This summer we’ve resurrected one of our favorite features, I ♥ Comics, and each Wednesday comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week, our guest contributor is Jamie S. Rich, the writer of Cut My Hair, The Everlasting and 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, Love the Way You Love and You Have Killed Me, all from Oni Press. He also edits Madman Atomic Comics and writes movie reviews for DVDTalk.com.
CONDEMNED TO ROCK ’N’ READ
Comics nearly lost me once. Rock ‘n’ roll found me and brought me back.
We had pretty much broken up. I lived in a town with no comic book store, and like most teenagers, I was finding other things to occupy my time than what had made me happy only a short time before. I was still too much of a nerd to get into anything that was really and truly bad for me, so it wasn’t drugs or sex or crime that took over for my four-color addiction. It was movies and literature and, most importantly and passionately, music. Like most misfit adolescents, that music tended to be on the more cultish side–strange, dark bands that sang about strange, dark things. Being into those kinds of bands was like learning the password into a whole new social circle. Unlike comics, which had largely been a solitary hobby for me, listening to the Smiths and Depeche Mode and the like provided me with a dual outlet: I could listen to my music alone or I could listen to it with friends and get two totally different things out of it.
Since this was the late 1980s, one of the bands we all really liked was Love & Rockets. In obsessive music circles, much like obsessive comic book circles, knowledge is a top commodity. The things you know that nobody else knows determines your coolness. Then, I was the guy that knew that the band had stolen their name from the Hernandez Bros.’ comic book. I had a handful of well-read issues and a couple of the early Jaime collections that I could show around and use to impress my friends. One of those issues was Love & Rockets #24 (Fantagraphics Books), which I remember because the cover of that comic is still one of my all-time favorites. It’s of Ape Sex, Hopey’s band, up on stage, taken somewhere from the back of stage right. You see the performers, and they look like they can really play, but more importantly, you see the audience. There’s all kinds of different people in there, including a girl’s legs sticking up over the stage and some dude leering at them. Another guy is in the background flipping the band the bird. All you see is the arm, the hand, the finger rising up above everyone else’s heads.
I hung onto my Love & Rockets even as my interest in the X-Men and Spider-Man waned because of covers like that one. I could look at it and see something that was recognizable to me, an existence that, even though far removed from my own (where I lived in Southern California might as well have been a galaxy away from where Hoppers would have been), touched my own. I could know those people. I could maybe be one of those people. They were interested in the same things I was, and from what I could tell, so were the Los Bros Hernandez. Love & Rockets was, as far as I know, the first comic to include a soundtrack in every issue, listing the tunes the guys were listening to when they created their comics. It’s a practice that has since been adopted by the likes of Paul Pope, Jim Mahfood, Chynna Clugston and even me. Whenever I see one of us criticized for doing it, the accusation is usually that we are being self-serving and conceited about our own musical tastes; really, though, we just want to be like the Hernandez Bros.
This personal connection to Love & Rockets was one of the main sources of fuel to keep my love affair with comics going, but at the time I had no idea that it would also be the beginning of my equally torrid love affair with a particular subgenre of comics where rock ‘n’ roll and sequential art intersected. The book that drew me back into the comic book world full time was Tank Girl, which Bob Schreck handed to me at Comic Con in 1991 with the sole intention of rekindling my addiction. While not exactly about music, it was as close to the same anarchic, full-volume aesthetic of punk that I had ever seen on a printed page. It was the catalyst I needed to bring me back around fully.
Little did I know there was a whole magazine devoted to stuff like Tank Girl. I’m sort of shocked that, as a musical anglophile who scoured record stores for British import singles, that I had never encountered Deadline, which combined comics and music and featured not just Jamie Hewlett, but guys like Evan Dorkin and Philip Bond, as well. I’d later see Dorkin in the old Reflex magazine doing strips with Kyle Baker about the kinds of jerks they saw at concerts, but it would be a few years before I’d finally read his ska-inflected Hectic Planet (SLG Publishing).
Over the years, the connection between comics and music has only grown. In part, I think it’s because all of the above made it cool to like both and not to be shy about it, so that young cartoonists reading those books as they were developing their own craft felt safe sidestepping capes and tights and bringing other influences into their work. Thus, you get a book like Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday: The Kids Are Alright, with it’s double-threat of a New Order main title and a Who subtitle, and a storyline about a girl fighting to get Adam Ant tickets like they were the most important thing in the world. Do you really think it was a coincidence that I was the editor who greenlit that book? Hell no! Nor is it a coincidence that Oni also published Hopeless Savages, Pounded, or even Scott Pilgrim, all three of which feature main characters in bands. Not all those books were under my editorial charge, either. All of us in the Oni offices loved music so much, we had to set up a system for sharing the stereo during the workday so everyone would get a chance to hear their favorite flavor of the moment.
Scott Pilgrim is probably the closest to Love & Rockets in that it’s not a book solely about music, but one about fantastical happenings that involve people who want to make music. It’s just one of the many subgenres of the rock ‘n’ roll comic. Their less fantastic kin would be something like Ai Yazawa’s Nana (Viz Comics), where one of the title heroines is in a band struggling to make it in Tokyo while also balancing a very complicated love life (an inspiration for my own series with Marc Ellerby, Love the Way You Love). Even more grounded would be Gipi’s Garage Band (First Second), which comes as close as one can possibly get to expressing not only the sound of the music via comic book panels, but that feeling of being young and trapped and having only rock to set you free. One of the boys in his novel could even grow up to be Soba, the lead character in one of the stories in Joe Sacco’s journalistic comic book War’s End (Drawn & Quarterly)–a soldier in one aspect of life, a rocker in another.
Some comics creators choose to go another route, portraying musicians that have gotten famous and exploring the rarefied existence of being a star. Mayu Shinjo’s manga Sensual Phrase (published in the U.S. by Viz and featuring scripts by Kelly Sue DeConnick) takes us inside the world of Lucifer, where we can see Japan’s hottest band deal with record company demands, groupies, and, naturally, romantic intrigue. In DC/Vertigo’s unfortunately uncollected and unfortunately titled Vertigo Pop! London (it’s a brand and it’s a city!), Peter Milligan and Deadline-refugee Phil Bond chronicled the latter-day Townshend-esque tale of an aging ’60s rocker who takes a young turk under his wing, only to switch bodies with the tabloid sensation so that he can once again enjoy the spoils of fame. Or, again, to skew the discussion to the more realistic, there is Days Like This, J. Torres and Scott Chantler’s account of the wide-eyed early days of a 1960s R&B vocal group. (Again, an Oni book I edited and even wrote an afterword for.)
A third subgenre is more like Blue Monday in that it’s not about the musicians but the bored kids who love the tunes and use their favorite records to fill out their day. Standouts in this area include Scott Mills’ My Own Little Empire (AdHouse Books), a kind of Dazed & Confused for the angsty ’90s, and Eric Stephenson and Jamie McKelvie’s Long Hot Summer (Image Comics), in which record collectors forget that girls aren’t like their precious 45s. Stephenson is also responsible for ushering band comics into the new century, kickstarting a mini trend with the anthology of Belle & Sebastian-inspired stories, Put the Book Back on the Shelf.
All of the above comics bring together my two loves, the manic pop thrills of both sequential storytelling and melodic noise. They’re just the very tip of the iceberg, too. I haven’t even touched on older comics like Dazzler (disco, baby!) or even the notion of comic book artists as rock stars (you’ve all seen photos of Paul Pope, yes? You heard the singer from My Chemical Romance wrote an awesome comic called The Umbrella Academy, right? Or that Zak Sally was the bassist for Low?). It’s perhaps an area of the art that is ripe for a more detailed exploration. Folks always talk about the growing connection between comics and music, but it’s rarely discussed in any greater detail.
If you decide to do that study, as thanks for giving you the idea, you need to start with my favorite rock ‘n’ roll comic, Mike Allred’s Red Rocket 7. I was the editor on the book back at Dark Horse in 1997 and 1998, and a 10th-anniversary reprint of it is forthcoming (this time from Image). In fact, had I not been writing an afterword for that new collection when Newsarama contacted me, I might have never thought of tackling this topic myself. The story of an alien clone who comes to Earth at the birth of rock and travels through its history like Woody Allen popping up in various world events in Zelig, Red Rocket 7 is Mike Allred’s love letter to all the things I also love, and all the things I trumpet here. It’s pure comics, from its first colorful page to the last, but its spirit is that of a rock innovator, ready to break the boundaries, ready to turn us all on, ready to remind us why we fight and love and live.
Can you think of any other reason you enjoy funnybooks? Can you think of a better excuse to rock?
Nope. Me neither.