Last week I criticized Broodhollow for ignoring the realities of American racism in the 1930s. This week I’m going to praise Rock and Riot for ignoring the realities of American racism in the 1950s. What gives??
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do historical anachronism. The aforementioned Broodhollow does it wrong: shoehorning black characters into the sidelines of the comic as the barest nod to diversity, then avoiding any mention of Jim Crow, segregation, or bigotry out of laziness, rather than a deliberate and purposeful storytelling choice. Rock and Riot, on the other hand, leaves period racism (and other forms of discrimination) out for a completely different reason: fun!
Not every period piece has to be a brutal revisiting of the injustices of yesteryear – that would mean that you can’t have stories with both marginalized protagonists and lighthearted plots. Not to mention that our ideas of “historical accuracy” are colored by modern prejudice and biased against remembering the stories of the oppressed. When a writer writes trans people, queers, and people of color out of the spotlight (or out of existence), they’re supporting that prejudice, but when they write them into that spotlight, even in situations that might conflict with contemporary notions of bygone eras, they’re combating that prejudice – and that’s more important than “accuracy”.
Connie, one of the protagonists of the Rock and Riot, is a black queer girl who leads an all-girl gang, the Jaquettes. Yes, okay, girl greaser gangs did actually exist in the ’50s – that’s not strictly ahistorical. But they weren’t, generally speaking, integrated or queer-positive, and if they were it would be something extremely noteworthy and at odds with its cultural context. All that crap is a drag! Sometimes you just wanna read about a cute black girl with a leather jacket and a victory roll hairstyle trying in vain to catch the attention of the girl she likes.
Rock and Riot has exactly the right aesthetic: the flash and style of ’50s greaser gangs – pompadours, poodle skirts, muscle cars, and drive-in movies – without any of the ugly trappings of actual ’50s greaser gangs, like racism, misogyny, and homophobia or, you know, a brutal life of crime. All the flavor, none of the guilt!
Okay the homophobia and misogyny are still there, but in a more toothless form. The misogyny is mostly there to fuel the rivalry between the boy gang and the girl gang, and is presented more as individual prejudice than systemic oppression. Homophobia shows up as a way to complicate Clyde’s romantic interest in fellow Roller Gene, creating a comedy of errors as he tries to make a move while still keeping his affections secret. Neither is serious or scary: systems of oppression reduced to feeble bogeymen for the entertainment of readers affected by them in real life. In this way, Rock and Riot is something of a power fantasy – and I’m drunk on it.
Is it a little premature to review a comic that has only 30ish pages to its name? Maybe! But Rock and Riot is already making a splash, with like 500-1000 tumblr notes on every page posted. Not bad for something so new! It’s got a winning formula that opens the greaser genre to characters who could never have been cast in Grease – and to the readers who relate to them. And with the latest arc of the two gangs competing to get nonbinary biker Ace to join them, it seems like it’s going in interesting places in the future!
Final verdict: Check out Rock and Riot for an old fashioned good time!