At one time or another, every musician finds themselves hitting an artistic and creative plateau. The equivalent of writer’s block, it’s frustrating for musicians as they find themselves in an interminable period of stasis with others around them seeming to grow and improve by leaps and bounds. While many will argue that creating art is not in any way, shape or form a competition, basic human nature overrules this idealistic notion every time. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are always in competition with those around us as well as within ourselves. It’s the downside to the creative mind in flux.
Imagine, then, being granted a shortcut to the next level of not only artistic creativity, but overall musical virtuosity. Whether it be mind-altering musical insight or an enchanted instrument, this shortcut helps shatter the frustration of creative immobility, opening a whole new world of opportunities not only artistically, but personally and professionally as well. And yet, as with anything that seems too good to be true, there is a catch, one which allows the performer to further their career but at the expense of the lives of others. Whether knowingly or not, any and all subsequent performances will result in the loss of fellow musicians. It’s a moral quandary within which few would ever hope to find themselves.
Such is the situation jazz musician Tom Snyder finds himself in Dave Chisholm’s wildly imaginative new graphic novel, Instrumental. Finding himself at a creative crossroads and seemingly incapable to moving his art to the next level, Snyder’s frustration begins to get the better of him, despite the encouraging words from his bandmates. After one particularly soul-crushing gig, Snyder finds himself being followed by an old man who offers him use of a mysterious trumpet. Ignoring any and all advice with regard to questionable individuals offering instruments of random origin, Snyder accepts the offering with little in the way of trepidation despite the Faustian overtones.
Very quickly he finds himself transported to another musical realm in which his skill level has increased exponentially overnight. Caught up in the rush of creative fulfillment and the opening of the virtuosic floodgates, he gives little thought to the fact that he now plays for hours on end without noticing the passing of time, running into eccentric musicians at strange masked balls and even finding himself face to face with jazz giant John Coltrane, despite his having been dead for more than 40 years. In other words, things take a turn for the weird with his acceptance of the trumpet, yet due to the creative high it affords, Snyder seems willing to overlook such anomalies in favor of getting lost in the music.
Soon it becomes apparent that there is something more to the trumpet than the mere gifting of preternatural instrumental prowess. As Snyder finds himself being chased by a pair of street toughs aiming to reclaim the trumpet, his paranoia increases. Coupled with a newfound inability to sleep and perpetual desire to play, he begins to take the shape of a junky constantly in need of a fix. All the while he is seemingly oblivious to the deaths that occur each time he performs, barely noticing these tragic events unfolding around him as he fully surrenders to the trumpet’s intoxicating embrace.
One too many bodies have piled up and the duo, now revealed to be part of a secret society responsible for some of history’s most infamous instruments, is in hot pursuit, Snyder begins to regain some semblance of self-awareness, though it rapidly recedes in the face of a record contract offer. He’s faced with the dilemma of whether to continue performing at the expense of the lives of others so that he can secure a record deal and the critical acclaim he so desires, or he must return to his frustrated previous state of being. He elects the former with predictably dire consequences.
An allegorical exploration of the idea of just how far some musicians will go to “make it”, Instrumental takes things to the extreme, putting its characters in literal life or death situations within which they have to make real, affecting decisions. A respected jazz musician himself, Chisholm manages to inhabit his characters, each drawn with a heavy-handed look that leans towards the noir the further it strays into the fantastical. With the publication of Instrumental, Chisholm has also released an accompanying album of music based on and a reflection of the action that takes place within the story’s narrative arc. It’s an interesting audio/visual pairing that can be enjoyed together or separately without losing any of the intended impact from either.
As an artist, Chisholm’s style adheres to a decidedly modern look and feel, calling to mind the overall aesthetic look and feeling of Charles Burns’ disconcerting Black Hole while still maintaining a strongly individualistic look and feel perfectly complemented by the accompanying music. Taken as a whole, Instrumental and the world it inhabits is well worth an extended visit. Chisholm’s numerous creative panel structures and use of multi-genre storytelling making for a highly enjoyable reading experience.