Cleveland has always played a sleepy, yet vital role in churning out heroes of modern music: Alan Freed, The Pretenders, the Dead Boys, Devo, Trent Reznor and many more. At the edge of this bright tapestry lies a rough thread: Peter Laughner.
Often hailed as a punk's punk of the 1970s, Laughner walked the path of many of the forefathers of hard rock before he died at the age of 24. He once auditioned to play guitar in the seminal punk band Television and was a member of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu. He wrote for Creem under Lester Bangs. He once put a curse on Devo after they mocked him at a show. He commonly waved a gun around to friends and bandmates. Laughner left behind a handful of recordings, one of which was later covered by Guns n' Roses.
His life, and the many lives that it touched, lay the framework for Ain't It Fun: Peter Laughner & Proto-Punk in the Secret City, a graphic novel that premieres this month from Stone Church Press. The author and artist, Aaron Lange, has spent the last seven years crafting the 450-page book.
Ain't It Fun serves as an epic, sprawling tribute to the rock and roll, raw punk and glittering new wave that descended from the northeastern belt spanning from The Flats of Cleveland to The Bowery of New York City. Its narration includes demigods like Stiv Bators, Cheetah Chrome, and Mark Mothersbaugh. While the popular bands are fun to read about, the book lovingly digs up the tangled roots of the scene with groups like Mr. Charlie, Mirrors, Mr. Stress Blues Band, Tin Huey, The Tree Stumps, The Poor Girls, and The Original Wolverines.
Lange weaves an occult narrative through the history of the Cleveland underground, from magick flourishes in the architecture to the bungled release of over a million balloons. The last chapter goes full industrial pagan; the Cuyahoga River starts to wind like a new serpent god of the grand shadow, a layer of soot and amplifier feedback left in its wake.
Lange will scare you into loving Laughner. You find yourself hypnotized by the pages as they wander off into random, wonderful threads of pop culture: rubber factories, the Torso Killer, Ghoulardi and the heyday of MTV. These short, gleeful bursts of black hole culture make Ain't It Fun feel like a cross between From Hell and the glorious Big Book of graphic novels that Paradox Press put out in the '90s. Each page is an entire hand-drawn poster; the visual style reminiscent of Tony Harris' run on Starman in the 1990s, awash in art deco and inky psychedelia.
The book is best read around 2 in the morning, to pay tribute to all parties involved. It also makes the cursed Indian incantations on page 275 creepier to read. Lange, in his own relation to Laughner, is raw and dangerous and absolutely skilled. He has created a 450-page tome that reads like a rant from a stalker who stayed up all night on a speed bender. In the context of Laughner's own irascible genius, this makes Ain't it Fun a worthy companion. At this point, it is Lange's most expansive work and has the makings of an independent classic.
I was able to interview the artist recently to discuss the release of his new book:
Boing Boing: Ain't It Fun is anchored by the story of Peter Laughner, but is really an ode to the city of Cleveland and its various flashpoints in history. Were there any particular moments that made you think to yourself, "This is something special"?
Lange: I think the subject of Laughner, and what was going on in Cleveland at the time, hasn't been sufficiently addressed or reckoned with. I found myself in a unique position where I was capable of telling a story that really hasn't been fully told, and a story that people want to hear. That's a rare set of circumstances and I suppose you could call that "special."
Boing Boing: Are you prepared for this book to be used as an educational tool? Given the history, maps and research, it may find its way into some college courses. Is the creator of smut zines like Trim and Romp prepared to become an educator?
Lange: I was very careful with my research, but I think the book is far too eccentric and subjective to ever be viewed as academic or scholarly. It was never my intention to write an "authoritative" biography or history, as I don't think an illustrated comic book should even pretend to do such a thing.
As far as the maps, I don't mind saying those are some of my favorite pages. As a kid, I always liked those fictional maps that would appear at the beginning of a fantasy novel, or maps related to video games, things like that. So I was interested in making maps that relate to something real, but they aren't for the typical usage of finding directions. My maps show time and events, not just geography.
Boing Boing: What can we expect for the future, with your own work or Stone Church Press?
Lange: I'll be completing the second volume of my Peppermint Werewolf series, which should be available sometime in 2024. And my publishing partner, Jake Kelly, will be continuing to make new installments of his ongoing series, Death, Destruction, Vice, and Sleaze. We have all manner of other ideas and notions in various stages of development, but it's still too early to spill any tea on those matters. Let's just say that Stone Church Press is my number one priority for the foreseeable future.
Boing Boing: Given the enormity of this project, were there any points when you just wanted to give up?
Lange: Near the halfway point, I stopped and started working backwards— which is to say I started doing some editing and revisions. Little did I know that I would end up spending over a year basically redoing everything. I never felt like giving up, but there were points where I wondered if I was just dithering about and endlessly fiddling. With a little bit of hindsight, I am glad I did those edits and revisions, and believe I was correct in trusting my instincts. So no, I never wanted to give up, and there were spells where I was just utterly consumed with the project, just totally fanatical. It's basically a religious book and I am a religious artist— perhaps faith just comes along naturally with that. I've never really questioned it.
Ain't It Fun: Peter Laughner & Proto-Punk in the Secret City can be ordered here from Stone Church Press.
Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.