cover image The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.

The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.

James Spooner. Harper, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-358-65911-2

Spooner, the filmmaker behind the Afro-Punk documentary and festivals, debuts with a graphic memoir as abrasive and revelatory as his chosen music. Against a setting of the 1990s-era desolate desert landscape of Apple Valley, Calif., Spooner replays key notes of his adolescence. His predominantly poor and white hometown simmers with hostility: bikers throw insults and skinheads infiltrate the scene, targeting the multiracial friendship circle with whom he forges his punk identity and sound. But he’s empowered by learning that “Rock ’n’ roll is a Black American Legacy. Punk rock is Black music.” He’s also desperate for a girlfriend—the fact that his crushes are always already taken gets hilariously drawn, with the word boyfriend literally falling from the top of the page and demolishing him. He’s forthright about the fraught relationship with his devoted but sometimes clueless white mother, his absent Black father (a St. Lucian former champion bodybuilder aka “Mr. America to everyone but your son”), as well as realizing his own light-skinned privilege in relation to other Black friends. Lyrics from influential songs (such as “White Minority” by Black Flag) spring from panels in dynamic word balloons, punctuating emotional scenes; the story culminates in dual tragedies and Spooner’s escape from the dust. The realistic, digitally drawn art is loose-lined, matching the urgency of the soundtrack. Much like Ghost World, this grabbing, angsty coming-of-age tale offers a sidewalk view of a creative subculture. It’s also a poignant ode to the power of music to fill voids left by family and circumstance, with provocations thrumming on race and identity that sound out like a smashed guitar. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (May)