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The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.

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A formative coming-of-age graphic memoir by the creator of Afro-punk: a young man’s immersive reckoning with identity, racism, clumsy teen love and belonging in an isolated California desert, and a search for salvation and community through punk. Apple Valley, California, in the late eighties, a thirsty, miserable desert. Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are A formative coming-of-age graphic memoir by the creator of Afro-punk: a young man’s immersive reckoning with identity, racism, clumsy teen love and belonging in an isolated California desert, and a search for salvation and community through punk. Apple Valley, California, in the late eighties, a thirsty, miserable desert. Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are back in town after years away. The one silver lining—new school, new you, right? But the few Black kids at school seem to be gangbanging, and the other kids fall on a spectrum of micro-aggressors to future Neo-Nazis. Mixed race, acutely aware of his Blackness, James doesn't know where he fits until he meets Ty, a young Black punk who introduces him to the school outsiders—skaters, unhappy young rebels, caught up in the punk groundswell sweeping the country. A haircut, a few Sex Pistols, Misfits and Black Flag records later: suddenly, James has friends, romantic prospects, and knows the difference between a bass and a guitar. But this desolate landscape hides brutal, building undercurrents: a classmate overdoses, a friend must prove himself to his white supremacist brother and the local Aryan brotherhood through a show of violence. Everything and everyone are set to collide at one of the year's biggest shows in town... Weaving in the Black roots of punk rock and a vivid interlude in the thriving eighties DIY and punk scene in New York's East Village, this is the memoir of a budding punk, artist, and activist.


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A formative coming-of-age graphic memoir by the creator of Afro-punk: a young man’s immersive reckoning with identity, racism, clumsy teen love and belonging in an isolated California desert, and a search for salvation and community through punk. Apple Valley, California, in the late eighties, a thirsty, miserable desert. Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are A formative coming-of-age graphic memoir by the creator of Afro-punk: a young man’s immersive reckoning with identity, racism, clumsy teen love and belonging in an isolated California desert, and a search for salvation and community through punk. Apple Valley, California, in the late eighties, a thirsty, miserable desert. Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are back in town after years away. The one silver lining—new school, new you, right? But the few Black kids at school seem to be gangbanging, and the other kids fall on a spectrum of micro-aggressors to future Neo-Nazis. Mixed race, acutely aware of his Blackness, James doesn't know where he fits until he meets Ty, a young Black punk who introduces him to the school outsiders—skaters, unhappy young rebels, caught up in the punk groundswell sweeping the country. A haircut, a few Sex Pistols, Misfits and Black Flag records later: suddenly, James has friends, romantic prospects, and knows the difference between a bass and a guitar. But this desolate landscape hides brutal, building undercurrents: a classmate overdoses, a friend must prove himself to his white supremacist brother and the local Aryan brotherhood through a show of violence. Everything and everyone are set to collide at one of the year's biggest shows in town... Weaving in the Black roots of punk rock and a vivid interlude in the thriving eighties DIY and punk scene in New York's East Village, this is the memoir of a budding punk, artist, and activist.

30 review for The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lydia Wallace

    James Spooner I really enjoyed this book. Mr. Spooner has delivered a well needed roadmap for future generations of kids that don’t quite fit in, especially kids of color. This book is as captivating as it is inspiring. The High Desert is an American tale of race, politics, counter-culture, and the tender and personal story of Black adolescence. If you’ve ever had to fight to be yourself, this book is for you. Spooner beautifully illustrates the struggle and joy of finding self-acceptance. I cou James Spooner I really enjoyed this book. Mr. Spooner has delivered a well needed roadmap for future generations of kids that don’t quite fit in, especially kids of color. This book is as captivating as it is inspiring. The High Desert is an American tale of race, politics, counter-culture, and the tender and personal story of Black adolescence. If you’ve ever had to fight to be yourself, this book is for you. Spooner beautifully illustrates the struggle and joy of finding self-acceptance. I couldn't stop turning the pages. I highly recommend this great book for all ages and race.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alexia

    I had a hard time not reading it entirely through when I first picked up the book. It is fantastic! I'll admit that I feel a streak of punk running through me so I could relate to the topic however I feel that James Spooner did an excellent job of exploring punk in the early 90s as a black man. As a white woman, I appreciated him sharing his point of view which I otherwise would not have been able to experience. I look forward to reading more of his work. I can't recommend it highly enough. I had a hard time not reading it entirely through when I first picked up the book. It is fantastic! I'll admit that I feel a streak of punk running through me so I could relate to the topic however I feel that James Spooner did an excellent job of exploring punk in the early 90s as a black man. As a white woman, I appreciated him sharing his point of view which I otherwise would not have been able to experience. I look forward to reading more of his work. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jensen Werley

    I’m always a sucker for punk history, and I really enjoyed this very personal story. Spooner tells his story while still making the readers think about the macro issues of racism, the appropriation of punk culture by racists and the complex feelings teenagers have when they don’t have the words to describe them. The art is beautiful, especially some of the full-page scenes.

  4. 4 out of 5

    DJ High Yellow

    My friend gave me this book as a gift and I'm absolutely loving it so far. I read the first half in one night staying up way past my bedtime. So many parallels to my own upbringing as a black kid with a white mom in the suburbs. I never thought anyone could understand my experience as a mixed-black, punk rocker because I felt so terminally unique. Turns out 400 miles away in the same state someone was having a very similar experience. I happen to be roughly the same age as the author so we were My friend gave me this book as a gift and I'm absolutely loving it so far. I read the first half in one night staying up way past my bedtime. So many parallels to my own upbringing as a black kid with a white mom in the suburbs. I never thought anyone could understand my experience as a mixed-black, punk rocker because I felt so terminally unique. Turns out 400 miles away in the same state someone was having a very similar experience. I happen to be roughly the same age as the author so we were going through a lot of the same things around the same time which made the story even more personal to me. Social awkwardness, trying to get in where you fit in, and f*ckin' nazi skinheads, I remember all of that. I didn't think it was possible, but Apple Valley sounds like it had more rednecks than my hometown of Castro Valley. What's with towns in California with Valley in the name? I think any suburban, outcast, punk rock, kid could relate to this story but if you were a POC punk in high school, and especially if you are black, James' story is our story too. I highly recommend this book to anyone who grew up in the punk scene, or any music that defined you in high school, and if you are/were a black "alternative kid" I must insist that you check it out.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Peacegal

    This absorbing graphic memoir once again really shows off what this medium can do and how awesome it can be. Spooner writes of his experience in the punk scene of the early 1990s, along with the added pressures of being a Black kid in small-town America where racism is always bubbling under the surface--and occasionally, frighteningly, boils over into violence. There is of course, intense love for punk music and culture, but anyone who has ever been an awkward teenager or felt like a misfit will This absorbing graphic memoir once again really shows off what this medium can do and how awesome it can be. Spooner writes of his experience in the punk scene of the early 1990s, along with the added pressures of being a Black kid in small-town America where racism is always bubbling under the surface--and occasionally, frighteningly, boils over into violence. There is of course, intense love for punk music and culture, but anyone who has ever been an awkward teenager or felt like a misfit will relate to this, even if you've never sported a mohawk or slam-danced. I knew I liked this book from the start, but it was content like this, that really put it over the top for me personally: Hey! Ho! 5 stars!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany T

    Amazing read. He really captures that feeling of trying to fit in and figure out who you are. That uncertainty of youth and that feeling of being an outsider. And why the punk movement was so enticing at that time of his life. Also the constant racism both subtle and unsubtle that he experiences. The art is excellent too.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mer

    graphic novels rock and this one was super rich. it is a compelling memoir, one that does an incredible job at being about more than just the person, but the culture, the scene, the time, too.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jenni Bader

    James Spooner delivers a highly engaging and relatable graphic memoir certain to appeal to many young readers and adults alike. Whether you are black, punk, nowhere, or none of the above, you've surely known how it feels to be uncertain of who you are, out of place, lonely, or stuck. If you've never experienced any of these things (lucky you), this book will give you perspective and perhaps a little empathy at least. The High Desert is a gritty memoir about coming of age and shaping an identity, James Spooner delivers a highly engaging and relatable graphic memoir certain to appeal to many young readers and adults alike. Whether you are black, punk, nowhere, or none of the above, you've surely known how it feels to be uncertain of who you are, out of place, lonely, or stuck. If you've never experienced any of these things (lucky you), this book will give you perspective and perhaps a little empathy at least. The High Desert is a gritty memoir about coming of age and shaping an identity, but it is also so much more. It offers a sobering look at racism, white power, and internalized racism. It examines youth culture and common youth experiences along with some of the reasons behind them. Finally, it is a joyful celebration of what it really means to be punk beyond the music, hairstyles, and clothes. What makes this memoir truly special, however, is Spooner's method of tackling difficult topics through the lens of his own experience. The reader has the advantage of seeing events through the 14-year-old Spooner's eyes alongside the more mature observations of his older and wiser self. Teen readers will find an honest, unflinching account of situations with which many are already familiar--and which adults often prefer to pretend do not exist, contrary to their own memories. The current views of the author offered along with these memories create the effect of an older brother offering perspective and guidance in a manner that doesn't come across as heavy-handed. In one panel, the author reflects on a friend's "cringy" comments about women and how he wasn't "emotionally mature enough" at the time to stand up for himself let alone anyone else. Another page revisits the moment when young James learned what "straight edge" is and realized he didn't have to drink or do drugs--things he had been uncomfortable with but felt pressured to give into--to be punk. I highly recommend this book for anyone high school age and older. Some middle school readers may benefit from reading it (with parental guidance) depending on their own personal experience. There is language (the worst of which is the n word used towards the author and his friends but also curse words), drug and alcohol use, discussion of teen sex, and some situations surrounding some very unpleasant realities of our culture such as racism and sexism. However, as stated above, the author handles the material expertly, neither concealing nor condoning any of these things.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Gina

    Highly recommend. As it was wrapping up I was honestly ready for Vol 2. I learned a lot about punk history and Spooner’s experience as a POC in the CA desert. The story is both sad, relatable, and timely. I’m not black but I grew up queer in Detroit and my identity and geographic location shaped me (differently than my peers). As a teen I was thinking about power, intersectionality, and inequality. I was thinking about how fucked up people treat each other and animals. I wish I could have taken a Highly recommend. As it was wrapping up I was honestly ready for Vol 2. I learned a lot about punk history and Spooner’s experience as a POC in the CA desert. The story is both sad, relatable, and timely. I’m not black but I grew up queer in Detroit and my identity and geographic location shaped me (differently than my peers). As a teen I was thinking about power, intersectionality, and inequality. I was thinking about how fucked up people treat each other and animals. I wish I could have taken a more straight-edge approach to all those teen feelings (& reality) of not belonging, anger towards those in power, and the trauma that comes with being openly different in a very conformist time/place in life…but I made it here anyway. Like Spooner, I slowly found my community. And, also like Spooner, I came to love what made me “different.” I became an activist, too. The art in the graphic novel is beautiful. There’s a lot of detail without feeling crowded or hard to read. Spooner has a clear voice and POV. I’m a professor and will definitely be recommending this novel to my college-aged students.

  10. 5 out of 5

    A. Thomas

    I just read The High Desert. It is brilliant. And the art was perfect… like Raymond Pettibon and the Hernandez Brothers had a baby! It’s a big book and I put it down once... to eat dinner. We go through a lot of graphic novels in this house and this one stands out. I was one of the Black kids in the punk scene on the other side of the country around the same time so this is right in my wheelhouse. But I’m certain that anyone who ever struggled to find their way or fit in will relate to this book. I just read The High Desert. It is brilliant. And the art was perfect… like Raymond Pettibon and the Hernandez Brothers had a baby! It’s a big book and I put it down once... to eat dinner. We go through a lot of graphic novels in this house and this one stands out. I was one of the Black kids in the punk scene on the other side of the country around the same time so this is right in my wheelhouse. But I’m certain that anyone who ever struggled to find their way or fit in will relate to this book. Honestly, even someone who never had to deal with that and appreciates great storytelling will enjoy this book (and get some perspective!)

  11. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Peterson

    I found this book in Barnes and Noble and was on a ride throughout. I have always liked alternative music, which has crossed over with the punk world. Spooner tells a well crafted story similar to Persepolis or even Adrian Tomine. With intriguing individual that have layers as well as feeling like you don’t fit in. Makes me want to check out the Afropunk film.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    While I’m not anywhere close to the target audience for this, and 99% of the punk references went over my head, I really appreciated learning Spooner’s story of where he came from and what punk-rock means to him. Even though this is about the 90s, there is an important message about white supremacy, racism, misogyny, and homophobia within these pages.

  13. 4 out of 5

    SilviaR

    How can a story that has nothing to do with you make you tear up like this? A gem of a book. The author really masters showing kids' vulnerabilities and growing pains. Loved, loved, loved it. How can a story that has nothing to do with you make you tear up like this? A gem of a book. The author really masters showing kids' vulnerabilities and growing pains. Loved, loved, loved it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Blane

    Far and away, one of the best books of 2022; once I started reading, I could not stop. Classic.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Leila Coppala

    The High Desert is a graphic novel autobiography of James Spooner, zeroing in on a year of his life in the late 1980s. A recent move to Apple Valley, California has him attending a new school and trying to make friends (and hopefully a girlfriend), discovering punk rock and just how racist and small minded small town America can be. I feel like James Spooner and I would have been friends if we had met in the late '80s. We're close to the same age and I also discovered punk rock at that time, and The High Desert is a graphic novel autobiography of James Spooner, zeroing in on a year of his life in the late 1980s. A recent move to Apple Valley, California has him attending a new school and trying to make friends (and hopefully a girlfriend), discovering punk rock and just how racist and small minded small town America can be. I feel like James Spooner and I would have been friends if we had met in the late '80s. We're close to the same age and I also discovered punk rock at that time, and although I was ostracized and made fun of by the "normals," I will never know what it's like to be on the receiving end of racism. I can't even imagine how much it must have hurt to finally feel like you belong, only to have people in your group, a group made up of those ignored and shunned by the rest of society, single you out with aggression and violence based simply on the color of your skin. Being a graphic novel, the book is a quick read, but do not let the artistic style lead you to believe this is fluff--The High Desert is very moving and emotional. Kudos to James for writing and drawing a warts and all piece that was so difficult to put down and kept me thinking about it for days after I finished it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Cameron Muata

    James Spooner’s memoir captures the essence of the teenage experience of trying to find oneself. What Spooner gives voice to, though, is the lens of being a young, biracial black teen living through multiple levels of alienation. An outsider, racially, in a white, mostly lifeless, desert town, Spooner finds life in punk music and a few friends who manage to exist outside the ‘norm.’ Yet even as he finds his footing as a young punk he’s still seen as an outsider from the narrow racist lenses of m James Spooner’s memoir captures the essence of the teenage experience of trying to find oneself. What Spooner gives voice to, though, is the lens of being a young, biracial black teen living through multiple levels of alienation. An outsider, racially, in a white, mostly lifeless, desert town, Spooner finds life in punk music and a few friends who manage to exist outside the ‘norm.’ Yet even as he finds his footing as a young punk he’s still seen as an outsider from the narrow racist lenses of many in his hometown. This memoir explores Spooner’s experience of his world widening and the definition of punk widening to a place of empowerment—eventually leading to his groundbreaking activism among other things, as a documentary filmmaker and founder of Afropunk. It is definitely worth the read as it validates and affirms an experience I personally relate to-the existence of black individuals who find their voices outside what’s often considered the ‘typical’ black norm in America for a young person. Thanks again, James! Cam Muata

  17. 5 out of 5

    Marianne White

    This book opens the doors into a dreamworld where a once lost, true-life journey is retold by the author, James Spooner. Spooner’s meticulous detail shows through his illustrations and his storytelling. The Author relives his teenage years through this truthful and candid graphic novel, offering the reader glimpses into what some of Spooner’s real life challenges were growing up in Apple Valley, CA, during the early 1990’s. Spooner’s graphic novel speaks to the reader as if they are being told a This book opens the doors into a dreamworld where a once lost, true-life journey is retold by the author, James Spooner. Spooner’s meticulous detail shows through his illustrations and his storytelling. The Author relives his teenage years through this truthful and candid graphic novel, offering the reader glimpses into what some of Spooner’s real life challenges were growing up in Apple Valley, CA, during the early 1990’s. Spooner’s graphic novel speaks to the reader as if they are being told a first hand account of the challenges he faced as a mixed-race Black teen while trying to integrate into a sub-culture that was historically declared ‘white’ by some…all while playing in a band and falling in love. Those early experiences lead the way for Spooner to become one of modern DIY Punk Counter Culture’s most inventive and inspiring artists & filmmakers, notably creating the 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk. (Yes, I cried at the end.)

  18. 5 out of 5

    Uchechi

    I couldn't get enough of this book. I almost finished it in one sitting, but then paced myself to savor in the story and illustrations. In the memoir, James beautifully outlines what it felt like to be a Black punk kid growing up in a violently racist world that still didn't have alternative images of Blackness. The contradictions of his community -- skinheads befriending punks befriending nerds, etc. reminded me of my own childhood -- and the gray area and struggle of relationships that we used I couldn't get enough of this book. I almost finished it in one sitting, but then paced myself to savor in the story and illustrations. In the memoir, James beautifully outlines what it felt like to be a Black punk kid growing up in a violently racist world that still didn't have alternative images of Blackness. The contradictions of his community -- skinheads befriending punks befriending nerds, etc. reminded me of my own childhood -- and the gray area and struggle of relationships that we used to navigate. What's beautiful is that James' journey truly sculpted him into who he is today, and developed his ability to help other Black people express their own uniqueness. This book will inspire you, especially if you're BIPOC, to be your full self at all times. I wish I'd had it when I was identifying as emo and with rock music in my adolescence.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Cory

    I’ve been waiting for this once since the Too Tough to Die anthology came out, and it was worth the wait. I reserved my Saturday and read this great memoir by James Spooner in one sitting, which was a near immersive journey since it’s a good chunky length and really rather cinematic in the best indie film manner. It brought back a lot of memories of growing up as a hormonal punk in small town America, but also illuminated an experience and perspective that I could never claim as my own and which I’ve been waiting for this once since the Too Tough to Die anthology came out, and it was worth the wait. I reserved my Saturday and read this great memoir by James Spooner in one sitting, which was a near immersive journey since it’s a good chunky length and really rather cinematic in the best indie film manner. It brought back a lot of memories of growing up as a hormonal punk in small town America, but also illuminated an experience and perspective that I could never claim as my own and which was tremendously important to read about. I’ve been thinking on it since I closed the back cover. Recommended for ALL.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Stellamarie

    Just finished this book. F***ing brilliant!! Really emotional and captivating. And it resonated massively with me too. I’m a mixed race, vegan lesbian and am into rock/metal/punk. I’ve not experienced the white power d***heads, but certainly me and my sister know the feeling of being the only one, two or 3... POC at a rock/metal/punk gig here in the UK. And also the feeling of being brought up on loud, intense and imortant music and how it provides a sense of belonging within a community, both l Just finished this book. F***ing brilliant!! Really emotional and captivating. And it resonated massively with me too. I’m a mixed race, vegan lesbian and am into rock/metal/punk. I’ve not experienced the white power d***heads, but certainly me and my sister know the feeling of being the only one, two or 3... POC at a rock/metal/punk gig here in the UK. And also the feeling of being brought up on loud, intense and imortant music and how it provides a sense of belonging within a community, both locally and globally. I’ve bought the book for my sister and I know she'll devour it with the same gusto and recognition as i did! Highly recommended does not cover it - it is a absolute must!

  21. 4 out of 5

    SA

    A moving, introspective, memoir that will resonate with anyone who's felt different. I came to punk later than Spooner did - but even with a decade between our musical journeys, the saliency of feeling like a musical subculture "understood" you (regardless of race, family makeup, or geography) was so spot-on, I felt myself nodding along through most of the book. The book is big... over 300 pages... and you will still find yourself wishing the story didn't have to end. Highly recommended. A moving, introspective, memoir that will resonate with anyone who's felt different. I came to punk later than Spooner did - but even with a decade between our musical journeys, the saliency of feeling like a musical subculture "understood" you (regardless of race, family makeup, or geography) was so spot-on, I felt myself nodding along through most of the book. The book is big... over 300 pages... and you will still find yourself wishing the story didn't have to end. Highly recommended.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jay McQuirns

    It’s so refreshing to read about punk culture from someone who not only lived it but also acknowledges it for more than it’s music and also isn’t afraid to voice its flaws. Not only that, but its a voice from a time when voices like his were very seldom heard. Being a huge fan of both punk culture and comic books in all their shapes and sizes I can highly recommend this memoir to all who enjoy a gripping “coming of age” story.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    We need more stories like this. I love a small memoir. The art captured the scene and angst. I grew up in the punk scene in the 90s about an hour from Apple Valley. Going to the same mall sometimes. Dealing with the same Nazi scum and misguided little kids with no good options in the desert...but not having to deal the same way since I'm a white guy. It was a bleak place to be a teen but it made for some close ties to friends as we were all waiting to escape the high desert. We need more stories like this. I love a small memoir. The art captured the scene and angst. I grew up in the punk scene in the 90s about an hour from Apple Valley. Going to the same mall sometimes. Dealing with the same Nazi scum and misguided little kids with no good options in the desert...but not having to deal the same way since I'm a white guy. It was a bleak place to be a teen but it made for some close ties to friends as we were all waiting to escape the high desert.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Amelia

    This novel is equally honest, raw and sad with some pretty stunning illustrations. James Spooner was able to encapsulate those difficult moments of navigating life while trying to fit in, handle friendships and igniting that power of music and movement. I appreciated the reflection notes throughout the book and all the music references. Highly recommend it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Prince B

    I loved everything about this book. The art, the writing, the punk history, the inclusions of songs, and many more. I couldn't stop reading. Being a teen myself and been coming into punk for a while, I found myslef relating to many moments of the book. Books like this one reminds me of why I love reading. I loved everything about this book. The art, the writing, the punk history, the inclusions of songs, and many more. I couldn't stop reading. Being a teen myself and been coming into punk for a while, I found myslef relating to many moments of the book. Books like this one reminds me of why I love reading.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie Dinka

    I read this in three sittings. I am so thankful for punks! I really had no clue that they have been advocated for what is right since inception. He gave me aha moments I never realized I needed. About: race, history, New York, bystandarism, high desert life, friendship….. So energizing and motivating getting to spend time with such kickass brilliant people. Should win a big award🥳

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Lawson

    A fascinating and honest story that made me learn while also sucking so deep into the nostalgia of the 80s and 90s. My teen years were so different and yet so similar in so many ways. Relatable and heartbreaking.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Read it in a couple sittings and thoroughly enjoyed it! Not even a huge graphic novel fan. However, it was both nostalgic and informative which kept me engaged throughout. Really enjoyed the emphasis on early friendships and how they often mold us into who we become as adults. Great read!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    He really captured what it felt like to grow up being "different" in a small town. He really captured what it felt like to grow up being "different" in a small town.

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