With his ripped jeans, lank hair and sinewy, tortured frame, Kurt Cobain is not your average superhero. But that hasn't stopped a graphic novel based on the Nirvana frontman's rock'n'roll rollercoaster of a life from becoming something of a cult classic. Originally published in 2003, and translated into six different languages, Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic is now being republished in a smaller, Manga-style format for a new generation of fans to pore over.
Chris Charlesworth, editor at Omnibus Press, came up with the idea for a Cobain comic when he was pitched a graphic novel based on The Beatles. Uncertain that the Fab Four would appeal to the fanboys, he began casting around for a more youth-friendly protagonist. Cobain's short life – crammed with domestic conflict, global success, addiction and, ultimately, tragedy – offered the credible rockstar drama he was looking for. He drafted in Barnaby Legg and Jim McCarthy, a long-time 2000 AD employee who had worked on its Judge Dredd stories for over a decade, to write the story and Flameboy to provide the images. And so, replacing lycra with lumberjack shirts and heroism with heroin, a new slacker superman in worn-out sneakers was born.
The cover image, which casts Cobain as fallen angel – on his knees in a torn T-shirt, tattered wings drooping, with tears streaming from his eyes into a puddle on the floor – is typical of Flameboy's apocalyptic, inventive visuals. It took the Yorkshire-based graphic artist (whose real name is Steve Beaumont) eight months to complete them, "locked away in a room with no windows and just the music and videos of Nirvana plus a copy of Kurt's journals for company." Flailing limbs and bloody noses at gigs, the deathly, lonely glow of a heroin hit and violent rows with a nightie-clad Courtney Love, against a backdrop of jagged swear words, all feature. "You know when rock stars say they just went with the flow?" he told NME at the time. "Sometimes I look at these pages and think, 'did I draw that?' I can't even remember drawing it."
The writers took a similarly dream-like, impressionist approach to the rock star's troubled life. No ordinary biographical trawl, McCarthy and Legg go into Cobain's burgeoning childhood "relationship" with his imaginary friend, Boddah (to whom the singer would eventually address his rambling suicide note), his depression following his parents' divorce and his teenage battles with his sexuality and so-called "suicide genes" (his uncle Burle also killed himself). More happily, it also covers the first flowerings of musical talent, the euphoric early gigs, love and fatherhood. "Writing a graphic novel is different from writing a script. With really good comic art, you can do things you can't do with other art-forms," says McCarthy. The book is topped and tailed with imagined scenes around Cobain's suicide, in the greenhouse of his Seattle home, aged 27 – a controversial piece of artistic licence which drew death threats from still-grieving fans.
Today, almost 17 years after his death, Cobain's legacy lives on. "In the modern world heroes end up on T-shirts. And there's a particular brand of hero more powerful after their death than they could ever have imagined possible during their lifetime," writes Peter Doggett in the introduction to Godspeed. "Already you can find his tortured image being worn by kids whose only exposure to music during Kurt's lifetime was toddlers' TV themes. Cobain and his band have become a badge of authenticity in an age of emptiness."
In the eight years since Godspeed was first published, interest in graphic novels has also peaked, thanks partly to several big-budget Hollywood adaptations. Last year's Scott Pilgrim vs The World, in which Michael Cera's teen hero has his own Nirvana-lite band, Sex Bob-omb, played on the shared sensibility between indie music and comic books. Both speak to dispossessed teenagers in search of heroes and their own voices as they contemplate adulthood. The new edition of Godspeed, now in A5, rather than the traditional, large-scale annual format of the original, should fit neatly into their grungey satchels alongside their iPhones, Manga comics and a copy of NME. "Even though CD sales are tanking, there's no less interest in these stars. Just look at the proliferation of fanzines and online music forums by fans dedicated to their idols," says McCarthy.
Since Cobain, McCarthy has given Eminem, Tupac and Sex Pistols the comic-strip treatment and is now working on Neverland: the Life and Death of Michael Jackson, due for publication later this year. With artwork by Brian Williamson, the Jackson novel will have a more "realistic" feel than previous works, he says, but inhabits the same moral universe. All of these tales have a titanic battle of creativity vs celebrity, or good vs evil, at their heart. The difference is that their unlikely comic-book heroes end up losing more often than they win. "They're all about people from deprived backgrounds who end up finding fame wanting and just incredibly illusory," says McCarthy. "With American Idol and X Factor all over our screens, there's a story to be told there, but I don't think people want to listen."
'Godspeed: the Kurt Cobain Graphic' is published by Omnibus (£9.95)