It’s not difficult to understand why the Red Army Faction, a leftist revolutionary sect that was founded in Germany in 1970 and existed in various forms for nearly 30 years, has inspired so many books, films, plays, songs, paintings, and other works of art. Young, politically minded people banding together under charismatic leadership, the journalist who puts her ideals into practice and co-founds the group, the campaign of violence, prison break, subsequent arrest and final fate of the leaders – the story is an a la carte menu for any kind of statement you’d want to make. And largely because of that appeal, it’s also easy to romanticize the group, and gloss over the consequences of the violent acts attributed to the them, which include 34 deaths. Even Uli Edel’s 2008 film The Baader-Meinhoff Complex, which effectively charts the group’s violent pathology, can’t resist a bit of mythologizing.
Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Jim Rugg’s graphic novel One Model Nation, originally published by Image Comics in 2009 and now republished by Titan Books, attempts a corrective to that dynamic, presenting the RAF as a frustration in the lives of four musicians who are trying to progress to the next stage of their career. But none of the criticism levied against the RAF, and Andreas Baader in particular, by the main characters amounts to anything more than insults like “assholes” and “turd.” They seem more concerned that their young fans’ sympathy with the gang has ruined some of their gigs and attracted unwanted police attention than with the RAF’s ideology, or the bombings and killings they commit. As an indictment of violent political action Taylor-Taylor’s story is toothless; it doesn’t fare much better as an account of a mythical band’s glory days.
One Model Nation begins with a framing sequence set in the present, in which an American documentarian meets with Olaf, a former member of the German art rock band Werkstatt, the subject of his next film. He’s unable to help, but the director presses ahead, asking “what really happened to the band called One Model Nation?” You’d be forgiven for assuming that Olaf would play some pivotal role in the flashback that makes up the rest of the story, but neither Olaf nor Werkstatt are mentioned again until the final pages, when we return to the framing sequence for a non sequitur ending. This kind of elided storytelling continues throughout the book, such that it feels like Taylor-Taylor is deliberating leaving details out, as if to preempt accusations that he’s holding his reader’s hands. But there’s a difference between expecting readers to think and engage with the text, and preventing them from doing so by excising important story elements.
The flashback takes us to Berlin in 1977, when One Model Nation is an apparently internationally popular krautrock band in the Kraftwerk vein, who are tormented by both the RAF and the police. During a meeting with a local promoter, the band is faced with two options: appeal to the West German government to get the police off their case, or play at an illegal festival in Frankfurt. They can’t come to a decision, but soon it doesn’t matter because one of their numbers, Sebastian, leaves the group after their specially-equipped studio is destroyed during a police raid. The remaining members tinker with electronics and meet David Bowie while Sebastian spends time in the countryside with his elderly father, a former Nazi officer, who convinces him to return to the group and face his frustration with the deterioration of society. The group eventually decides to play the festival, but an encounter with Badder, Ulrike Meinhoff, and their former roadie who’s become a full-fledged RAF member, lands them all in prison.
As a central tension, deciding whether to keep it real or sell out isn’t particularly compelling, especially when it’s already been established that One Model Nation is famous in Germany, England, the United States, and elsewhere. Taylor-Taylor inexplicably begins the story after the more interesting conflicts that arise in stories about mythical bands/artists have already resolved, and ends before a compelling mystery or ambiguity about the characters is established. The sound of the band’s music is never addressed, either – fans of bands like Kraftwerk and Can probably have an idea, but anyone uninitiated in krautrock would be largely in the dark (Note: Taylor-Taylor – the frontman of the Dandy Warhols – is releasing music under the name “One Model Nation” to accompany the Titan reissue, which is a fun marketing idea, but it doesn’t really solve the problems raised by the text. The songs I’ve listened to are ok.) The answer to “what really happened to the band One Model Nation” turns out to be “nothing, really,” and as the plot returned to the framing sequence I wasn’t sure why the question had been asked in the first place.
It’s often difficult to distinguish the members of One Model Nation from one another, with the exception of Sebastian, as their surface personality quirks (Ralf is sheepish, Wolfgang is outgoing) come and go as the scene dictates, and their dialogue is mostly interchangeable. Artist Jim Rugg makes an effort to differentiate them through facial features, but still, they’re all tall, thin, and pale with long dark hair (except Wolfgang) – it wasn’t until 2/3rds of my way through the book that I felt comfortable pinning names, much less motivations and personalities, to the characters.
Taylor-Taylor’s depiction of Ulrike Meinhoff as Sebastian’s vapid, easily manipulated ex-girlfriend is particularly deplorable. When we first encounter Meinhoff she is faking the sounds of sex from inside her apartment to prevent Sebastian from knocking on her door – in the afterward we learn that this actually happened to Taylor-Taylor, but does such behavior square with the historical Meinhoff? Later they meet in a café, and in response to Sebastian’s rambling about the nature of mankind, Meinhoff can only say “I really love you” and “I’m bummed we never could get it together.” Couple that with Taylor-Taylor’s description of Meinhoff in the Titan edition’s backmatter as a “left-wing political journalist with the facial structure of a bull terrier” and “German radical left-winger she-beast” and it’s clear that One Model Nation’s gender politics are retrograde (and I haven’t even mentioned the sexy punk rocker who only shows up in the final act to dispense some exposition and act as a romantic interest for Wolfgang).
Plot and characterization problems aside, Jim Rugg’s art is gorgeous, particularly his detailed views of the Berlin cityscape. There’s a sense of location, both geographically and temporally, in every panel – little touches with clothes, cars, hairstyles, and other signifiers of the late 70s reveal the care and precision in Rugg’s disarmingly simple linework. He sticks to a nine-panel grid for most of the story, which drags the pace down a bit, particularly in dialogue heavy scenes that might play better in larger panels, but does set up some nice surprise moments when the grid is broken, particularly a stunning explosion and the few concert sequences that convey the excitement and energy of a One Model Nation show. Colorist Jon Fell also deserves praise for the palette of grays, browns, and whites that give the book a quiet, subdued feel, and the moments of shocking color that accompany major plot points.
There’s an interesting story in the intersection of competing youth-oriented cultures, but One Model Nation is a few drafts away from really telling it. It’s revealing that Taylor-Taylor originally conceived of the story as a screenplay, and only adapted it into a comic after it failed to gain momentum with producers and directors – comic scripts and screenplays suit different purposes, and one can’t and shouldn’t just replace the other. That Taylor-Taylor’s friend, indie comic stalwart Mike Allred, guided that transition is encouraging, but I can’t sense his expertise in the final product. One Model Nation is a beginning writer’s good effort, but is ultimately disappointing.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]