Written by J. Torres
Illus. by Scott Chandler
Oni Press, 2003.
I slipped this one off the Library shelf, my eye caught by a cover with three young black women on it. 1960s isn’t a fascination for me as a general rule, music included, but I was curious. That it is J. Torres and Oni Press, didn’t hurt. Shall I just get it out of the way and say: I liked it.
It is the early 1960s and recent divorcee Anna Solomon is about to strike out on her own in her ex-husband’s world: the music business. She isn’t the only one launching her career. A fresh young female song writer is looking to sell her work where she can, and three high school singers are starting out where many do: the church choir and a school talent show. Its just good timing that the three paths should intersect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be easy.
Ben (the ex-brother-in-law: So I hear the little divorcee is starter her own record company.
Anna: With those ears, I imagine you can hear rhinos mating in Africa.”
Ben: Do you have any idea what it takes to run a record company?
Anna: I’ve been watching you Solomon Brothers do it for years. Learned what to do from Abe, what not to do from you.
Ben: Well, won’t you be surprised when it turns out to be more complicated than making meatloaf or starching a shirt…
Nice, guy, huh?! but such is the attitude with which Anna is confronted. Time is another conflict. Launching a record label and organizing a young up-and-comer is time consuming. Her daughter Ruth, who is the reason Anna was at that talent show, makes the introduction to lead singer Christina and her trio before fading into the background, reminded that if she gets hungry, they are well-stocked in frozen dinners. Illustrator Scott Chandler relates most of that story by placing and not forgetting a Ruth left behind and trying to negotiate her parent’s divorce and mother’s new career on her own. It is a testament to the book that Anna doesn’t come off as looking like an absolute villain; plenty has to do with her other admirable traits; much of it has to do with writer J. Torres’ decision not to moralize in that direction—and he doesn’t have to, you can sense an equilibrium of consequences in the offing… No, the stern frown is directed toward those conservative cultural notions that prove destructive (including self-).
Christina is the “Tina” of “the Tiaras,” and she dreams of being a star. We learn that she dreams this primarily through her mother who is valiant in her defense and encouragement of Christina signing with Anna. Her opposition? her husband Luther who thinks the choir should be the extent of his daughter’s ambitions, to say nothing of his feelings about the hell dimension that is the music world.
Have you heard about this Little Richard character? The man who wears make-up? Only man I know wears make-up is a clown! And then there’s Elvis! Stealin’ black folks’ music and gyratin’ on the TV, making all the young girls lose their heads… and speaking of young girls, what about Jerry-Lee-what’s-his-name marrying his teenage cousin!
And there is no convincing him after he finds out they’ve taken the “Christ” out of “Tina.” Even so, it is a study in marital dynamics the way two very determined parents pursue what they think is best for their child; especially the mother—who is finally fed up talking around one of the central issues in the story. What is a concern other than dreams? money. She is going to see to it her daughter will rise out of poverty and if she can do it while doing something she loves? The manipulative tactics may be uncomfortable for some, but for most: all too familiar. However, this is an issue upon which Christina’s mom is willing to take risks. All the women in the Days Like This have reached a decisive moment (Christina on the cusp) and prove self-determining.
The third path, which is actually the first one we meet, is Karen Prince age 17 and a go-getter in her own right. Along with the “Tiaras” (who are brilliant), she makes up the lighter, more comedic moments—well, when Anna isn’t telling some man what she thinks, that is. Karen bridges Anna’s boldness and Christina’s youth. She has just sold her first song with persistence and happenstance. But she crushes on boys and admits her own father had his doubts when trying to envision her future—a new golf-bag helped. In the end, you understand what Luther and other must: there is no stopping these women.
Not that all the men in the story are discouraging. Anna’s ex does not share his brother’s view of Anna’s capabilities. And Anna has made contacts in a male-dominant industry, with strings she can pull. One resource is a song-writer whom she wants to pair with Karen—as her b-side of the record. Ben, for all his “rat faced” remarks, bought Karen’s first song. And even Luther is complicated by what he is unwilling to say…those manipulative tactics look less manipulative as time passes; the wife is just giving him his plausible deniability—until she is no longer willing to give him that.
The artwork, all in black and white, is reminiscent of the 60’s if not earlier. There is a nice balance of text and illustrated expression; engaging and easy to follow. Torres references ‘60s culture, but most of the historical weight is in Chandler’s clean-lined renderings. And while Torres tries to off-set the serious with quick wit, Chandler provides his own sense of well-timed humor. Days Like This is a beautifully plotted out piece in form.
That the story is set in the ‘60s creates a nice conversation about that time in our country and in the music of the times; however, plenty of it still resonates today. Women and men both are faced with difficult decisions under the pressures of a lot of cultural baggage. The development of the girl’s image (weight, song choice) are abbreviated allusions any reader of the present will pick up on and connect with.
The story is a quick read, Torres choosing his moments carefully. The book ends as Tina and the Tiaras are properly launched, however it creates enough momentum behind a positive trajectory that you understand how it will all play out for our protagonists. The optimism isn’t in the present day reader, but in the characterization of the women (and men) in story.