Kurt Cobain: When I Was an AlienThere are few roads more well-worn than the music biography: the formation of the band, their rise to fame, and an inevitable descent into drugs and debauchery, possibly ending with an early death or dissolution. The story of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana would certainly lend itself to these tropes, but Danilo Deninotti and Toni Bruno have approached their subject from a different perspective in the graphic biography, Kurt Cobain: When I Was an Alien.

Our story begins when the band is about to record the song “Territorial Pissings,” which contains the titular line, “when I was an alien”. From there, the narrative flashes back to Cobain’s childhood: we see parents fighting, use of ADHD medication, difficult stepfathers, problems with school, and an early love of music. Although the first half of the book doesn’t give the reader much insight on these topics, it establishes that they are an important part of Cobain’s life.

Midway through the book, the story has shifted towards the friendships that Cobain forms as the band comes together. Cobain clearly sees himself as an alien throughout the book, so much so that the authors depict Cobain and other like-minded musicians as bug-eyed, Close Encounters-style aliens. We see how Cobain meets future bandmates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, when he names the band Nirvana, where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes from, why they have trouble finding a drummer, and why they sign with Geffen, among other facts.

Bruno’s art is a mixed bag. Although it captures the likenesses of the main characters, some of the secondary players can be hard to tell apart as the noses on many faces look similar. Bruno’s line style is light and sparse, which keeps dark details about Cobain from becoming overwhelming. The colorist adds a blue palate to the entire book, evoking rainy Washington state. However, there is little experimentation with panels; most pages are static and they don’t convey movement well, which is not ideal when depicting music in print form.

The authors seem to target a teen audience with this book. Bad language is rare and only a few crude gestures are present. In a story about Nirvana, one expects to be confronted with swearing and drug use, and the narrative lacks some credibility because those details are missing. On the other hand, perhaps younger readers won’t have the same expectation.

When I Was an Alien will introduce teens to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, which is likely what the creators hope to achieve. From there, intrigued readers can delve into any of the recommended titles included in the book’s bibliography. This volume is meant to be an introduction to the band, not the last stop.

Kurt Cobain: When I Was an Alien
by Danilo Deninotti
Art by Toni Bruno
ISBN: 9781935548515
One Peace Books, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen 13+)

  • Mark

    | He/Him Young Adult Librarian, Cedar Mill Library


    Mark Richardson is the Young Adult Librarian at the Cedar Mill Library in Portland Oregon where he selects adult and young adult graphic novels, YA fiction & nonfiction, video games and adult music for the library. He also plans lots of activities for local teens ranging from art contests to teen trivia to Pokemon parties. If this sounds like a dream job, it is. Sometimes he has to pinch himself to make sure he really gets to do all of this. He’s been reading comics for as long as he can remember and has been known to present an occasional conference sessions on graphic novels at the Oregon Library Association’s annual conference.

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