It’s a safe bet that you’re already familiar with the name “CBGB,” but in case you’re not, this is what you need to know: CBGB was a music venue in New York which opened in 1973 and become inextricably linked with the rise of punk music. It closed in 2006, to much sadness. This comic serves as a tribute to all that it was, and all that it did.
Of course, CBGB is just the name of a club. What made it special were the people who frequented it, those who played there, and everyone the name inspired. This anthology mini series imagines stories about some of those people and at the same time, reminds us precisely why the name is so revered.
The opening short is written by Kieron Gillen, a natural choice for an anthology about music since he made his name writing “Phonogram,” the pick of last year for any discerning comics buyer. As it turns out, this short is about as close to being a “Phonogram” story as it is possible to be without actually having the name on the front, as the leader of a punk band finds himself on a mystical journey through the past and future of the genre with a few Dickensian-inspired spirits for company. It’s an appropriately respectful piece which gets to the heart of what CBGB’s role in popular culture was (at least, disputably) and namechecks a few of the greats at the same time, making it a perfect primer for the rest of the series.
Sometime “Phonogram” co-conspirator and indie comics star Marc Ellerby gets a rare color outing as artist, and while he’s had ample opportunity to show off his comedic chops of late, this story marks a return to the more emotive subject matter in the style of the Oni series “Love the Way you Love” which he once drew. Ellerby’s artwork has developed quickly and confidently over the last year, and the progress is clear in these pages, which are well-composed and moodily coloured, with his newly-tightened cartoon style demonstrating an impressive range of tone.
The second short comes from writer Sam Humphries and artist Rob G (the latter of “Couriers” fame). Humphries examines the death of a single member of the band “The Helsinki Syndrome”, the role CBGB played in his past, and the effects that has on the future. It’s likely that the story details are entirely fictional but it’s safe to say that it reflects the truth in spirit.
Rob G’s artwork is appropriately punk-esque, muted and scratchy, save for a beautiful moment part way through the story. A page ends with the question “Were [The Helsinki Syndrome] good?”. You turn over, and the double page spread makes it fully clear what the answer is before you’ve even read a word. The coloring alone brings the pages alive in shades and blurs in a way that the rest of the issue studiously avoids, enhancing the effect. It’s a near-perfect marriage of technique and emotional engagement, and when a comic works, this is precisely what it should feel like.
You could be forgiven for finding a tribute book like this to be a little fawning or sycophantic, and in truth it’s hard to argue against such accusations without violating the premise of the work. It’s safe to say that it’s not reverential to a fault, however, and the book works as both a history lesson and a journalistic document of modern attitudes towards the venue. At the same time, the stories in this issue address universal themes, and the fact that it’s rooted in a real time and place is an almost secondary extra. It’s a comic that’s definitely worth owning, and one that you can be certain is still going to be as relevant and enjoyable a decade from now as it is today.