In Quantum Criminals, writer Alex Pappademas and artist Joan LeMay excavate the deep mysteries and myths of the Steely Dan extended universe. It’s not a straightforward band biog, though you’re likely to learn a new detail about the band on virtually every page. Instead, it’s a rich examination of the Dan’s legacy, with Pappademas’s keen and witty insight complemented beautifully by LeMay’s portraits of “the ramblers, wild gamblers, and other sole survivors” – both real and fictional – who populate the Steely Dan saga. From guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter to “Deacon Blues”’ Expanding Man, the book offers Dan-iacs a fresh and revealing look at what Pappademas calls “a cult band whose catalogue, paradoxically, includes at least a dozen enduring radio hits”.
The timing couldn’t be better. Steely Dan are having a “moment”, the subject of countless internet memes. Pariahs in the alternative rock era, millennials and zoomers now proclaim their love for the band unabashedly. So why are this band formed more than 50 years ago seemingly more relevant than ever? “I think the cynicism of Steely Dan maybe doesn’t feel as poisonous and acrid as it once did,” reckons Pappademas. “It feels sensible! These are dark and strange and cynical times, and there’s something about these songs that just sounds right. Younger generations are responding to that. They’re chasing a certain idea of the past that Steely Dan represents, some version of adulthood that they can live. Becker and Fagen are kind of like spiritual dads.”
The duo’s impeccable jadedness is indisputable. But one of the more surprising aspects of Quantum Criminals is how downright human many of their lyrical subjects come across. LeMay’s colourful, perceptive illustrations play a big part here, with many of her subjects gazing out at the reader in striking fashion. “I wanted them to have a whole lot of humanity,” she says. “A lot of them ended up being funny, but it wasn’t outright mocking. I don’t think the songs are doing that.”
Pappademas agrees. “As I worked on the book, something that came out was this weird empathy that exists in the band,” he says. “It’s veiled in irony, but I think they have a lot of compassion for these delusional people caught up in dreams of making it or imprisoned by their bad past decisions. Not in ‘Haitian Divorce,’ though. That one is just cruel…”
Quantum Criminals is out now, published by University Of Texas Press