A long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived two youthful rival subculture groups called Mods and Rockers. Your classic ’60s southern England-based, scooter-riding, fight-‘em-on-the-beaches, amphetamine-popping male Mod is so enshrined in British pop culture legend that it’s sometimes easy to forget the relative complexities of the Mod movement. The Mods have their origins in certain quarters of the London jazz scene in the late ’50s (Mod is from modernist, which refers to modern jazz), the tendency of the scene to reinvent itself. Certain factions of Mods went down a glorious rabbit-hole of ska and rocksteady music, and danced into the night to the Small Faces and The Who.
Every knife needs a whetstone, and the Mods had theirs in the form of the Rockers, the youth group who stole motorcycling from under the noses of an affluent genteel bunch who, until the post-war period, had held the monopoly on motorbiking by way of tootling around British country roads. Again, the movement had its roots in the ’50s Teddy Boy scene, which saw young Brits galumphing around in pseudo-Edwardian garb and Tony Curtis hairstyles. Maybe the most surprising aspect of the whole thing was that the style police didn’t come down hard on certain people under 30 in ’60s England.
Living For Kicks: A Mods Graphic Novel is a curious beast in that its two creators, Jim McCarthy and Kevin Cross, are from either side of the Atlantic. The English McCarthy, who currently hangs around Sussex, often wearing a cool Mod-style silk scarf, is a hardcore graphic artist and music writer who started out producing commercial graphics and cartoons, and kick-started his music writing career by writing about cult-iconic musician and bassist of Public Image Limited Jah Wobble, after meeting him in rehab.
McCarthy has always been interested in American music. His graphic novels, which include Reckless Life on Guns N’ Roses and Gabba Gabba Hey! about the Ramones, seem to peg him as the yin to the San Francisco-born Cross’s yang: Cross’s streak of all-Americanism (skateboarding, describing his illustrations as “super-rad” on his website) is offset by his interest in all things Mod. His comic series Monkey Mod & Friends is available via installments online (and there’s an illustration of Cross on his website smoking a bubble pipe).
Living for Kicks sees golden-haired, 16-year-old Mod ace face Spike Spellane scooter into and out of adventures on his Lambretta. The year is 1962 and the setting is the Mod equivalent of Axis Mundi, where East London meets Essex, a place forever enshrined in the minds of Mods who scootered around there at the time.
Spike is a good guy gone a bit dodgy: the money for his groovy threads, nights out with his girlfriend Paulette and flash lifestyle have his friends and parents scratching their heads and wondering where on earth he gets it from. The tricky answer is that he gets his readies from dealing amphetamines, the fuel which partly powered many Mod nights on the dancefloor and combative capers on the seafront.
Spike weaves his way into and out of the Soho music and drugs scene, a troubled love life and, like many tales about the young warrior, feels the push-pull of the expectations of his loved ones and desire for adventures in the wider world. Of course, not all coming-of-age stories feature a mixture of real and imaginary characters: here they include Mod overlord Steve Marriott (real) and Deptford-based drug lord Eddie Emmons (fictional), deeply dodgy hustler Lucky Gordon (real) and Psycho Gordon, musician and associate of Georgie Fame (real). The myth of a young person (particularly a young man) making his way in the incredibly tricky world after pulling away from his childhood home is an often-told one, and the cast of Living for Kicks, which also include a foppish, secretly gay art teacher, a street preacher and Christine Keeler, are mucked-up archetypes of sorts.
Graphic novels can sometimes feel slightly contrived, owing to having to narrate the story through action shots and speech that sacrifices realism for plot explanation. Such clunky exposition appears, understandably, near the beginning, when Spike explains his home situation, love of scooters and the situation with his wide-eyed girlfriend, who doesn’t know how he makes his money. This soon gives way to the real action, though, which glides along nicely. Spike’s dream of setting up a record label becomes warped by way of drug selling, the shadier side of the music scene, and landing himself in thrall to various underground figures.
The book’s theme of locale sees it using popular British ’60s slang, much of which is still used today in a mutated form. The authors took no chances, and included a glossary at the back of the book. It’s useful for readers on both sides of the Atlantic (“shag bandy” apparently means “bow-legged from too much sex”, “third-class tickets” is “cheap and scruffy”, and there’s the old UK favourites “bollocks”, “pillocks” and “rozzers”). There’s a good bit, which might well cause chuckles in parts of Britain other than the English Midlands, when Spike has to go to the no-Mod’s-land of Birmingham: he can’t make head nor tail of the directions given to him by an old Brummie man when he asks him how to get to the Cedar Club on a drugs errand, and curses his luck at having to be there at all.
There isn’t exactly a rich tradition of graphic novels about Mods, but Living for Kicks thrives alongside The Originals by Dave Gibbons, who did the artwork for Watchmen, and Tobias Dahmen’s Getting Grand, in which the action is transposed into the striking key of German youth culture. It’s the steeliness, and the mixture of real and fictional characters that makes Living for Kicks stand out. The cross-pollination of English author and American illustrator isn’t immediately obvious, but it adds to the fun when you know about it (you can imagine Cross quizzing McCarthy about the meaning of an old scrap of British slang and McCarthy playfully calling Cross a pillock for not knowing).
Living for Kicks will serve as a powerful memory trigger to those who sprinkled talcum powder on the floors of nightclubs, the better to dance to Northern Soul records, after a seaside showdown with the Rockers. It’s authentic enough to educate those who might know nothing about the Mod movement, and has enough action and surprise to make it an entertaining journey of discovery.