Sydney To

Review by

Punk rock has Black origins. This fact is at the heart of James Spooner’s 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk, which fostered a global movement of punk youth from Black and minority backgrounds. In Spooner’s graphic memoir, The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere., he recounts his first encounter with 1990s punk culture in Apple Valley, a dusty, rural town in Southern California. As the angsty biracial skateboarding son of a white single mom, Spooner discovered that the alternative scene could be for kids like him, and this punk community offered him a refuge from his troubled home life and Apple Valley’s widespread racism.

Although Spooner first saw punk as a commodified style, amounting to nothing more than the latest records and edgy leather jackets, he came to recognize how this aesthetic functioned as an armor to conceal his own vulnerabilities: “This was more than a haircut; it was a way to take control over the teasing and slurs, all of which I internalized. Punk rock helped to set me apart from all the things I hated.” As Spooner met more people from the punk community, his understanding of punk likewise developed in more productive directions. He learned that punk doesn’t have to be limited to cynicism, nihilism and self-destructiveness. Rather, the energy of punk can be directed toward political resistance, community building and intersectionality. 

Throughout The High Desert, the voice of an older Spooner punctuates the narrative through analeptic black text boxes, offering historical context and a sophisticated political perspective (which Spooner’s younger self lacks) while acknowledging the authenticity of his teenage self’s frustration and isolation. Characters’ racist language isn’t censored; instead, Spooner’s older voice comments on it, imbuing The High Desert with important self-critical realism.

The High Desert reclaims punk on behalf of Blackness and does so with electric style. Lyrics intermittently zigzag across the panels, the background is always dynamic with life, and the characters’ facial expressions are riven with wrinkles, frowns and shadows. Spooner’s unorthodox coming-of-age story is a visual and musical achievement.

The High Desert reclaims punk on behalf of Blackness and does so with electric style.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features