn things around, but can’t manage it. Instead, he robs houses, goes to jail, gets out, starts bands, gets hooked on drugs, half-ass quits, gets hooked again. But I kept reading. Kramer’s a skilled storyteller: it’s easy to root for him through his many fuckups because of way he sets readers up. The first bits are about his childhood, where he conveys effectively to the reader the sense of warmth and safety he felt, before his mom becomes involved in an abusive relationship. The abuse spills over to him, his world is turned upside down, and the numbing influence of booze and drugs wrestle with his prodigious guitar talent for dominance. It’s not a new story—especially if you’re a fan, as I am, of rock bios—but Kramer’s short, sharp bursts of prose, reminiscent of Alice Bag’s in her excellent debut Violence Girl, are brutally effective. After fuckups too numerous to recount here, Kramer finally burrows into the bedrock of his substance abuse and comes through the other side, discussing his addictions and recovery with frank honesty. The end result for me was an appreciation for Kramer’s survival skills (and the incredible dumb luck which kept him from an early grave) and a reassessment of later MC5 records I hadn’t spent much time with. Serious back-in-the-day heads might have a legitimate bone to pick with Kramer’s chronology, but I think that even rearranged, the short chapters in The Hard Stuff would continue to pack a serious wallop. –Michael T. Fournier (Da Capo, dacapopress.com)
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