Book Review: LIVING FOR KICKS by Jim McCarthy and Kevin Cross
A graphic novel set in the early days of modernist London and beyond, 1962-64.
“The mod scene was the first time working class youth had a voice,” writes author Jim McCarthy, who is old enough to have been part of it. “As soon as youth had the opportunity to shine, it did so, utterly and brilliantly.”
McCarthy (words) and Kevin Cross (art) tell the story of teenage face Spike Spellane’s attempts to finance a MODerne record label by dealing speed, and of his interactions not only with his mates and his girl, but the inevitable underworld bosses who employ/deploy him. The driving forces of the tale may seem all too familiar to a certain 1979 movie of a certain 1973 concept album by The Who – a fixation with scooters and clothes, confrontations with rockers individual and collective, copious amounts of pill-popping and no shortage of R&B and bluebeat in the background – but McCarthy differentiates by artfully weaving in real-life characters. These include mod icons Stevie Marriott (as he’s referenced here) and Georgie Fame, as well as those connected to Christine Keeler (specifically, Johnny Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon), and therefore the Profumo scandal that brought down the last vestiges of the stiff upper lip, reactionary, hypocritical British way of life. Such attention to period detail gives the plot heft and plausibility whenever it feels like it has otherwise fetched itself a little far.
Spellane, like all good youth culture main characters, is equal parts leader and lost. He has the looks, the mouth, the style and the ambition to be an ace entrepreneur, but his personal afflictions/addictions see him become almost fatally embroiled with vicious gangland types. The reader soon senses impending, increasing acts of violence, both within the criminal world and between the youth subcultures. McCarthy, who as a recovered addict addresses his own demons in the introduction to his graphic novel of Keith Moon’s life (full disclosure: McCarthy and I know each other), is keen not to glorify Spellane’s habits. “Constant speed usage,” he writes here, “can push people into semi-psychotic behaviour through constant use and abuse.” But McCarthy’s telling of his fictional Spellane is no morality tale, and the lead character’s post-mod life is brought up to speed (if you’ll excuse the pun) in a delightfully refreshing coda that affords McCarthy, Spellane and the story itself an unusual degree of reader empathy.
By comparison, Kevin Cross’s colorful depictions – of Spellane, his best mates, their girlfriends, and of fictional criminals and real-life musicians alike – prove frustratingly inconsistent. At times his characters are meticulously realistic, with every button, belt and boot afforded the era’s attention to fashion detail; at others, they verge on anime. Cross, a native of San Francisco’s hardcore punk scene, confesses at the back of the book that his drawing style has become “increasingly cartoony,” and that the pages within show “evidence of the struggle, and eventual compromise.” Still, when he’s on his game, Cross entices the reader with his art every bit as much does McCarthy with his plot, and although that’s not true of every frame, the sheer drive of the narrative propels us through.
Spike Spellane:“How the fuck am I getting my dosh and maintaining my lifestyle? Selling speed pills gives me that money, easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Some Durophets, y’now, Black Bombers, or some Drinamyl, also known as Purple Hearts, mate. Well handsome.” (There’s a “Mods Slang Glossary” at the back of the book.)
PUBLISHER: Omnibus Press