Old Punks Never Die

They just squint while reading the small print in this great new comics anthology

Aging punks may be Too Tough to Die, but it’s possible they’ll have trouble making out some of the tinier handwritten print in this comics anthology from Bird Cage Bottom Books.

That’s my harshest criticism, and it has more to do with the ravages of time than any of the 45 original autobiographical comics editors J.T. Yost and Haleigh Buck have assembled in this whopping 306-pager.

It’s so fresh that the contributors created many of the entries during the pandemic. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 also register prominently.

There’s also plenty of looking backward. As varied as the contributors’ punk origin stories are, certain universals emerge.

Almost all of them trace their interest to a moment of teenage awakening: a new friend with no fucks to give, a song unlike anything they’d ever heard. It’s refreshing to see so many published perspectives of Black punks, given how frequently people present the sub-culture as something overwhelmingly white.

Chris L. Terry, a self-described “armchair punk” in his 40s, spent his formative years in the shadow of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, and uses his final panel to send love to the new generation tearing down things that “once seemed immovable”, like Confederate monuments and the white supremacist infrastructure. Punk, he writes, has gotten cooler since he was an active young participant. “There’s a lot more space in the scene for people who aren’t just straight, cis, white boys.

Fred Noland depicts his poor, devoutly religious, country-and-western-listening, Southern  Black parents looking distressed and disapproving as he heads out the door to a punk show. (“Where they came from, a “punk” was something else entirely…Not that the reality would sound any more sensible.”)

Ayti Krali’s Mohawked younger self pops up with a furious “FOO-PSSH!” to take him to task for his meek resistance of the colonial Jeffersonian theme chosen by higher ups at the federally-funded garden job where he puts his advanced degree in agriculture to good use. (“Physical labor is undervalued and the obviously white gaze makes it more embarrassing,” the Mohawked young specter argues, offering a roll of toilet paper to encourage Krali’s current incarnation to “do what the birds do” and “shit on the enslaver’s interpretive signage.”)

Confrontations with younger selves are an understandably frequent occurrence, given the visual possibilities of the format and the inevitable evolution toward adult responsibilities.

Robb Mirsky is stuck in traffic, blasting “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie at the behest of his children, when his younger self materializes in the passenger seat to berate him for “selling out.” The older Mirsky counters that things change and people grow, though he still subscribes to certain punk teachings, like the importance of community, hard work, and supporting small business.

“Who even are you?!” his younger self yelps, demanding a dropoff to bum smokes at the coffee shop.

One of my favorite comics, Eva Müller’s Still Punk, focuses less on the judgments of her less than sober younger self (“You’re a boring bourgeois!”) than those of a youthful trio seated on the sidewalk with their dog, begging for change.  Their contempt is palpable, but Müller can’t stop herself from going up to them, her eyeballs beaming hearts, her toothy smile perceived by them (and drawn by her) as something akin to a skeleton’s rictus.

When she worries that they didn’t like her, her partner laughingly suggests it’s because she looks like “a hipster version” of their mother. Rather than keep her distance, she returns bearing a gift of her old tapes, t-shirts, and zines. Connection created, she goes on her way, leaving her young friends to burrow through the box of “mega cool” stuff… and conclude that she is still “kind of creepy…and old.”

What constitutes old here is up for debate, as the contributors to Too Tough To Die span roughly three generations. Haley Simone Potter graduated from the Pratt Institute in 2017, for Chrissakes!

Sophie Crumb, one of the more widely known artists in the book, remembers being in awe of the New York City street kids she met in 2004, and the scary adventures they recounted, one of which involved losing a leg while hopping a freight train.

Hey, I remember that story too! I read about it in an autobiographical Drawn Together comic her parents, R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, created for The New Yorker, the one wherein they visit her in a Lower East Side squat, cringing in horror at the squalid conditions (and their daughter’s superior attitude.) Now Sophie depicts herself strolling contentedly down a country lane (“I’m old and just want to be in nature and be healthy n’ shit…”) as her own child agitates to go to NYC and “dumpster dive Dunkin Donuts like you did!!”

Self-acceptance is hard won in this realm, though most of the contributors seem to have achieved a version of it, no longer sweating whether or not they’re punk enough to pass muster with the punker-than-thou crowd.

I loved a presumably satirical panel by Liz Prince, in which she presents herself to a librarian in the pre-Internet age to ask, “Do you have any books on which punk bands are cool and which mean you’re a poser?”

Younger readers looking to arm themselves with tips in this vein would do well to refer to the contributors’ bios, or at the very least, take notes on all the bands, zine makers, and community spaces name-checked in the comics themselves.

But my advice is not to get too hung up on all that. Most of the contributors seem to share Prince’s mature outlook:

I’ll never tell anybody that their version of punk isn’t valid.

And there’s no shame in relying on a pair of drugstore readers to help aging eyes decipher the odd line or two of tiny print.

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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

One thought on “Old Punks Never Die

  • November 30, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    What a great looking book. Just bought it — and I’ll note that the publisher is including a “free set of risograph prints of endpaper artwork by Danny Hellman.” I grew up on his punk illos. And I only wish the librarian had a book to teach which bands were for posers — it woulda saved me a lot of aggravation!


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