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Graphic Novel Review: P.B.M.: Beats Per Minute by Paul Sizer

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Every person on Earth, every man, woman and child has a soundtrack. We all have that personal set-list that sparks memory triggers both good and bad, and these memories mark different places and events in our lives. Music is with us constantly, from the time our ears develop and we are able to process signal in utero, to the time when we breathe our final rattle. Humanity has one constant in life, music. It’s one of the most important concepts we share as a species, and it has proven itself time and again as a better communication tool than language or mathematics. It’s no wonder that we measure music and the rhythm of the human heart in beats per minute.

Let me narrow this down a bit, by spilling a not-so-secret confidence. Every writer I know, and I highly suspect that you can comfortably make the blanket statement, “every writer”, either hears a soundtrack in his head while he’s writing, or simply listens to music as he writes. Whenever I get the chance to meet a writer one of the questions I always ask is, “Do you listen to music while you write, and if so what?” The answer is always yes. Stephen King listens to rock n roll, the great comics creator Brian Wood listens to indie rock (and is really good about publishing his set lists.) Both Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny told me they listen to jazz while they write. When I asked Harlan Ellison the music question, he told me he listens to jazz cranked to 11. He then proceeded to argue with me for about forty-five minutes or so, when I stubbornly refused to admit that Django Reinhardt was a better guitarist than Les Paul. That one ended with him bonking his signing pen off my noggin and cursing me out in Yiddish, great fun. (And just to prove what a mensch Harlan is, he not only let me keep the pen, but he signed for an extra hour so that everybody got their books autographed.) I digress, but it proves my point that music is inexorably tied to the human soul.

Paul Sizer knows this as well as any of us, and with his newest graphic novel he has tapped into that ever-present soundtrack of humanity. Herein, he presents a story of music and how it penetrates the human heart. B.P.M. is the tale of Roxy, a twentysomething working as a DJ on the New York City club scene.

When we first pick up her story, Roxy is at that most dangerous and exciting point in any artist’s career where she’s dancing across the razor’s edge of either breaking big, or giving up for good. We get to follow her through the transition from gifted amateur to professional, as she learns what it takes to become a star DJ. Sizer lays out the track that all young artists must follow to make this transition. As an artist himself he knows all-too-well what you have to give up to succeed, and as readers, we are left with the lingering question of “was it worth it?”

The characters in this story are the most spot-on, fully realized people that Sizer has written to date. Even minor characters who don’t rate much panel time are intriguing to the point that you find yourself wondering about their back stories. The protagonist Roxy is alive on the page, warts and all, as Sizer masterfully weaves her story. The relationships she shares with her friends, her lovers, even her mentors, have the ring of truth. Roxy, like all of us, sometimes makes bad choices. She’s occasionally unfair, and she’s filled with self doubt, but she’s honest, loyal, and a great student. Like the wonderful storyteller he is, Sizer sucks you in to the story, and keeps you dancing with these people until the music finally stops and you walk out into the night, humming a tune and feeling fulfilled for having known these people. B.P.M. is something increasingly rare in the world of comics. It is a story told with passion and fire, filled with the absolute joy of being alive, and an affirmation of how important music is to the human soul.

The artwork on B.P.M. is a bit of a change from Sizer’s usual visuals. He brings his prodigious talents as a graphic designer full force, deftly combining computer enhanced photographs with detailed hand drawn backgrounds. Sizer uses a computerized palette of coloring and visual presentation techniques that are new to his stories. Light smears signify the passing of time, lens flashes in the clubs add depth and realism to his hand drawn artwork. His use of computer drawing techniques enhances his artwork, and detracts not one bit from the story. It’s the first time he’s really cut loose with his graphic design skills, and the pay-off is huge. B.P.M. is a sexy package with a running soundtrack (available on I-tunes, by the way), and it’s wrapped in one of the coolest covers to ever grace a graphic novel.

Sizer has never been one to skimp on extras with his graphic packages, and B.P.M. is no exception. With the addition of his I-tunes set list, he’s created an extended dance mix complete with liner notes, promotional artwork, sketches and research drawings. The whole graphic novel is a delicious feast for the eyes and ears of anyone lucky enough to lose themselves within this world of neon, chrome and concrete. The music tracks aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but if you listen to them while reading it, taking time to let the songs play through before moving on to the next scene, the story rises to a new level, revealing layers to the narrative that you miss the first time you read it through.

B.P.M. is a unique audio visual package that entertains on every level imaginable. Like the perfect beat underlying a night spent lost within the mixes of a master DJ, the book sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading it. It’s a great read that will appeal to anyone who has ever heard the siren call of music, and that’s everyone on the planet. The perfect beat runs through the hearts and minds of all of us, and it’s measured in Beats Per Minute.

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