Punk was an explosion of musical negation. In 1977 the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ ended with the repeated refrain ‘No Future’ and in the same year the Stranglers released ‘No More Heroes’. Punk was also an explosion of visual negations: Punk anti-fashion, given iconic form in the creations of Vivienne Westwood; punk graphics and record covers, especially the work of Jamie Reid; and also the new culture of DIY fanzines, with Sniffin’ Glue the most famous example. Punk’s visual style, according to Dick Hebdige, was ‘defined principally through the violence of its “cut ups”’. This involved the ‘wilful desecration’ of accepted visual and cultural expression, and in the visual field used forms like graffiti and the ransom note to disrupt accepted codes. The use of ‘destructive, ugly and angry imagery’ created a new visual style of ‘expressive negation’. Punk visual culture was immediate, ephemeral and transitory, defying claims to longevity and to seriousness. It would be no surprise then that this visual culture would draw on the comic strip – the almost archetypal instance of a transitory and debased form for the usual arbiters of culture.
Various punk-influenced comic strips emerged in the late 1970s. Edwin Pouncey, in the guise of ‘Savage Pencil’, was inspired by the anarchic traditions of UK children’s comics and created strips which targeted the hypocrisies of the music industry and punk for the UK music magazine Sounds. Gary Panter, in Los Angeles, developed a punk comic strip with Jimbo, appearing in the magazine Slash in 1978. The most sustained graphic narrative associated with punk was Love and Rockets, by Jamie and Gilbert Hernandez. Published between 1982 and 1996, this told the story of Maggie and Hopey in the punk-influenced milieu of the Los Angeles Barrio. Probably the best-known visual artist associated with punk is Raymond Pettibon. He moved from creating his own zines, drawing on comic book imagery, to creating record covers and other images for the US hardcore label SST. Pettibon would, later, become influential as a visual artist.
Dick Hebdige remarked that the prose of punk zines ‘was difficult to “take in” in any quantity’. The anti-narrative cut-up images of punk, and punk graphic artists, seems unsuited to the usual narrative form of comics or graphic novels. Baetens and Frey have argued that ‘the graphic novel is a storytelling medium’, and that the graphic novel is characterized by a reflexive awareness of its own form and a particular mode of packaging and distribution. While they stress this does not exhaust the definition of the graphic novel, we can use it as an initial point of orientation. What this definition suggests is the contradiction or opposition between the graphic novel and the ephemeral ‘cut-up’ aesthetic of punk. Punk embraced the comic strip precisely because of its perceived ‘lower’ cultural value, especially, in the UK, the anarchic traditions of children’s comics like the Beano. Punk reworked existing cultural codes in a mode of disruption, refusing the ‘grown-up’, the virtues of narrative, and ‘sophistication’. For this reason we can trace the influence of punk on various graphic novelists (Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Art Spiegelman, for example), but punk seems more influential on attitude than a sustained influence on the narrative form associated with the graphic novel.
Here I want to explore two graphic novels that explicitly address this tension between the narrative form of the graphic novel and the anti-narrative form of punk aesthetics. First is the experimental Reverbstorm graphic novel written by David Butterworth and drawn by John Coulthart, with additional art by Kris Guidio. It is published by Savoy, based in Manchester in the UK, and is focused on the central character Lord Horror. Lord Horror is a fictionalised version of William Joyce, the British wartime traitor who broadcast for the Nazis during World War Two and was known as Lord Haw-Haw. This second is the more traditional and light-hearted work Peter Bagge’s Hate, which focuses a jaundiced eye on the Seattle ‘grunge’ scene of the 1990s in Bagge’s signature ‘cartoonish’ and kinetic style. Both these works were originally published as comics; in the case of Lord Horror as larger format graphic works during the 1990s and in the case of Hate in traditional comic format, also during the 1990s.
In her discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland (1990), Johanna Isaacson has argued that this novel ‘is most productively seen as a continuation of the anti-literary genres of the sixties underground press and manifesto forms, genres that were necessarily temporary and politicized, and became opaque when separated from the context of active political social movements’. I want to suggest a similar relation between the visual negations of punk and the two graphic novels analysed here. The translation of ‘punk-tinged sensibilities’ into the form of the graphic novel is a mode in which these sensibilities can be both preserved and critiqued, allowing the graphic novel to mine ‘a residue of political memory and political futurity’. Certainly, as with Pynchon’s novel, these sensibilities risk becoming opaque in new contexts, but these new contexts also allow critical interrogation.
The delayed nature of Lord Horror and Hate, which were written and published after the initial moment of punk, allows them to re-use punk’s visual style in a more sustained form than punk productions. It also allows them to critique the limits of punk’s expressive negations. In a situation in which punk albums regularly make the lists of best rock and roll albums of all time, Vivienne Westwood is a world-renowned fashion designer, and the Sex Pistols’s John Lydon appears in television advertisements as a parodic English gentleman, the recuperation of punk might seem complete. These graphic novels are post-punk, not only in the temporal sense but also because they provide a complex reflection on the energies of punk as a mode of subversion and on the ways in which these energies are absorbed and recuperated by mainstream culture. Also, these works place the form of the graphic novel under pressure. The acceptance of the category of the graphic novel has often required accepting claims of sophistication and maturity, especially through the term ‘novel’. These post-punk graphic novels play out again the tension or contradiction between visual negation and form, using the disruptive gestures of punk to question claims for the cultural value of the graphic novel. In the case of punk and the graphic novel this critical element is not merely a negation, but also develops the attempt to sustain expressive negations into new forms of representation.
The final album by the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1978), included the controversial song ‘Belsen was a Gas’. The song offers a grotesque and, supposedly, ironic, account of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This tasteless and provocative song was only one sign of punk’s fascination with Nazism and fascism as a shock tactic. In visual terms, this is evident in the use of the Swastika in punk clothing and the toying with Nazi imagery by a number of punk bands. The music journalist Richard Meltzer wrote an enraged and parodic response song, ‘Belsen is No Longer a Gas’ (1981). Meltzer’s lyrics pointed out how such gestures did not shock reactionaries and it was time for ‘symbols that give him no yuks: / hammer & sickle daddy-o! / (wear it with pride)’. Few took this advice to turn to Communist imagery. Roger Sabin has argued that punk’s engagement with racism and racial politics is deeper and more problematic than is usually assumed. Far from simply a posturing politics of shock, Sabin critiques the ‘myth’ of punk as anti-racist by tracking anti-Semitic and racist comments and lyrics from punk bands. The graphic novel Reverbstorm involves a strategy which exacerbates and deepens this engagement with Nazi and fascist imagery by punk. In the choice of the British-Irish traitor William Joyce as fictionalised anti-hero Reverbstorm, and the other Lord Horror productions, link Nazism and fascism intimately to British national identity.
The publisher Savoy emerged out of a punk milieu, beginning as a bookstore and publisher in 1976. They republished avant-garde and new wave works of fiction before, in the 1980s and 1990s, developing a sustained publishing project around the figure of Lord Horror. Alan Moore has described Lord Horror as a ‘fascist operatic lead’ and ‘Sweeney Todd at high tea with the Mitfords’. During the 1980s Savoy regularly suffered police harassment due to the nature of the works they sold and published, which would eventually culminate in trial, under the obscene publications act, of the Lord Horror novel and the associated Meng & Ecker comics in 1991. Found obscene, Savoy appealed and at the appeal trial in 1992 the novel was cleared but the charge against the comic was sustained, according to the judge due to it being likely ‘to attract attention from the less literate’. This classic dismissal of comics, couched in the language of class resentment, is inadvertently revealing of Savoy’s subversive multi-media strategy. Savoy’s strategy aims to ‘attract attention’, to cross the boundaries of the normal forms of ‘literacy’, and it involves a close attention to the visual. The range of the Lord Horror works, from music to novels, creates an alternative universe and aims at a ‘total work of art’, in line with the provocations of punk.
Savoy’s aesthetic is post-punk, in the sense of a going beyond the limits of the forms of punk. This radicalisation of punk involved the slaughtering of punk and post-punk sacred cows. Savoy’s iconoclasm included using the 1950s rock singer P. J. Proby to cover punk ‘classics’ such as the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, alongside covers of mainstream figures such as Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen. In terms of Lord Horror, drawing on Joyce’s role as a radio broadcaster for the Nazis, he is represented as radio DJ and also rock star, playing 1950s rockabilly. Here the post-punk aesthetic involves the recovery of past forms of rock and rhythm and blues that are re-valorised as more radical than punk’s transgressions. This recovery of early rock and roll would also be provocatively linked to Nazism in the Lord Horror novel Baptised in the Blood of Millions: ‘I had been at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, just as I had been at the birth of Fascism: for me, both were the twin revolutionary movements of the Twentieth Century’.
It is Reverbstorm which puts this project into the form of the graphic novel. It consists of eight parts, the original seven issues with an additional final issue, and explores a post-war world in which the Nazis were victorious. It is set in the ‘unreal city’ of Torenbürgen, with Lord Horror practising his ultra-violence on a variety of figures, both human and non-human. Lord Horror, with his wife, Jessie Matthews, based on the English actress and singer of the 1920s and 1930s, perform a series of concerts together. Lord Horror also broadcasts to the city for ‘Reich-Rund Funk’ with his radio show ‘Amerikkka’s War in the Ether’. This makes clear the link to William Joyce, who was notorious for his broadcasts for the Nazis to England. Joyce became known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, due to his strange accent, hence the transition to Lord Horror. The show consists of Lord Horror’s raps and rants, and with him playing everything from a series of 1950s and early 1960s rockabilly and rock and roll songs to the rapper Ice Cube. For Lord Horror the true aficionados of this music are the ‘true modern primitives’, those ‘who understand classic rock ‘n’ roll’.
The visual style of these scenes of performance is one that mixes and integrates elements from pop culture, pulp fiction and illustration, and high modernism. Lord Horror wears black leather jackets and black suits, has his hair arranged to form a rock quiff, and is visually modelled on figures from punk band The Cramps lead singer ‘Lux Interior’ to Michael Moorcock’s fantasy anti-hero Elric of Melniboné (Figure One). In one of his broadcasts Lord Horror’s head turns into a trout head, referencing the cover of Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (1969), and into a cubist art work reminiscent of Picasso. This visual density is consonant with the aesthetic of ‘pulped modernism’ that characterises Reverbstorm as a whole: a free associative style of visual and textual elements that draws on the legacies of modernism, both literary and visual, punk, popular culture, and the historical culture of Nazism. This is not simply a meeting of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, as the assumption driving the series is that this division does not make sense in relation to the radical and avant-garde energies of certain forms of writing and visual expression. These ‘expressive negations’ cannot be neatly divided-up or parcelled out along the usual cultural and historical divides.
This is also true of the references to music and song lyrics that permeate Reverbstorm, which is titled after a song by the journalist Paul Temple recorded by Savoy in 1993. The list of references provided by Britton and Coulthart for Reverbstorm ranges across forms and styles of music, from the lyrics of Noël Coward, Stephen Sondheim, Prince, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and others. One way in which to read this complex work is as the visual form of one of Lord Horror’s broadcasts. These multiple references to songs and lyrics would then be the soundtrack to which we experience this graphic novel. This is reinforced by the final and concluding section, ‘Lord Hive’s Symmetrical Black Dog Kiss’, which has the visual image of a broadcast signal line running along its pages. According to Britton and Coulthart this waveform ‘is sourced from a recording of William Joyce’s voice intoning his radio call sign “Germany Calling”’. The penultimate double-page image of Reverbstorm shows a circle of vintage radio microphones and a concentric series of mouths. This is the final broadcast by Lord Horror, a final ‘shout’ of horror, which is correlated with the character Kurtz’s statement ‘the horror! the horror!’ from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Reverbstorm is a defiantly underground and independent work. Due to Savoy’s legal persecution and the extreme nature of the work the distribution of Reverbstorm in its original comic form was limited and as a graphic novel it is only available directly from the publishers. This is another of the ways in which the work conforms to a punk and post-punk ethos of independence and autonomy, although without a wider movement and in inhospitable conditions it has also limited the impact of the work. Despite this, Reverbstorm remains one of the few graphic works to continue and radicalise elements of the punk aesthetic and to attempt to sustain punk’s expressive negations across a dense and continuous work. In doing so, it pushes against claims for respectability attached to the graphic novel, while also invoking a network of modernist and avant-garde references. At the same time it also pushes against the recently established respectability of punk and its canonisation as part of rock history. It is these gestures that account for the capacity of Reverbstorm to disturb, not only in terms of its visual and textual content but also in its formal experimentation. This is also why it remains one of the few, if not only, works to take the expressive visual negations of punk to the limit and to develop something new at that limit.
Peter Bagge’s Hate ran for thirty issues beginning in 1990 and was published by the alternative publisher Fantagraphics. Bagge himself had contributed to the US Punk magazine and he was editor of Weirdo magazine between 1983 and 1986, an underground comics magazine founded by Robert Crumb. Bagge, recalling his time in New York working on Weirdo, remarked on how punk ‘was like a new shot of adrenaline’ in its challenge to hippie culture. From 1985 Bagge worked on Neat Stuff for Fantagraphics and this included The Bradleys, strips based on Bagge’s own dysfunctional family. It would be Buddy Bradley, the eldest son, who would become the (anti-) hero of Hate, after moving out of the family home to live in Seattle. Bagge notes how his work is semi-autobiographical, with Buddy ten years younger than him, but living through similar situations in his slow and painful transition from his early 20s to adult responsibilities. Set in Seattle, Hate caught the moment of ‘grunge’ culture becoming mainstream. This was a form of alternative rock often characterised by a ‘grungy’ sound, indebted to punk, and associated with the Seattle area and record label Sub Pop. In fact Peter Bagge was sceptical of ‘grunge’, preferring 1960s ‘bubblegum pop’, a scepticism shared by his central character Buddy.
Hate may have begun as an underground work, but it was commercially successful and attracted a cult following. It resonated with debates concerning ‘Generation X’, those born into the generation after the post-war baby boomers, slackers, and hipsters, with its meandering cast struggling to make do in various dead-end jobs and unlikely attempts at countercultural success. The comics would eventually be collected into two substantial graphic novels: the first, Buddy does Seattle, collecting the issues from 1990-1994, concerned with Buddy’s ‘adventures’ on the Seattle scene; the second, Buddy does Jersey, collecting the issues from 1994-1998, dealing with Buddy’s ill-fated decision to return to his parent’s home in Jersey with his girlfriend Lisa Leavenworth; finally, the concluding volume, Buddy Buys a Dump, collecting material from the Hate annuals (2001-2011), has Buddy in his thirties trying to settle down with his family. I will primarily concentrate on the first volume, as this has the most explicit set of reflections on alternative culture and its foibles.
Bagge has a distinctive style or, in his words, ‘my own ridiculous drawing style’. He draws characters in a realistic yet semi-cartoon style and is particularly expert and exaggerating these features to convey rage. This is part of what we could call his ‘punk’ style, one of deliberate cartoonish exaggeration. Bagge’s drawing and writing of the episodic ‘adventures’ of his characters results in a work that is also close to literary realism. In terms of realism, Bagge’s art appears far from George Eliot’s admiration of Dutch painting, ‘faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence’, as the model for a literary realism. Yet Bagge’s exaggerations serve a similar sense of the day-to-day, of the unheroic, and of human sympathy. Bagge argues the central impulse of his work is ‘just “trying to tell the truth” about the ways things are in day-to-day existence’. Fredric Jameson has argued that realism is in conflict with the affective impulses that it traces and tries to gather into the organization of a central consciousness. This, for Jameson, is a losing battle and in this experience of loss he suggests ‘realism thereby leaves an odd assortment of random tools and techniques to its shrivelled posterity, who still carry its name on into an era of mass culture and rival media’. Hate, a rival media and part of mass culture, exemplifies this picking-up of these tools and techniques, to create a remarkably sustained work tracing Buddy from his early 20s into his 30s, from shared apartment to business and, finally, baby.
That is the end, but in the beginning we encounter Buddy single. He is living with his childhood friend Leonard Brown, unaffectionately nicknamed ‘Stinky’ due to his teenage problem with body odour, and his African-American roommate George Hamilton. Hate traces a slacker or ‘generation X’ milieu – characters working low income jobs (Buddy’s in a second-hand bookstore), with particular subcultural interests and obsessions. The characters are obviously distanced from the punk generation and the later 1980s emergence in the US of Hardcore punk. The issues of Hate which most directly reflect on the subcultural mores of punk are those that concern Buddy’s ill-fated venture into band management. Leonard proposes to Buddy that they co-manage a ‘hot new rock band’ Leonard has discovered. Buddy goes to see the band (see Figure 2), only to opine ‘they sound just like another bunch of Iggy and the Stooges imitators to me’. For Leonard, in punk fashion, and in full cliché mode, this is ‘back-to-basics, no-nonsense, full-on, no-holds-barred, in-your-face Rock ‘n’ Roll!’, while Buddy thinks they are a ‘nostalgia act’. This usefully captures the debate between believers in the possibilities of repeating rock’s founding gestures, and the sceptical interrogation of rock as an ageing form.
Buddy’s cynicism already suggests the fact that the repetition of the punk or rock gesture of transgression is hardly radical, but instead comforting. Buddy does, however, agree to co-manage the band after hearing of Leonard’s failure to secure any paying gigs. The band themselves – Kurt, Kurt, Greg, and Kurt – are a bunch of drink-obsessed louts, who obviously share, in three cases, only a name with Kurt Cobain. Buddy does succeed in getting them paying gigs and is happy to make ‘deductions’ to his and Leonard’s benefit as managers. He also reviews the band, without even seeing them, in a repetition of the behaviour of punk journalists like Julie Burchill. Band management is not easy. Leonard’s erratic behaviour leads the band to sacking him, while Buddy is called on to try and persuade the lead singer Kurt to continue after his girlfriend has become pregnant. Kurt refuses and the result is Leonard becomes the band’s new singer, which involves him dressing in stripes, with feathers in his anus, and with a headdress, and the band’s new name ‘Leonard and the Love Gods’. In an unlikely turn the band enjoys minor success, with the fans repeating the same cliché of the ‘new stooges’ back to Buddy. The band goes on tour, but driven to violence by the ‘next Iggy’ line from Leonard Buddy is ejected from the tour van. The issue ends with Buddy listening to a series of increasingly desperate answer phone messages about various tour crises.
There are several moments later in the comic that reflect on the limits of punk, or punk-like, transgressive style. Returning from a day running a stall at a comic fair in the issue ‘Collector Scum’ Buddy and Lisa take a ride with an older collector Steve. Lisa is enthused that the radio station is playing a song by Royal Trux, ‘this really cool junkie band from New York City’. Steve remarks that the music is ‘utter garbage’ and that grunge rock is a ‘hoax’. Buddy echoes the sentiment and Lisa remarks ‘you guys hate everything’. In a later reflexive moment Buddy decides to start a fanzine, partly to respond to their roommate, George Hamilton’s fanzine ‘Zygote’, which offered character assassination of Buddy as symbol of a wasted generation. Buddy rapidly abandons the idea because after writing a rebuttal to George Buddy’s reviews of records and music are ‘all 100% negative’, confirming George’s point. Meanwhile Lisa says she wasn’t planning to write anything but only steal drawings from comic books and use them ‘without credit or permission’. In these moments the mimicry of punk’s expressive negations is, ironically, transformed into apathy and inaction, wryly portrayed in Bagge’s imagery.
When Buddy returns to New Jersey with his girlfriend Lisa Leavenworth, in the second volume of the graphic novel, he eventually goes into business. Buddy starts a shop selling second-hand collectibles with his friend Jay, buying-up items cheaply from various small towns to sell to collectors and the subculturally hip. Buddy proves an assiduous business manager, calculating profits and losses, interrogating Jay about his various ‘borrowings’ from the business, and eventually buying out Jay after being concerned with how Jay’s drug use is affecting the business. Jay says Buddy has become a ‘cold fish’, while his girlfriend Lisa later remarks: ‘You’re your own boss, living in your own place – you’ve got it made’. Buddy’s bizarre, yet successful, forays into independent business will continue into the self-explanatory titled Buddy Buys a Dump.
Peter Bagge is a free-market libertarian, who writes and draws for Reason magazine, subtitled ‘Free Minds and Free Markets’. This might be thought enough to make him the antithesis of punk, usually associated with radical and anarchist politics. Bagge’s views, however, could be read differently, in terms of engaging the question of the political heterogeneity of punk. Punk in the UK was directed against social democracy and, beyond its flirtation with fascist imagery, also engaged a politics of freedom and autonomy that could be subject to multiple interpretations. We could consider the entrepreneurial guile of Malcolm McClaren or Vivienne Westwood’s later career as a global fashion designer, to give well-known examples. Buddy’s success in retailing subcultural detritus to nostalgic adults transforms punk détournement into business, although this limit was already inscribed in punk’s own gestures of ‘selling out’ and marketing shock. In this way a limit of punk, the fact that it was, in the end, a commercial endeavour, is written into Bagge’s narrative.
Perhaps the most tragic reflection on the limits of the punk ‘ethos’ is the eventual fate of Leonard. After Buddy’s return to Jersey Leonard appears in a hired car carrying an Uzi submachine gun, as he has been involved in drug dealing for Yahtzi Murphy – a character who had appeared in the earlier stories as a ruthless businessman. Shortly after his arrival Leonard expresses the desire to commit suicide. Later he visits the beach with Buddy’s brother, Butch, for shooting practice and Leonard shoots himself in the head with Butch’s gun. It is unclear if this act is accidental or suicide. Frightened of the consequences, including the revelation of their drug dealing, Butch and his friends bury Leonard on a relative’s farm. Butch, however, remains haunted by the trauma of witnessing the death and his actions afterward. The ambivalent status of Leonard’s death indicates the ambivalence of punk expressive negation, between mere gestures and actual reality. It also indicates and criticises the punk ethos of self-destruction, most notably in the figure of Sid Vicious, who died of a heroin overdose or possibly suicide aged twenty-one.
Bagge’s ‘realism’ takes on a more colloquial sense in the way his narrative probes the incompatibility of punk gestures of transgression or shock with the demands to earn a living and ‘settle down’ – to be ‘realistic’. At the same time he has an acute eye for the way these gestures do sell and actually make it possible to make a living, as we have noted with Buddy’s shop and, reflexively, with the commercial success of Hate as well. Bagge’s visual style is also suited to this affectionate scepticism. It is particularly expressive with states of anger and with other emotional extremes, inflating the characters into more cartoon-like poses. At the same time these states are also deflated into the narrative context and remorse and apology. Bagge’s work expresses and undercuts the drama of punk, or punk-like subcultures, and questions the extremes of punk claims to authenticity and autonomy. In the world of Hate such claims are to be treated sceptically, especially as punk has become the mode and motor of nostalgia and consumption.
Conclusion: Consuming the Corpse
There is a common and ironic piece of graffiti: ‘punk’s not dead’. This graffiti is ironic because punk’s own stress on expressive negation implies a finite capacity to intervene and shock. Punk was reacting against the ageing musical ‘dinosaurs’ of the 1960s and 1970s, trying to refuse notions of maturity, musicianship and musical sophistication that were the common values of rock music. It is also ironic because the repetition of punk’s expressive negations is not a sign of punk’s life, but really a sign of punk’s death. To keep repeating punk is to inhabit the status of ‘dinosaur’ that punk threw at its elders. One of the May 1968 graffiti slogans, perhaps the work of the French radical group the Situationist International, was ‘Art is dead, don’t consume its corpse’. ‘Punk’s not dead’ seems to mark the desire to continue consuming the corpse, or even of reviving it. This graffiti attests to an exhaustion of punk, which by now is over thirty-years old.
Reverbstorm and Hate are critical reflections on this situation. This is why they are not punk graphic novels, so much as post-punk graphic novels. Post-punk is used here to indicate a form that relates to punk, but also exceeds its limits, as it has also been used as a generic marker in music. These graphic novels, in very different ways, expand beyond the limited expressive negations of punk, interrogate punk strategies of shock, and suggest a strange future for punk. They do so in relating to punk tangentially, taking an angle on the claims and celebrations of punk culture. Musically, they both invoke previous pre-punk forms as more radical than the transgressions of punk: rockabilly, in the case of Reverbstorm, and bubblegum 60s pop, in the case of Hate. In terms of visual aesthetics they choose radically different strategies: Reverbstorm returning the modernist and avant-garde roots of punk’s negations, while Hate shifts into a more comic and realist mode, placing punk back into the comic-strips punk mined for surrealist subversions.
The result is the preservation of punk and its critique. Reverbstorm retains the capacity of punk to mix high and low culture, to take-up avant-garde forms in a popular medium, and to engage in strategies of shock and disturbance. The critique of punk implied by Reverbstorm is that punk remains conservative, by tending to become a stabilised set of expressive negations. Also, it raises questions around the politics of punk, suggesting punk’s use of Nazi and fascist imagery for the point of shock failed to interrogate how this imagery was embedded in British culture and could reveal a parallel history of toxic nationalism. While Reverbstorm points to these limits it also indicates possibilities to overturn this conservatism and self-congratulation implied in British claims to have ‘invented’ punk. Raising the spectres of Nazism and fascism is not merely a negative operation, but also an attempt to excavate a radical and experimental culture, both modernist and popular, that has been occluded and buried.
Hate is a more sceptical work, less enamoured it seems with the possibilities of punk subversion. Certainly, however, it does have sympathy for the struggles of its protagonists and even its scepticism can indicate a negativity that tries to challenge the stabilisation of punk into a series of predictable gestures. In particular, Bagge’s drawing style captures an energetic sense of affects and emotional states. His characters may stylise themselves as jaded and world-weary, but they remain engaged with the problems of cultural life that animated punk’s own disgust. Bagge, perhaps due to his political sympathies for libertarian capitalism, is particularly sensitive to the issues of commodification in the fate of punk culture. Instead of posing a false alternative between pure negation and total compromise with the marketplace, Hate indicates how the situation is a more complex one of negotiating a way of living in a difficult and precarious situation.
In relation to the graphic novel both of these works have merited relatively little critical attention. This is interesting as Reverbstorm’s focus on a counter-history and the autobiographical tone of Hate would seem to place them close to the many of the dominant graphic novels. History and autobiography have been central to the canonisation of the graphic novel, from Maus to Persepolis. It might seem obvious what excludes them: the extremity and difficulty of Reverbstorm, and the comic and local concerns of Hate. This is not about making a counter-claim for canonisation. Instead, the ‘punk-tinged sensibilities’ of these works not only pose questions to the continuity of punk but also to the claims of the graphic novel to narrative continuity and seriousness. Reverbstorm disrupts narrative and provokes with the vision of a culture saturated with Nazi and fascist imagery, while Hate explores an everyday life that isn’t amenable to reading in terms of grand historical events and maintains a comic book style. It is these challenges which suggest that punk provocation might still retain a role in unsettling normative assumptions of maturity and seriousness. In this way there may still be some life in punk yet.
Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 106
Johanna Isaacson, ‘The Transfenestrational Imaginary: Periodizing Vineland’s Sixties’, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture,14.4 (2014), #5: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/144/Isaacson.shtml
Quoted in Julian Petley, ‘Savoy Scrapbook’, SavoyWeb: http://www.savoy.abel.co.uk/HTML/censor.html
Benjamin Noys, ‘Full Spectrum Offense: Savoy’s Reverbstorm and the Weirding of Modernity’, ‘Old & New Weird’ special issue, ed. Benjamin Noys & Timothy S. Murphy, Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 49.2 (2016): 231–253, pp. 242-45
Bureau of Public Secrets (2006), ‘May 68 Graffiti’: http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/graffiti.htm