Cyclone Bill & the Tall Tales
Written and Illustrated by Dan Dougherty
I’m skeptical when it comes to comics about music. Comics can do a lot of things well, but communicating music isn’t one of them. Usually, when a comic is about a performing musician or a band, we get some fancily lettered lyrics with maybe some musical notes scattered around and are asked to fill in the music ourselves. That never works for me and what I’m left with is usually mediocre (at best) poetry and a half-assed melody that I’ve created myself just so I can keep reading the book. It’s a frustrating experience, especially when the musicians are supposed to be good.
Cyclone Bill & the Tall Tales wisely avoids all that by never trying to portray music on the page. Not melody; not lyrics. And that’s especially important for this book because it’s not just about “good” musicians. It’s about a band that’s supposed to be legendary. Not pop-flavor-of-the-year legendary, but Beatles/Rolling Stones/U2 legendary. And it never would’ve worked had Dan Dougherty tried to give us an actual taste of the music.
It’s the one instance where “tell, don’t show” is actually the preferable choice. Music is just too damn subjective. What I hear in my head when I think of legend-status music is going to be completely different from what you hear, so Dougherty lets us fill that in ourselves and just reminds us over and over again how universally popular – amongst critics and fans alike – Cyclone Bill and the Tall Tales are. Whether they sound like REM or Hootie and the Blowfish (God bless you) is up to you. And the story’s involving enough that we lose ourselves in it and come to completely accept this premise.
The story’s told non-linearly and begins after Cyclone Bill has been assassinated onstage and the people in his life are trying to make sense of things. Not just his band, but also Maggie, the documentarian who was following him around in his last days, Rhonda Lee, the fashion designer Bill was dating who’d left him shortly before his death, and Oscar Burden, the rival rock-star whom Rhonda left Bill for. Through flashbacks and Maggie’s documentary footage, we learn all about Bill’s rise to fame, his flirtation with the occult, and his feud with Oscar. All of which lends a fascinating mystery angle to the book as we try to piece together what happened and figure out who really killed Cyclone Bill.
And that would be interesting enough on its own, but Dougherty also adds a supernatural element. We learn that Bill was obsessed with fame in general and Elvis in particular and tried to contact the King via a medium named Madame Wells. We learn that after Bill’s death Maggie believes that she’s being haunted by the ghost of Elvis. And we learn that that might not be as crazy as it sounds. The book’s not a horror story, but there are some nice chills punctuating just the right moments.
Complementing the paranormal mystery are some genuinely profound thoughts on the relationship between art and fandom. Most of this comes through the ideas of Oscar Burden, a neo-punk artist who fronts a band called Surprise Surprise. Oscar’s gimmick, though he hates and rejects that word for it, is that the fans are his band. Every time he goes to a new city to perform, he holds open auditions for his fans to play as his backup band. His fans all dress in costumes that disguise their identities so that they’re all equal. He eschews the album format and just releases his songs as digital singles for fans to mix and match and create their own collections. The line between fan and artist isn’t just blurred; it’s erased.
And in the days of Web 2.0, that’s an absorbing thing to think about. We see it in the comics corner of the Internet all the time. Fans demand to be heard as publishers and creators struggle to react appropriately. Do you just give the fans what they say (or think) they want? Or do you try to stay true to your own creative vision and hope the fans respond? It’s an enthralling debate and I’m thrilled to see Dougherty contributing to the discussion. He doesn’t offer an answer, but he makes you think about it for yourself and that’s brilliant of him. Oscar and Bill each represent opposite sides of the argument and neither is held up as Right. Both are incredibly popular in the world of Cyclone Bill & the Tall Tales and each has fans that passionately – and sometimes violently – support the way their respective rock idols do business.
The tension between the two groups adds to the complexity of the mystery, but it also provides a backdrop against which Dougherty can explore his characters in deep, meaningful ways. There are no throwaway characters in this book. Everyone may not serve the plot equally, but everyone’s important in that they’re all interesting people and contribute to the story in some way. Sometimes it’s the way they communicate the themes; other times it’s just the effect they have on other characters. But all of them add to the truthfulness of the story and help draw you in.
And then there’s the ending.
Oh, my God, the ending. It’s a natural, logical extension of what comes before and yet it’s so surprising and wonderfully weird. I won’t ruin the mystery by describing it, but it’s the very definition of a climax. The first five chapters were so engrossing that I was practically studying the book. I don’t want to make it sound like it was a chore to read; it’s just that I wanted to live in each moment as the mystery unfolded. And then that last chapter came along and had me squirming around in my chair, laughing and cheering. It’s a dazzling bit of pacing. Finish with a bang.
Very Rock and Roll.