You know when a character in a comic wears a band T-shirt and you know the musicians personally? Maybe not – I guess it doesn’t come up all that often. But that’s what happened to me when I first read RUDE GIRL, Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel telling Priscilla Layne’s story. There it is, on page 264 – a Mother’s Pride T-shirt. The first thing I did was take a photo and send it to the former singer, who went out and bought a couple of copies of the German original. The second was to think: Would people want to read this in English?
Back to the comic itself: the author and artist Birgit Weyhe likes telling people’s stories in her work. She’s often drawn to outsiders, or people who have moved between continents like herself, after a childhood in Germany, Uganda and Kenya (as detailed at the beginning of MADGERMANES). Over the years, a number of her fictionalised characters have been Black. But when US academics accused her of appropriating those stories, she was offended.
Then along came the Black German studies professor Priscilla Layne, visiting from the States. What if Weyhe tried to tell her story – but in closer collaboration than usual? The upshot is RUDE GIRL, a graphic novel about growing up feeling different, and finding – at least for a time – a like-minded community through music.
We get Birgit Weyhe’s take on what Priscilla Layne described to her, followed by sections where Layne gives her feedback; perhaps on the choice of colours, perhaps adding more detail or defending a character. In the process, Weyhe takes on her comments and changes things. It’s a fascinating insight into the writing and drawing of a graphic novel. And Layne’s life makes a very interesting subject.
A childhood in Chicago with a single mother from Barbados, a fairly absent Jamaican father, challenges fitting in at school and trouble in the extended family. First discovering German through Indiana Jones, and later discovering ska, reggae and punk. Pursuing an academic career originally inspired by Kafka while battling imposter syndrome – and achieving a whole lot in life. And who better to translate the book of that life than Priscilla Layne herself?
In the meantime, having commissioned and edited that translation, I’ve met Priscilla in person. Our years on the Berlin ska scene didn’t quite overlap, sadly; but our encounter was still warm and friendly, since I felt like I knew her already. It takes guts to tell a story like this, and both Weyhe and Layne have guts aplenty. For music fans, there are album covers, haircuts, outfits, hangovers, and Birgit Weyhe manages to capture the thrill of dancing in an ecstatic crowd in a single image. For everyone else, there’s a fascinating life told in pictures, a tale of how a sense of community buoys us up and gives us joy and confidence.
RUDE GIRL is published on 29 April, but you can pre-order now.