Comics: Rock and Roll goes supernatural and superfunny in ‘Sing No Evil’

In Sing No Evil, Askel struggles to rock on against the forces of evil. -- image courtesy of Abrams Books
In Sing No Evil, Askel struggles to rock on against the forces of evil. — image courtesy of Abrams Books

In Sing No Evil, a young man named Aksel has lofty aspirations, but faces three problems that threaten his musical career: His girlfriend thinks it’s time he gets serious about school and a career; his bandmates think he’s a terrible lead singer; and he may be destroyed by an evil force summoned by some ancient music with which a rival band has been experimenting.

Finnish comics creators JP Ahonen and KP Alare have crafted a book — the English edition of which was translated by Ahonen — that is by turns witty and scary while remaining captivating to look at throughout. The story develops slowly, beginning with a relationship on the rocks and bickering band members before transitioning into a tale of supernatural horror. The authors lay the groundwork for the shift carefully, but still manage to pull off several surprises late in the book.

A quirky humor pervades Sing No Evil. The members of Perkeros, Aksel’s band, are a case in point. Aksel is an aspiring lead singer with a stuttering problem; the bassist, Kervinen, is much older than his mates and can’t stop relating anecdotes from his past; and the drummer is a bear (literally) who’d rather hibernate than rehearse. Perkeros is rounded out by a keyboardist, Lily, and the pizza delivery guy she taps to be the band’s new lead singer, over Aksel’s strenuous objections. The characters’ eccentricities (if being a bear can be called an eccentricity) are played for laughs, but each character is more than he or she appears to be in the early going.

Ahonen and Alare capture each band member’s personality, as well as the ways in which they argue among themselves but come together when threatened — whether the threat is a simple slight from another musician or something far more sinister. Aksel, in particular, is well-rounded. We feel for him and, at times, dislike him. He’s whiny and gifted, arrogant and uncertain and he’s all the more sympathetic for the complexity.

Image by Abrams Books
Having a bear for a bandmate comes with its own set of challenges. — image by Abrams Books

The characters are illustrated fairly realistically, though with large eyes reminiscent of anime art. Eyes are important signifiers in this story, used to indicate emotion and the ways in which music can transport us for good or ill. The art throughout the book is infused with a warm golden glow. Shifts in tone are indicated in the gutters — the space between the panels — which are sometimes white and other times black. Ahonen and Alare use the effect carefully and in various ways, not simply to indicate imminent evil.

The scenes featuring Perkeros in performance are strikingly dynamic. Off-kilter paneling, close-ups of the band members, glimpses of the audience and lyrics rendered in script combine to bring the music off the page and into the ears of the reader. We are thrust into the thick of the club where the volume is overwhelming, the crowd is amped up on the noise and the band is lost in the moment.

A desperate rescue effort and battle in the woods are also well-handled. The moment is a snapshot of what makes the entire book work, as it is funny and brutal in nearly equal measure. A pizza cutter is wielded as a weapon, Bear enters the fray ferociously and a villain gets his monologue moment. The art and the dialogue crackles through this climactic sequence.

Though the story is thoroughly contemporary, it is underpinned by a story about ancient monks who succumb to the power of a dangerous music. The telling of that tale is a key moment in the book, both for the overall plot and for our understanding of a central character. A clever blending of the ancient and the modern empowers the villains, suggesting — as comics often do — that we are all just one accident or coincidence away from acquiring powers we might use for the general good or our own aggrandizement.

Sing No Evil is a significant accomplishment — both narratively and artistically. Its story, while containing familiar elements, is refreshingly unpredictable, and its artwork rewards careful attention. Readers may well discover that Perkeros is their new favorite band.