Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me

In a way, this should also be a "Swansea Find" post, like the ones I have been making for the last couple of weeks. (I still have one left to make, but I'm not done with everything I want to read before I write it.) I went into a big chain bookstore in Swansea, hoping they would have a copy of Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe, which hasn't been released yet in the States. Alas, their "graphic novel" section looked pretty much the same as an American one: lots of Marvel Comics, lots of Justice League, a smattering of Dan Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers, mostly jumbled in with the superhero stuff so it'd be hard to find. And Tamara Drewe was nowhere to be found. Posy Simmonds is supposed to be Britain's best-loved cartoonist, but her reputation did not extend to the clerks in this Welsh shopping mall.

What was there, though, much to my surprise, was a copy of Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me: a Teenage (Bohemian) Rhapsody. I don't know why it surprised me. Mike's got a serious publisher in Bloomsbury, and the book would certainly have plenty of appeal in the U.K.. It's just that, because I first saw (and bought) the book at MoCCA, where Mike and his wife were selling copies personally, it seemed impossible that one would wash up so far from home.

I finally read it this week. Freddie & Me is a really personal book, a memoir of the author's lifelong attachment to the band Queen. (Well, it's not literally lifelong: he shows us the moment when he first hears a Queen song. But there's not much of his life before that in the book, and Dawson is a "superfan" almost from day one.)

My reaction to the book also turns out to be personal: as I was reading, I was thinking about my own childhood, the way I would listen to Beatles records over and over in my room, the first Talking Heads album I ever owned, my total devotion to Talking Heads when I was in high school, and other assorted memories. There probably aren't very many people who share Dawson's level of devotion to Queen—though every one of those people surely should buy this book—but most of us had some sort of intense teenage devotion, the sort of thing so intense that it shaped your sense of who you were. That's really what this book is about.

Freddie & Me manages to deliver both the manifest awesomeness of Queen and the patent absurdity of an elementary-school boy who has given his soul to them, or a high-school boy whose emotional life is wrapped around the band he loves. In fact, sometimes it gives us both of these things (the sublime and the ridiculous) at the same time, in a way that seems totally appropriate to Queen. Here, for example, is the young Mike Dawson, partway through a routine at a talent show in which he proposed to sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" a cappella.

(As with all the images from Freddie & Me, this one needs to be click-and-enlarged.)

Dawson never says this, but I get the feeling that the mustachioed emcee is ushering him offstage to protect the young boy's dignity. It's precisely the sort of performance an un-self-conscious kid can take seriously, but which for a teenager or an adult feels more like a memory we'd like to repress. Reading this sequence both made me want to download "Bohemian Rhapsody" and made me mildly queasy thinking about some talent shows in my distant past.

When Mike comes to America (to New Jersey, from a childhood in Leighton Buzzard), he makes Queen fans of most of his friends, but he's still (of course) the original high priest. When someone praises Queen, he feels it as a compliment; when someone knocks the new album, he flinches. At one point, overwhelmed by adolescent loneliness, he imagines himself leaping onto a cafeteria table and bursting into song, which opens onto a two-page splash so awesome and grotesque that I couldn't fit it all on my scanner:

Again, I want to listen to this song; again, I'm totally squeamish thinking about my own adolescence. (Thanks, Dawson.)

When Freddie Mercury dies, Dawson has to excuse himself from class. He can't keep himself together. This sequence rings really true, too, and when the book ends with him mourning one of his relatives, it's natural to look back on this extremity of emotion and make comparisons. Losing Freddie Mercury, for the teenaged Dawson, was at least as big a blow as losing kin. Thankfully he finds a safe place at school to do his grieving. (I've cut out one page from this sequence, but please click and read.)

I love the way that he's overwhelmed with emotion but also knows that it's "so stupid" to be feeling so much for a stranger. That says a lot about the awakening of adulthood in the teenage mind, and about the way that when we are figuring out who we are, our devotions are just as personal as anything "real."

It might be surprising that a straight guy would write a book about his early identification with Freddie Mercury, since Mercury became such an icon of the gay community, especially after his death and during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Dawson is careful, I think, to put his wife in the very first panel of the book, and to point out that when he first heard that Freddie Mercury had AIDS, he "was actually surprised to hear in the radio broadcast that he was gay." He doesn't avoid the fact of Mercury's homosexuality, and he doesn't flinch from it, but it's obviously not important to his own sense of connection with Mercury and Queen.

(When young Michael sees his first Queen video, with Mercury in drag singing "I Want to Break Free," his mother says, "Yes, he's a funny man, isn't he, Michael," not obviously worried about her son's response, but obviously understanding more of the implications of word and image there than he does.)

In the end, though Freddie & Me is much less about Queen in particular, or even teenaged super-fandom, than it is about the way that music in particular can nestle into our memories and attach to them, building complicated associations of emotion and meaning that are both deeply personal and always available on compact disc. The book's final rumination on this sort of "soundtrack" memory is really moving and really smart.

I'm glad that the book goes there. There are moments in Freddie & Me when you can tell that it's a first graphic novel—places where the characters get a little off-model, or where the writing is a little too overt, or where the cartooning invites a comparison (to, for example, Joe Sacco) that it can't quite sustain—but I think this book is a hell of a lot smarter, and a good deal more moving, than most first graphic novels. I didn't know Mike Dawson had it in him. Now I'm really looking forward to whatever comes next.

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