Since Prince passed away a little over five years ago, an urgent topic of conversation for aging dorks like myself has been how “we” can keep his memory alive for future generations. And yet, in all of the endless discussions I’ve participated in since 2016, somehow I can’t recall “publish a young adult graphic novel about his impact on the Minneapolis music scene” ever coming up. Now, after reading MPLS Sound, I’m wondering how we all could have missed something so obvious.
MPLS Sound is not a comic “about” Prince–which may be the most brilliant thing about it. Instead, it tells the fictional story of Theresa Booker, who shares some key character traits with Prince–a lower-middle-class upbringing in segregated Minneapolis, a frustrated musician father, a steely determination and drive–with the added wrinkles that come with being a Black woman in a music industry dominated by White men. Prince is certainly present, serving by turns as an inspiration, benefactor, and antagonist for Theresa’s band, Starchild; but it’s Theresa with whom the book’s target audience will identify most readily. Putting her in the lead also allows writers Joseph P. Illidge and Hannibal Tatu to address more topical issues of sexism and colorism: asking the pointed question of how much space there was for a fuller-bodied, darker-skinned Black woman in even a post-Prince Minneapolis.
But if Prince isn’t the star of MPLS Sound, there’s still plenty about the book to recommend to a Prince fan. Illidge, Tatu, and artist Meredith Laxton clearly put more than a few Wikipedia searches of research into the book, which features cameos by the likes of Lipps Inc., Vanity 6, and (my personal favorite) Alexander O’Neal; plus faithful representations of real-life Twin Cities landmarks like First Avenue (depicted in 1981 under the historically-accurate name Sam’s) and the Walker Art Center. Laxton’s art style is pitched perfectly between the more stylized designs of the original characters and recognizable interpretations of historical figures, resulting in some memorable images like the one above, where Theresa stares up at a row of Controversy album cover posters whose eyes seem to follow her wherever she goes.
This meshing of history and fiction isn’t entirely without strain. At times, MPLS Sound appears to be set in the same alternate universe as Purple Rain, one in which local bands are more likely to “battle” each other than simply play live; in one, unintentionally funny moment, Theresa even turns down an offer to battle legendarily scruffy college-rockers the Replacements. Illidge and Tatu also lay it on a little thick with Prince in the “mystery” department, inventing a sexy, ethnically ambiguous henchwoman named “Violet” to do his dirty work when we all know that was Big Chick’s job. These minor quibbles aside, however, my main complaint about MPLS Sound is that it’s over all too soon: the denouement is weirdly rushed, stuffing in an entire romantic subplot that felt like it needed its own book to fully breathe.
Really, though, these are minor complaints. MPLS Sound is good, wholesome fun; more than that, it’s the kind of comic I can see appealing to young people with or without the Prince connection. And if the Prince connection gets them to check out his music, well, so much the better. I don’t know if books like MPLS Sound are what will make us aging dorks’ wishes come true and keep Prince’s memory alive; but I do know that it can’t possibly hurt.
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