Released 2010, David Prudhomme’s critically acclaimed, award-winning Rébétiko (la mauvaise herbe) is a celebration of the early 20th-century Greek tradition of urban music later united under that umbrella term. The story takes place over the course of a day in Athens, October 1936, a few months into the military regime of Ioannis Metaxas. It follows the actions of four musicians, all of whom are based on actual legends of rebetiko.

Their hashish-driven, devil-may-care lifestyle is fully congruent with later rock ‘n’ roll-archetypes, and is given an acute edge by their dislocation from the new political order. Targets of suspicion and subject to censorship by the authorities for their subversive lyrics and Ottoman-derived music, they become romantic anti-establishment figures for Prudhomme. The story thus shows them in conflict with the police, with the gangsters sharing their immediate environment and with capitalism in the form of an American A&R man hoping to record and preserve their unique music for a mass audience.

Prudhomme has been a rising star on the French scene of late, experiencing a breakthrough with La Marie en plastique (2006-2008), a Catholic piece of somewhat prescriptive magical realism written by Pascal Rabaté, which preceded Rébétiko in winning one of the prestigious awards at the Angoulême festival in 2008.

A graduate of the comics school in the same city, he works within the elegant, sensually pleasing style of cartooning promoted there and manifest in a wide variety of French-language comics today. A gifted draftsman and colorist, his most immediate forebear is the distinguished Nicolas de Crécy, with whom he shares certain problems of superficiality.

In Rébétiko, Prudhomme expertly sets the tone, mood and sense of place of any given scene, but although it is well researched and convincing visually, it is not a piece of realist fiction. Applied digitally (though one might not notice), the largely monochromatic color range used for each scene coupled with a propensity for decorative detail—a vase of red peonies, the electric blue flash of a lit hookah, the scarlet of fished octopods fading in the sun—make for a highly aestheticized vision, a postcard from a time that never was rather than a documentary effort.

Like de Crécy, Prudhomme is also skilled at characterization—he captures well affection and tension between characters, expressing their moods, attitudes and thoughts through slightly caricatured but accurately observed facial expressions and a precise use of gesture. They look and behave on the page like real people, but simultaneously lack insight on a deeper, psychological level.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem of the book. While clear about its ambition to be romance rather than realism, it fails in its more complex aspiration to do justice to the music embodied in its characters. Prudhomme ultimately resorts to the tired clichés of rebellious creation, playing the imperfections of his characters—one is a violent desperado, another an unstable drug addict, and another a murderer—for their cool, rather than using them as openings toward the mercurial emotional life of great music.

Review originally published on in July 2010.