Alternate history or speculative fiction stories deviate from a particular pivotal point in history to explore a “what if” scenario. What hopefully results is an intriguing and riveting examination of the effects of that diverging point. For writer J.H. Sanderson, the summer of 1978 was his point of departure. While President Jimmy Carter sought peace in the real world, in Sanderson’s allohistory, a moment of aggression sparked off World War III between the US and then superpower, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). In Dangerous Gambles and Renegade graphic novel series published by Compact, Sanderson explores the struggles of a conventional modern war on US soil: food and various everyday sundries require ration coupons, curfews are instituted, and regular blackouts give rise to networks of marketeering, all under an overarching threat of invasion and nuclear annihilation.
“Since the advent of the Roadhouse Sons series by author J.H. Sanderson, there is one resounding message heard from audiences and industry associates, and that is, ‘A ’70s rock cover band recruited into espionage – what a great idea! I’ve never heard of that before!’” explained producer Mia Moravis. It’s a fascinating idea that has its roots in reality, because Sanderson found inspiration for his fictitious band, Roadhouse Sons, since he is the road manager for real-life band Studebaker Hawk led by Tony Heyes. By writing what he knows and mixing in political intrigue, espionage, and murder, an entertaining story emerges for the reader.
Adapting from a seven-part novel series, Dangerous Gambles introduces readers to the Roadhouse Sons band via classified government documents assessing each member and their potential for a civilian recruitment for the purpose of contributing to an uncover operation to penetrate black markets and reveal Communist presence in northeastern US, specifically Vermont. Band founder and front man Cameron Walsh is apprised with good leadership qualities while drummer Evan Dixon possesses the needed diplomatic demeanor to be the band manager. Clyde Poulin, who happens to look a lot like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, plays guitar and keyboards…and the field. Bass player Rich Webster has a “penchant for black attire [which] gives him a dangerous exotic appearance” as well as embodying an “animal magnetism” the agency (FBI) believes they will be able to exploit. Doug Courtland is the group’s roadie and not originally intended to be recruited; however, since he is a vital component to the band, it is determined that the agency can use his suspicious and volatile nature to their advantage.
After one small town gig, the band find they have to threaten the owner in order to get their promised money in cash – it sets up the perfect in for the agency. The local authorities pull the band over and in a routine search, the cops “find” drugs in one of the vehicles. Agents Dwyer, McIntyre, and D’Lorenzo intercede at the police station, interviewing each band member separately, ensuring they will get the band’s cooperation to become part of a network to observe activity in the region. They are told they will get the bigger concert gigs they have long tried to secure, plus benefits such as additional food rations, new equipment, and in the case of Dixon, his wife and child are given preferential support. Given some basic observation training, the group is soon embroiled in a local black market group with international ties, and the band members finds it is no coincidence that Courtland, D’Lorenzo, and Dwyer have been brought together through their connection to a global incident in which a submarine was blown up.
In the follow-up graphic novel, Renegade, based on the second novel of the series, readers pick up with the remaining members of the group along with agents Lamont and McIntyre. The war is still raging; Pearl Harbor has been attacked, as it was during World War II. And somewhere in the midwest, the band has attracted the attention of a vigilante cell of radicals with tenuous ties to the American Legion. Separately, readers are introduced to some sort of intrigue in the Pacific Northwest, which is using their own band, Boney Jack, as a cover for their secret activities that have yet to be revealed.
There are a number of reasons to recommend Dangerous Gambles and Renegade. First, Sanderson builds a convincing world. Selecting the late 1970s works well because it is recent enough so that he doesn’t have to spend too much time explaining the setting for the audience. It seems as though the ’70s are often an overlooked or dismissed decade, especially the latter part of it. In addition, the New England locale is not usually a “go to” setting so it lends an air of legitimacy to what the Roadhouse Sons experience and the people they meet. His alternate history approach blends well with the spy/espionage genre and develops a complexity at a local level and on a global stage. For example, the black market in Vermont reveals a family united by Communist beliefs and ties with Canada, while the mysterious events surrounding the explosion of USS Mustang is a constant element looming in the background.
Secondly, each graphic novel has good pacing. Sanderson spends time on the details without getting bogged down, which easily could have happened given the source material for his novels. For example, Sanderson omits showing the interrogation of all the Roadhouse Sons’ members, focusing on the exchange between Walsh and Dwyer; however, he spends a fair number of pages as the band members get trained on observation techniques as a method for conveying the group’s dynamics as well as setting up a sequence of plot points that will pay off later in the story. That said, in a few instances the text gets a little verbose, but those moments do not negatively impact the reader’s experience.
The character development is done well. In Dangerous Gambles, readers are introduced to several characters; however, Sanderson soon settles into concentrating on the relationship between Walsh and Dwyer. The time spent conveying the developing working relationship between the two assists in portraying the character growth in Walsh and generally breathes life into the overarching story of the band. Because Sanderson focuses a bit more time between Walsh and Dwyer and to a lesser extent on Courtland and D’Lorenzo, the other three band members are somewhat lost in the narrative; however, in Renegade, Sanderson seemed to find a balance in which to bring the supporting cast more to the forefront. A lingering question that this reader had was why the band members were not serving in the military. This question was partly answered with the reveal that Clyde has a heart murmur which prevents him from serving. This plot point provides an excellent segue for Sanderson to explore Clyde’s angsty feeling of helplessness to do his part in the war effort.
Sanderson was joined by writer/illustrator Allison Barrows (PreTeena; The Artist’s Model, “Goofyfoot Gurl” series) and illustrator/painter Romas (covers for Animorphs Chronicles; cards for Magic: The Gathering). The visuals were, for the most part, executed well. The panel format was well done and complemented the unfolding action. The death of two characters is starkly visualized and hits home with the finality of loss of life. One feels the effects of the vacuum left in the wake of the deaths. The concert scenes also stand out in part for the use of pastel colors, which solicit the warmth of Roadhouse Sons’ music, creating an alternate reality from the real world of browns and subdued colors. And, the font was clean and readable.
There were a couple of bumps with the visuals. Cameron, Rich, and Doug looked rather too much alike and were usually only distinguished by their facial hair or lack thereof. The physical appearances and unique character cues improved with Boney Jack, since each member looked distinct. The other issue involves the speech balloons and narrative boxes. The balloons sometimes crowd characters and interrupt the action, and at times, narrative cues do not align with the path of the eyes across the page. This was more of a problem in Dangerous Gambles and seemed to subside in Renegade.
Hinted at earlier, Sanderson has taken a transmedia approach to Roadhouse Sons, a concept in which only two other series come to mind: Clockwork Angels (a comic book series from BOOM! Studios and a phenomenal album from Rush) and Spurs (comics accompanied by songs composed and performed by Los Angeles-based indie group Run Downhill). Fans who are on the go or perhaps are not much into reading can hear the stories in an audiobook format. The first three novels have already been recorded as audiobooks and released by Roadhouse Productions LLC/Roadhouse Audiobooks, each by a different person. “We’ve garnered tremendous support from celebrities who’ve agree to be narrators on the series,” Moravis said. In fact, Dangerous Gambles was narrated by award-winning blues musician Trevor Sewell; Renegade by actor/musician Jonathan Scott Roth; and Cold Front by Paul Barrere of the music group, Little Feat. The fourth book will be narrated by Monkey from the punk band, The Adicts.
In addition, the Roadhouse Sons experience has been realized in a musical format, as well. Produced by Heyes, Roadhouse Sons: Live at Battenkill Roadhouse CD complements the first novel and Roadhouse Sons: Renegade “Buried Treasure” CD complements the second. Moravis explained that the CD to accompany the third novel “is in post-production” and represents a collaboration between Heyes and Sewell. And, if that seems ambitious, Moravis revealed, “We are preparing for yet another platform – a ’70s jukebox musical, Roadhouse Sons: Dangerous Gambles” and “in preliminary works are a film and/or an animated feature.”
Through his Roadhouse Sons series, Sanderson has created a fascinating experience for the senses, and he is definitely blazing a trail of transmedia approaches for other comic books creators to explore. To do so, though, requires source material that is conducive to the rigors of other formats. Dangerous Gambles and Renegade has a solid storyline that marries alternate history, spy elements, and a musical form – ’70s rock – that resonates with a wide audience. The characters, particularly Walsh, Dwyer, and later Chuck Lamont, provide an entry point for readers to become invested in an absorbing tale of what might have been if 1978 had taken a very different course.