Phonogram is just one of the comics attempting to make sense of music.
Comic books. Pop music.
Over the years, high-minded critics have assailed both for corrupting American youth and debasing the culture with cheap, mass-market junk-food-for-the-senses that forever ruins one's ability to appreciate, you know, Tartuffe and, like, um, Liszt, or whatever.
Of course, the "mass-market" for comics has grown considerably less massive in recent decades, while popular music in various forms (hip-hop, rap, country, American Idolatry, etc.) continues to live up to its adjective, and contains multitudes.
But comics and popular music have much in common: For many years, the people who actually published the comics and produced that bands that targeted the youth market were middle-aged dudes in business suits. The 1980s saw a new generation of creators attempt to wrest some measure of control from big publishers/music labels, birthing near-simultaneous (and regrettably named) "indie" movements.
Several articles have been written about musicians who make comics, and comic creators with bands. Entire wikis have been built around the appearances of comic book characters in pop songs. (You'd be forgiven for mistaking the band XTC's songbook for an issue of Who's Who in the DC Universe, for example.)
That's not what we're discussing today, nor are we gonna simply gonna list those comics that feature characters who are musicians. Instead, here's a (partial!) list of some comics that have wrestled with just exactly what it is that music does to you — books that attempt to capture, on the printed page, how a song can make you feel.
After the jump: The Magnetic Fields, Johnny Cash, Tori Amos, Belle and Sebastian and many, many more. (And yeah, a bit about Dazzler, because she wears a disco-ball necklace and roller skates, and I'm only human, people.)
The Spandex Suite
In superhero comics, music has power, albeit a nefarious one. Since the Golden Age, many villains have employed music to entice, compel or otherwise confound do-gooders. Your Fiddlers, your Pied Pipers, your Music Meisters. Not surprising — writers have been chronicling music's seductive power since the time Orpheus, Odysseus and their fellow toga-clad superheroes strode the earth.
In the 60s and 70s, those middle-aged, cigar-chomping comic book creators sublimated their fear of hippies, glam-rock and heavy metal by creating eeee-vil rock stars whose music would place heroes (especially young heroes, especially the Teen Titans, especially Wonder Girl) in their thrall. This practice continued well into the 90s, which saw the Titans fall under the listless, disaffected sway of .... Goth! (My favorite part: Goth's former aliases include Grunge and Rave. No, seriously.)
But some heroes do use music in the battle for good. Take Alison Blaire, aka Dazzler, a character created during the death-rattle of Disco, whose whole hero schtick (thumping bass, disco ball, roller skates) remains firmly implanted in the movie Xanadu.
For years she wore a low-cut bodysuit that the colorist rendered as white, but which I always imagined as silver lame. (Because: Disco!) Dazzler's superpower: She's a singer who can transmute music into flashing lights. Tremble in fear, evil doers, for now you face a foe who can reproduce your local planetarium's Pink Floyd laser show BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES.
Music as Magic
Two of my favorite ongoing series posit worlds in which music is literally magical, with the power not merely to reflect reality, but to transform it.
In Phonogram, pop songs — in this case, Britpop — can alter perception, control minds and permit access to a dreamscape built of a collective cultural/musical sensibility.
In the Scott Pilgrim series, a rock gig at a grungy club can spontaneously transform itself into a splashy music video, complete with choreography, ad-hoc chorus and manga-inspired fight scenes.
Several series and stand-alones eschew the clean, bright lines and tidy story structures of mainstream comics for a grittier, distinctly lo-fi approach. You can practically feel the creator's passion for music reshaping the page, and the narrative.
Love and Rockets, by Los Bros Hernandez, wasn't just about a punk band, it was a book steeped in an anarchic punk sensibility that even today, 30 years later, still seems bracing and unapologetic.
Mike Dawson's autobiographical Freddy and Me , which details his lifelong fixation on the band Queen, has some smart things to say about how the music we love, and the people who make it, leach into our everyday lives. NPR published an excerpt, a few years back.
Phonemically named creator Derf's Punk Rock and Trailer Parks really wants you to feel the bleak, oppressive world surrounding its alienated young hero, and the redemptive, shattering, transgressive power of the punk music that rescued him.
Kiminori Wakasugi's Detroit Metal City is Spinal Tap by way of Dr. Faustus, in that it's about a nerdy lover of bubblegum pop who adopts the persona of a bombastic, sexist jerk who leads a hugely successful death metal band. The jokes are broad, but they land, and Wagasuki knows, and loves, the music he parodies.
German artist Reinhard Kleist recently published an English translation of his biographical comic Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness. An intriguing approach — Kleist dramatizes Cash's songs without reprinting the lyrics, and fills the page with heavy ink, as befitting the Man in Black. Kleist published an Elvis bio-comic a few years back, as well, though that has yet to be translated into English.
The thing that grabs you about Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix is the singular visual sensibility of its artist, comics legend Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz is an original, with an eclectic, multimedia style fitted to his subject, who knew his way around fuzziness and distortion.
The music/comic anthology - in which publishers ask various comics creators to interpret songs by a given band or artist - is a curious thing. If you don't feel a strong connection to the band in question, seeing what the creators do with each song - whether they simply dramatize the lyrics or go wildly experimental in an attempt to capture the tune's mood or rhythm - is interesting enough. If you love the band in question, however, it's irresistible.
Case in point: Okay, it's not a book, it's a website, but this page, at which several artists interpret songs off The Magnetic Fields' 2004 3-CD set, 69 Love Songs, is RIDICULOUSLY fun, if you know, and love, the music. (Note: The page's title, and some of the art, gets a little blue.)
I'll admit to being enough of a Belle and Sebastian fan to love Put the Book Back on the Shelf, even though smart-type comics critic Douglas Wolk, in his Salon review, didn't think B & S's narratively opaque lyrics lent themselves to solid comics storytelling. Me, I liked seeing how many artists threw up their hands and instead attempted to capture a given song's tone.
On the other hand, I'm not enough of a Dylan fan to get excited about Bob Dylan Revisted, though many others have.
Ditto Tori Amos, though there's no denying that Comic Book Tattoo is a crazily gorgeous - and gorgeously crazy - book.
I confess I haven't gotten my hands on Poseur Ink's two anthologies devoted to the music/comics connection, but the preview art of the second book, Side B: The Music Lover's Comic Anthology, is certainly intriguing.
There's plenty more I couldn't get to - please add some of your favorites, in the comments, and I'll keep thinking of some more — but for now I'll leave you with two things:
1. Here's an interesting thought piece that attempts to map the affinity between music and comics by equating page layout with rhythm.
2. The final word on the music-comics connection. The apex. The apotheosis. The consummation devoutly to be wished. An "a-ha" moment, if ever there was one.