Comic-book rockers strip away the music

Superheroes and cartoon characters have always featured in pop. Today the genres are merging in new ways, says Nick Hasted
  • @IndyVoices

Comic-books and music have been linked since San Francisco's underground cartoonists and acid-rockers mingled in the 1960s. Now in a new wave of activity, the two spheres are becoming interchangeable.

From UK indie veterans The Wedding Present to US prog-rockers Coheed and Cambria, and Camden indie band The Red the White and the Blue (who include members of Ash and Feeder), musicians are writing their own comics to illustrate the imaginative worlds in their heads. Meanwhile, clambering over the other side of the fence, comic-books' most brilliant writer, Alan Moore, regularly performs sell-out shows to eerie musical accompaniment.

Coheed and Cambria, who have released a series of top 10 albums in the US, are named after characters in the popular comics their singer-songwriter Claudio Sanchez also scripts. The albums' concepts only make sense when heard alongside the comics' cosmic conspiracies. Sanchez was inspired by bands of the 1970s who suggested a world beyond their music. "When I was growing up," he recalls, "I liked the bands that had a cinematic counterpart to their record, like Pink Floyd with The Wall. I liked the idea of the songs having a life off of the record, and that's what I'd like to see happen for Coheed. The comics detail all those moments that might not be fleshed out in the music. They work hand in hand, to help create each other."

Another clear connection between the comic-book and rock mainstreams is the outlandish characters of the greatest rock stars. Bob Dylan, Ziggy Stardust, Johnny Rotten and Slim Shady are super-aliases, masking the secret identities of Robert Zimmerman et al. In the 1970s, the masked and costumed Kiss and Alice Cooper both starred in Marvel comics, and in 1994 Cooper employed British writer Neil Gaiman to help conceive his Lost in America album.

Sanchez agrees he has a more potent alter ego, on both page and stage. "I created my concepts to allow myself to tell my story, but also have something to hide behind," he says. "And when the music happens onstage, I feel like someone else. It's a kind of superhero transition." Ash's Rick McMurray, moonlighting with The Red the White and the Blue and cameoing in their comic The Balloonist, also sees the appeal. "Comics relate closely to music," he says. "They can both be vehicles for creating an ideal concept of the self."

The Balloonist is published in issues packaged with CDs which soundtrack the story. An album and graphic novel will collect both next year. "I haven't seen anyone do that before," the band's guitarist and comics mastermind Paul Cronin says. "But there seems to be a whole wave coming of people doing something similar. Comic-books seemed like a perfect medium to get the story across. The style of music we do is quite Pop Art. The lyrics are direct, as comic-book dialogue is." An online, part-animated "motion comic" soundtracked by the songs connects the media still closer.

Alan Moore's new single, "The Decline of English Murder", is a fund-raiser for the Occupy movement the anarchist writer helped inspire with his comic V for Vendetta, a 1984 episode of which, "The Vicious Cabaret", began his fascination with expressing "the vitality and spirit of rock'n'roll" in comics. It's whole story was in song form, with music by Bauhaus's David J written under the frames, then recorded as a single.

In Moore's current comic, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Stones' 1969 concert in Hyde Park inspires a lavish swirl of psychedelic art to the rewritten lyrics of "Sympathy for the Devil", followed by a 1977 comedown in a grey punk club. But Moore is as likely these days to be found incanting onto CDs such as Unearthing with musicians including Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Faith No More's Mike Patton, or performing.

When the comics and pop scenes are at their strongest, they intersect and play off each other. Leading 1960s underground cartoonists such as Robert Crumb made their names in San Francisco alongside their acid-dropping friends Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, while in the 1990s Fantagraphics was Sub Pop's comic-book equivalent and neighbour in Seattle, chronicling the slacker era in Peter Bagge's Hate.

At the decade's end, New York's anti-folk music scene gave a voice to musician-cartoonists including Jeffrey Lewis, who has been called "the finest lyricist working in the US today" by Jarvis Cocker. "Music's never what I intended to do with my life in the first place," he tells me. "I've regretted the time taken away from comics." Sanchez knows how he feels. "When we were working on this last record, I stepped away from comic writing for six months and I felt a void of some sort. Then, when I looked at the next scripts, it felt like, 'oh, this is what's been missing'."

'The Balloonist' by The Red the White and the Blue and Coheed and Cambria's album 'The Afterman: Ascension' are out now