Jim McCarthy's passion for the project comes through at times, but it isn't enough to carry an uneven book.
Who Are You? The Life and Death of Keith MoonPublisher: Omnibus
Length: 160 pages
Author: Jim McCarthy
Publication date: 2016-07
If any rock star should be depicted in a graphic novel biography, Keith Moon would be the one. As the longtime drummer for the Who, Moon lived the wild rock 'n' roll lifestyle, while a mythology built up around him that could barely keep up with the reality of his life. It makes sense that Jim McCarthy -- who's previously written graphic novels on the Sex Pistols, Kurt Cobain, Metallica, the Mod scene and more -- would take on Moon's biography. Unfortunately, though, Who Are You? never quite gets the energy or cohesion to adequately tell the story.
McCarthy goes to the proper source, basing his book on Tony Fletcher's Dear Boy (published as Moon in the US). Fletcher's work is not only the definitive take on Moon, it's also a model of rock biography, managing to combine deep research with effective examination of a complicated figure with engaging writing. The trick for McCarthy and artist Marc Olivent would be to figure out how to find the core storyline through that massive work and present it in a direct, complete manner.
McCarthy's introduction delineates a wise approach in limiting his focus to just three areas, but Moon's drumming, his potential ADHD, and his addictive personality are simply too broad, and at least some of these are difficult to capture in the short bursts of a dense graphic novel. The first half of the book struggles to lay the groundwork. Too much of what should be shown is provided in drab narration or worse, in characters thinking the thoughts McCarthy wants us to know about them, as when Moon looks out of the page and thinks, “I'm a boy... I'm like a boy... a young kid.”
The book suffers from this problem throughout. Characters too often look to the reader and think or say things that should be demonstrated. At times it feels undeveloped, and at other times it feels like a bad take on a documentary (or even a fake documentary, like The Office). These moments not only show limited writing, but they break the flow of the story. Everything frequently comes to a halt so the characters can tell us what we need to know.
The early pages are difficult to get through because of this issue, and a related one. McCarthy and Olivent haven't quite out how to take advantage of the comics medium to tell the story in a particular way. Too much of Who Are You? reads like a captioned slide show. Instead of creative visual storytelling, we get a serious of pages or even panels that depict an event and then skip to the next event. That model might work better if the characters didn't have dialogue like: “Hi, my name is Keith. I am crazy about the drums.” As it is, the first portion of the book makes for a very trying read.
Storytelling issues aside, the art mostly works. Olivent has a knack for clean drawing and accurate portrayals. Moon could look joyful more often -- we don't see the childlike glee that emanated from him so often -- but here is visage is expressive. The work is too dark, though. Somewhere between the inking and the coloring, the art became too drab. Young Moon and the Mod stuff should be bursting with color. The story would be better served by a pop art look, and that would also allow for a contrast as Moon enters his decline (or even between Moon as goofy prankster and Moon as self-destructive addict).
Fortunately, the second half of the book picks up. With fewer tidbits to try to cram in and with more comfort in lettings the characters and the story move themselves, McCarthy and Olivent create a work that moves well. We still have too much explained to us and the writing is still clunky, but the pacing picks up as the Who's career takes off and Moon's personal ups and downs became even more dramatic.
The book opens with Moon's death by accidental overdose on Heminevrin, which he was taking to help get sober, and a small amount of alcohol. By the time the story reaches its end, just before that final night, we get a quick wrap-up of his final stretch (which could have been a potent depiction of complex material). McCarthy ends with a speech by his ill-defined narrator first about the difficulty and sadness of alcoholism connected to Moon's death. It's not touching enough to be emotional, although its directness does carry some resonance, just not enough for a strong finish.
Who Are You? never becomes what it could be. Its accuracy makes it a quick read for someone wanting an overview of Moon's life, but anyone wanting a full take would be better off with Fletcher's work or any of a number of Who / Moon books. This text doesn't offer enough to make the change in medium worth another dip, especially for fans who likely know Moon's story. McCarthy's passion for the project does come through at times, but it isn't enough to carry an uneven book.