Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody
by Mike Dawson
Bloomsbury USA, May 2008

Note: Freddie and Me is a better comic than my words below make it sound. I liked it a good bit, despite some problems with the structure, which Hillary and I dwell on in our conversation far more than any other issue. I don't even mention the art, which is really good; Dawson's linework is clean and bold, his visual story-telling is clear, and he's great at character-ization and depicting emotion. Freddie and Me is a good book, despite what my griping below might make you think. - GM

Garrett Martin: I usually cringe whenever music pops up in comics, even if it's music I like. Young Liars and the latest issue of Casanova are both kind of embarrassing, and even Scott Pilgrim barely gets away with it. So on one hand I wasn't expecting much from Mike Dawson's Freddie and Me, an autobiographical comic about his life-long love affair with Queen, and not just because I thought it was a late-'80's children's movie about an unlikely friendship between a young boy and a loving-yet-attitudinous anthropomorphic monkey/alien/robot. But I was a pretty big Queen fan myself as a kid, and still pretty much love 'em today, so this book piqued my interest, despite music-based comics generally depressing me in some weird, vague fashion. And although the music content in Freddie and Me is only as awkward and uncomfortable as Dawson intends for it to be, and thus handled pretty exemplarily, by the end the book devolves into something of a jumbled mess. But before we get to that, let me ask you: do you also often get annoyed at how music is portrayed in other media? Do you agree that it's difficult to dramatize the effect of music upon an audience or listener without coming off as either awkward, insincere, or out-of-touch? And if so, why do you think that is?

Hillary Brown: Wow, that's a big question up front, but, yes, the Nick Hornby effect comes into play a lot. It's not that it's so hard to write about music. It's just hard to do it well. But there are plenty of writers who can get across the power it has, like Alex Ross, who writes about contemporary classical music in ways that make me want to seek it out. I'm just not sure Dawson's one of them, which is a shame in some ways. Luckily, he picked one of the best bands ever, and I'm sure you know all these songs, just as I do, which means he doesn't have to work very hard to convey their wonderfulness. When you see the lyrics rolling across the page, you fill in the melody. It's also probably not fair to expect someone who's not a music writer but a visual creature, not necessarily used to translating one medium into another, to do just that. Or maybe I'm being too lenient.

I was really looking forward to this book, especially after reading the eight-or-so-page preview online, but it fell a little flat for me too. Dawson's said in several interviews (including this one) that he composed the book to mirror the structure of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but 1. that doesn't really come across, and 2. maybe there are better songs to pattern a book after. I love "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it works in spite of itself, or it works only to people who love songs that are kind of a mess (like me). It just sort of throws a bunch of wacko-ness in a pot and turns the heat up high. That doesn't work so well for something that's clearly supposed to be an autobiographical coming of age narrative, where you have to have a bit more structure. There are hints of more reflection at times in the book (as when Dawson talks about how memory works and considers it from different perspectives), but there are also long sections of one thing happening after another, which, while reflective of how reality works, aren't really want you want in a comic OR, at least, not without a super-smart, wonderful voice guiding you. I mean, James Joyce is allowed to do it because he was a genius and Leopold Bloom is an incredible, funny character, whereas Dawson's portrait of himself is more fraught with painful self-recognition than the humorous version of such.

GM: Well, Alex Ross is a critic, right? I'm not talking about music criticism; that's difficult in different ways, and usually isn't quite as embarrassing as the band Sam manages in Who's The Boss? (who might be the same band as in Young Liars #1, actually). Freddie and Me probably doesn't annoy me in the same way because it's about a real guy's reaction to a real band (and, like you say, a really great band), and because Dawson does recognize how awkward and embarrassing much of this is. I don't get that when Hornby has his stand-ins swoon over the latest rehash of sincere rootsiness, or whatever. It's also not a potential "look at my cool record collection" tangent like with Casanova. I'm just surprised that Dawson was able to avoid the problems I most expected involving this other artform, but then fail when it comes to a highly vital part of the artform in which he is working, like narrative structure.

I didn't know about the "Bohemian Rhapsody" structure, but I guess it explains those drawings from the video that operate as chapter breaks. I wonder if Dawson is entirely honest when he says that, or if he realized after the fact that it was a good talking point. I also wonder how successful he thinks he was at that, because he kinda wasn't very, although like you say it's a weird song to try and replicate, structurally. Freddie and Me eventually falls flat because what structure it does have completely collapses about two-thirds of the way through. Dawson goes into detail about events that happened when he was young, from elementary school up through high school, even though he explains (in a few reflective scenes that were really well done) how his memories from those days are fuzzy and indistinct. And then in the last third he just jumps randomly about his adult life, less interested in telling a story than in just catching us up with what he's been doing. The more he remembers his life the less interesting it is to read; it becomes less story-telling than a matter-of-fact list of events. The comic doesn't become bad at the end, just sloppy and increasingly more indulgent. There are a couple of powerful moments in this section, like his examination of memory and how different people can remember shared experiences differently (although not as well done as that Chris Ware cartoon from This American Life), and the scene when he enters his grandma's house after her funeral hit pretty close to home and made me choke up just a bit. But there's a consistent thread that winds through the first two acts that gets thoroughly knotted once Dawson reaches adulthood. Even Queen takes a backseat to mundane life occurrences, which, yeah, makes sense since most of us don't carry our childhood passions so close to our heart once we're grown, but still, that only adds to the book's whimpering end. It almost feels like he gave up on the narrative at the end, and just tried to rush to a conclusion.

HB: I also have some issues with the middle section, in which he moves from England to the United States, and starts being more interested in art. I totally get the device--the nauseating journals of adolescence--but that doesn't mean it works. It means we're cast adrift without a timeline for one thing. How long is he working on this 20-hour art project, for example? And can we see a little more of his developing passion for comics and art? How are his dreams of being cool because of his foreignness and English accent dashed? Why doesn't he get in a fight with his friend who loves Rush? Just because you love a band and aren't a music critic doesn't mean you can't, you know, think about why you like them as opposed to another band.

Basically, in that same interview Dawson talks about being nervous about having an editor and how he ended up being fine with the experience because she backed off on some of her criticisms and didn't make him do anything he didn't want to do. Well, maybe she should've been tougher! Editors help shape stories, and what this story needs is more shape.

That said, I really do like the art. It's not up there with my absolute favorites, but it's totally well done and funny and distinctive. It's better when he's drawing people we don't know (himself and his family and friends) than when he's drawing the members of Queen or George Michael, and it doesn't always convey new information that's not in the text, but it's certainly better than a decent bit of indie work.

GM: I don't think it's important to see how his dreams of coolness are foiled. It's kind of a given that most people aren't "cool" in middle school, especially if they openly love comics and unpopular bands like Queen. And yeah, before Wayne's World made them briefly big again, Queen were about as uncool as you could get in 1990-91. My entirely uncool friends made fun of me for actually buying their Innuendo album when it came out, instead of Extreme or Tesla or whatever (oh shit, who am I kidding, I had those records too). And yeah, he lists his favorite Queen songs a lot, but never explains why they're his favorite, or what they mean to him. That's kind of unsatisfying, especially as Dawson gets older and should theoretically be more rational and thoughtful about why he likes what he likes. At the same time, though, I don't think he needs to justify it too much. There are bands I've loved since childhood that I still accept and support uncritically, like U2; I don't particularly like their recent stuff, but they've earned a lifelong pass from me.

I'm both surprised and not surprised to hear that about his editor. You can tell they were lax just by reading the book, but it seems weird that a "real" book publisher wouldn't be more active on that front, especially with a creator who isn't really a big name.

HB: Dude, it's important to see that because he sets it up and then doesn't really do anything with it. That's kind of a small version of the things that annoy me about the whole book: unachieved potential. Still, that doesn't mean people shouldn't read it. I know my husband liked it more than I did, so maybe he can pipe up in the comments about why.

GM: See, I read that differently. Yeah, he sets it up, but I thought it was fairly clear that there was no way that was going to be happening. It's like Lennie and the rabbits in Of Mice and Men, but infinitely less tragic.

Anyway, I agree, Freddie and Me could've been so much better. I did like it more than you, too, I think, and so maybe it helps slightly to have been a nerdy guy into nerdy things.

HB: Oh, but that's so sad. I was just as nerdy, only I was isolated from pop culture at least up until middle school and even somewhat then. While you were listening to Queen, I was listening to my cassette box set of the lives of the great composers and dancing around my basement to the Oklahoma! cast recording, which is not exactly coolsville. On the other hand, perhaps there is a distinction to be made between having access to a wide range of pop culture and choosing the geeky stuff versus being raised with no television by semi-hippies who gave me a love for Dan Glazer and bad 1980s country music.


Jared said...

See, I saw the Bohemian Rhapsody format from the beginning (the chapter titles are called stuff like "guitar solo," after all), so I was not only not surprised by the mess (it's a messy-ass song), I was expecting it. Whether he gets a pass for that or not is another story, but I didn't need it to be as tight as you guys did, apparently. I wouldn't say it rises to the level of the greatest art of all time necessarily, but I liked it a good bit. I found it moving and inspiring in its own way. The same reason Hillary seemed interested in the first place (the Queen/Freddie Mercury thing) was the thing that made me not want to read it, but by the end it's about a lot more than that. I also think it's interesting that you guys thought it fell apart toward the end, because that was probably my favorite part of the book...I'd have to look at it again, but that's what I remember thinking. Again though, I was way more interested in his family/life than in the Queen connection, which I think was just a McGuffin.

hillary said...

Jared is smarter than we are!

I guess what I'd say is that I think the subject is more interesting at the end, but it's less well rendered there. And I forgot to mention something that both of y'all know but not everyone reading this may: I've recently read some of the best examples of the autobiographical comics form, like Fun Home and Stuck Rubber Baby, so I was kind of comparing it to those in the reading, which probably sets up unfair expectations.

garrett said...

I updated the post with some more thoughts. I really did like the book, more than our conversation made it appear. I think it's easy to focus on the negatives when you're discussing something with a friend, which is pretty much all this blog is.

I would say that the final section is more emotionally powerful than the rest, and does contain the best bits about memory and how elusive it is. Still, even with knowledge of the song-based structure, it bothers me that it becomes less straight-forward at the end. It just feels lop-sided to focus so thoroughly on youth and then jump randomly about the second half of one's life.

Jared said...

Yeah, I definitely get that, and agree. It's a bit like reading chapters 1, 2, 3, 7, and 10 of someone's autobiography...or something.