Review by Frank Plowright
Consult the Billboard Book of Top 40 Singles and you’ll discover Redbone had just a pair of top forty hits separated by two years. The later of them, 1974’s Come and Get Your Love, has enjoyed a new lease of life since being featured in the retro soundtrack accompanying the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. Only two of the seven albums released between 1970 and 1977 rate higher than two stars on Allmusic.com, and much the same verdict was reached by the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide. So why would French creators produce a graphic novel about them in 2019? Well, sometimes the records don’t tell the entire story.
Seen as a novelty at the time, Redbone’s members were all Native American, yet that’s not always the way the band saw themselves. Their story is primarily as told by Pat Vegas, the surname he and brother Lolly adopted as being more glamorous than Vasquez, and in an era where any kind of ethnicity troubled the pure white American record and radio companies, Redbone allied themselves with Native American activism. They spoke out against prejudice in Minnesota where a third of prison inmates were Native American when only one percent of the general population was, and played for other causes.
Thibault Balahy takes a very loose approach to the art, switching style slightly according to what’s under the spotlight. The band’s evolution is half-heartedly presented as a series of old comics, while a more respectful black and white inked style is used for historical events. These are more traditionally drawn, and much neater than the musical pages which have an eccentric placement of images as if to pad out an otherwise short book.
Co-writers Christian Staebler and Sonia Paolini don’t have much experience writing comics, although Staebler has published a three volume history of the medium, and theirs is a patchwork approach. Given that Redbone’s story and Native American history is narrated by Pat Vegas to his children, his co-operation is obvious, and it makes one wonder how far he shaped the format. There’s a disclaimer noting his memories and opinions may differ from others, and while taking a broad tour through the band’s career, it never adds any depth to the basic facts, and takes diversions into betrayals of Native Americans. It covers both historical atrocities and more modern events such as the siege at Wounded Knee, which inspired a song suppressed in the USA but a big European hit.
Staebler writes about his admiration for Redbone in an afterword, explaining how The True Story of a Native American Rock Band came about. His sincerity isn’t in doubt, and there’s the germ of a story, but the book fails. It’s not greatly satisfying for fans of the band because it’s bare bones, while only an appetiser when it comes to the wrongs perpetuated against Native Americans.