Andrew Rae's Moonhead and the Music Machine falls into a quasi-amorphous category I'll call flowerchild folderol, the kind of small hour wisdom where 'two paths,' 'the long run' and 'time to change the road you're on' resonate as deep and meaningful. It makes me wonder, maybe. I don't know.
At its most charming moments (there are several) Moonhead and the Music Machine plays like a forgettable episode of 'Regular Show' or 'Adventure Time,' but far prettier. Spoiler if you haven't read the title to this comic: Moonhead has a moon for a head. If the lighthearted goofiness of that joke lands — a moon landing, sorry — carry on to the next 'graph, if not, c'est la vie which is Belgian, I think, for this comic is really very O.K.
The titular Moonhead is a misunderstood garden-variety-head-in-the-heavens-artist-type. He's ignored by his parents (each of whom also have moons for heads, natch) and bullied at school. Moonhead — which acts as both sobriquet and surname, his Christian name is Joey — also has the requisite one friend, a 'his girl Friday' sort named Sockets [insert joke here]. Sockets's smarts and craftiness — think Tina Belcher without the post-modern ennui — cuts the treacle of Joey's dopey dreamer routine. Damn, that's some whoa-is-me-why-can't-this-thing-be-like-another-thing-critical-crybaby-bullshit (and in consecutive paragraphs no less!).
So what if a side character in graphic novel from a boutique publisher (albeit one with superior production values) doesn't have the same spunk as some mass market or basic cable channel cartoon aimed at kids and stoners? Meme-wise, Moonhead and the Music Machine represents one of those nice things we're always told we can't have because we prefer what's safe i.e. sequels and reboots as opposed to what's original or novel. And that's the (first world) problem with MatMM which is to say there is no problem.
Rae's story exhibits an enviable but pedestrian efficiency; a simple zero-to-hero story that's plenty polite as to not rile the neighbors or cause anyone to have to put the kids and pets to bed early. Rae sets the silliness at a sociable two, three with a push. When Rae does let his freak flag fly the reader gets a playful PG-13 sequence where Joey fantasizes about the unattainable girl he crushes on, Melissa. In his fantasy, they canoodle while in the background turtles and deer, butterflies and bees do it. It's clever, sweet and a little naughty without being dull. It takes a chance whereas the rest of the story is … just … fine, but lacks the brio of that turtle on turtle action.
God knows the Comics marketplace needs more of this kind of irony-free slyness and subtlety. Nowadays there's a lot of homogeneous dross — especially in monthly indie comics that rhyme with Image, IDW and Dark Horse — that wraps itself in the flag of originality and carries the cross of creator-owned. Bully for self-expression and creator rights, but take a look at the LCS shelves and be overwhelmed by the sameness. Whether readers need another high-concept sci-fi comic about a team of survivors set in some dystopic future or more genre mash-ups (and don't get me started on superheroes) is beside the point. Where are the gibes, gambols and songs? Where have all the funny books gone? Publishers like Nobrow need to build the bulwark against the merely mediocre, beat back the bland bullshit and above all, not go floppy. Maybe, Moonhead and the Music Machine isn't the place to draw the line. Maybe it's O.K. to be, well, O.K.? The spirit of MatMM says different. Enough of this, let's get to the fireworks factory.
Like the fantasy sequence, Rae's strongest work leans more to the illustrative moments in Moonhead rather than the straight-up cartooning. When Rae lets his imagination go, so does Joey. When Joey's head floats away, Rae amuses the reader with reveries, incredible images like ''the end of the universe, the depth of the sea [and] the heart of the jungle.'' Again, this kind of playfulness brings a welcome lightness and creativity (perhaps by design) to what is an otherwise grounded teenage drama.
After Joey goes through some coming-of-age boilerplate (a school assembly that includes an invocation copped from a Bertrand Russell quote (alright?) and an uncomfortable parent teacher conference) he lucks into some records and a turntable. Rae shows off his gifts as he riffs off well-known album covers in a gorgeous sequence about the power of music and the potency of comics to show (pictures) without the need to tell (words). This escape provides all the inspiration Joey needs.
Somewhere there's a Venn diagram that shows comic book creators and comic book characters that create. This maker movement in comics seems to always involve the cartoonist-first-writer-second-type. Go figure. Joey neither owns nor knows how to play an instrument. This doesn't stop him because (as he sees it) the goal is to keep from being an automaton with a moon for a head. When Sprockets chides him for not caring about getting good grades, Joey says it doesn't matter since [he'll] ''probably start a band or something and tour the world.'' Or something. When Sprockets reminds him ''he'll need a real instrument first,'' he replies, ''I'll just make one.'' Groan.
In order to compete in the school's talent show, because High School, Joey builds what looks like a steampunk keytar sans the Victorian accents. It's charming in the same way Charlie Brown's Halloween costume is charming; A for effort, D- for execution, but Rae wants the reader to cheer because, 'yeah, he made something.' A DIY ethic is a rare and wonderful thing, but as any handy Emmanuel or crafty Emmanuelle knows, the desire to do so is only half the battle, whatever gets made is only a prelude to the real (hard) work. Rae shows our intrepid dreamer as he 'spllaaoghs,' 'splizzgggs' and 'skkrrns' as he tries to master his instrument, so effort, but where, when and how do good intentions become something more? What does it look like? Rae seems to say it's supernatural and maybe it is.
Like that July 6 afternoon when the Quarrymen play St Peter's Church, Woolton and the wheel of fate begins to 'Love Love Me Do,' it's not until Joey meets Ghost Boy (oddly the only other non-human character in the book) that things start to happen. Rae pins everything in Moonhead on Ghost Boy. Read one way Ghost Boy is a deus ex machina, read another way, a symbol for the hard work of creation, maybe. By the end, even Rae can't decide. It's another compromise and a (musical) bridge too far. A craftsman of Rae's caliber knows dues before blues.
Maybe I'm the wrong demographic for Moonhead and the Music Machine. Maybe I should celebrate the joy and write about how Joey's music like some Kafkaesque hit of nitrous literally transforms some of their fellow students into polyhedrons, blobs, eyeball tubas and long-necked ziti with arms and legs and be happy. As with another Nobrow offering, The Adventures of Leeroy and Popo, there's something to be said for championing big-hearted innocent dumbass characters and meeting the work and the artist at its (his) own level; however, with a talent like Rae and a publisher like Nobrow Press, safe shouldn't answer, tame doesn't buy that stairway to heaven. Go further. Show the work.