Top Ten Comics Starring MusiciansA column article, Top Ten by: David Fairbanks, Nick Hanover, Steve Morris, Jason Sacks
In a world where indie comics star Brian Wood is told that there just isn't a market for a comic about musicians, we're kind of surprised that there are so many out there already. Whether fictional, real, or something in between, we're here with our Top Ten Comics Starring Musicians. There are easily more than ten to choose from, so we aren't quite sure who would shoot down the idea of an exploration of guitar-based music across decades in a similar vein to Northlanders, but clearly they are wrong.
Feel like we left anything off? Chime in in the comments!
Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness
My late mother loved Johnny Cash's music. She had a great collection of 33s by the Man in Black. My mom was a Jewish woman from the streets of Brooklyn, the grandchild of immigrants who spoke Yiddish. However, it never struck me as odd that she so dearly loved the music of a very Christian man who would use a Mexican mariachi band to back his most famous song. Such is the power of great music to transcend its specifics to become a work that people anywhere can embrace and love.
Looking back, I think it's the power of Johnny Cash's personality as much as any other aspect of his life that made him such a compelling musician. The dark clothes that Cash wore reflected a dark and haunted soul, one that easily could have been imprisoned in Folsom Prison or worse. God knows that musicians with Cash's incredibly destructive habits died from some of the same experiences that Cash survived.
Reinhard Kleist's Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness takes on the Man in Black and follows the musician into the abyss. The book is as much a psychological portrait of Johnny Cash as it is anything else. The artist is confident enough in his skills and the power of his story to allow his graphics to tell the story as much as his words. Kleist's use of blacks to reflect the bleakness of Cash's drug addiction and recovery is a tremendously powerful asset for this graphic novel. Four years after I first read this book, that's the most abiding memory I have of both Cash and Kleist's book: endless, deep, intense black, consuming everything and destroying all brightness.
Scott Pilgrim is the epitome of slacker, sharing a studio apartment and bed with his best friend Wallace Wells. He's unemployed for most of the series (though he did have a job once), and all six volumes revolve around him defeating the exes of his literal dream girl, Ramona Flowers, in combat to earn the right to date her.
We've got Scott Pilgrim is on the list because Scott also plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb, which makes him a twenty-something slacker musician.
The series is a whole lot more than the crazy video game-infused escapades of Scott on his quest to overcome his girlfriend's baggage, however; it is also a blueprint for how to live your life. Or, rather, how not to do it. Scott's pretty pathetic throughout at least the first five books, only sparingly realizing that the world does not revolve around him (even though the events of the books might).
Despite this, you find yourself rooting for him when he needs it and getting pissed off at him when he deserves it. Scott Pilgrim is that friend you have who is constantly struggling to get their shit together, and... you know what? I'm not really sure why I'm bothering summarizing this book for you. Chances are that you know what Scott Pilgrim is; you've probably even read it. Which means you know very well that it belongs on this Top Ten.
Baby's in Black
If you're even remotely interested in music, you're probably aware of the glut of Beatles paraphernalia out there. There really isn't a medium the Fab Four haven't been carried over to which is why I can understand if you have a hard time working up interest in a Beatles' comic. Which is why it's fortunate that Arne Bellstorf's Baby's in Black isn't really a Beatles comic so much as a comic which happens to feature most of the Beatles.
Set in the band's pre-fame days in Germany, Baby's in Black is a thoughtful memoir work about the budding-- and unfortunately doomed-- relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr. Sutcliffe is an important figure in Beatles mythology, a talented artist who joined the band as a favor and thus presents a lot of what if scenarios for Beatles aficionados, but Kirchherr is less well-known despite contributing to much of what made the Beatles, including those haircuts.
Both Kirchherr and Sutcliffe were serious artists and Baby's in Black is essentially a work about the struggle between passions, as Sutcliffe becomes less interested in the band and more interested in the serious artistic pursuits Kirchherr symbolizes. Their relationship is presented as one centered around that passion and the way they support and motivate each other is rendered in a lovingly intimate fashion by Bellstorf. Bellstorf's art is influenced as much by comic strips as it is biographical comics and that contrast between innocence and seriousness can't help but reflect what we now associate with the Beatles' music itself. Though it's a work about musicians, Baby's in Black is also a work about the pursuit of art itself, and that as well as its detailing of a less well known aspect of the legend of the most influential band of all-time allows it to truly stand out.
The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song
It's hard to resurrect the past, to create a lost era in a new graphic novel. But David Lasky and Frank Young's biography of the Carter Family, Don't Forget This Song, does exactly that -- and much more. This new graphic novel is the story of the famous Carter Family singers, giant musical celebrities in the 1930s and a legendary musical family that continues on even today with the children of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Despite the fact that this book takes place over 75 years ago -- or maybe because of that fact -- the worlds of these characters are evocative and fascinating. We watch A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle work their way through their lives, working hard and singing the songs that both improve their lives and destroy their relationships as they work their ways through life.
Artist David Lasky draws most of this book in a deceptively simple medium-view flat image that seems to flatten out the story. But when he draws images of people singing, the book takes on a more lovely and intriguing feel. Sara's and A.P.'s voices combine on page 21 to become something more than the combination of their two voices. The combination becomes a rose, a symbol of love and passion that represents the relationship between the two young people as well as a classic element in song. Music becomes A.P.'s entire life. We see music and careerism get in the way of family life. There's a divorce in the middle of this story that's quite sad and dispiriting but that readers can anticipate coming from pages before, as well as a feeling of the family being trapped by their success.
This is an interesting book that works on several levels. As a simple biography, it's satisfying and intriguing. As a piece of comics art, it's creative and innovative. And as a depiction of the older, weirder America, it succeeds wonderfully. This book does a terrific job of capturing the complicated lives of one of America's most important musical families.
Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm
Since its inception, the hip-hop world has been drawn to comic books, with emcees often building up outsized personas like superhero dual identities or in some cases just pillaging actual superhero identities from comics. But there's a shortage of comics by hip-hop figures, which is made all the more depressing when one encounters a work like Percy Carey and Ronald Wimberly's Sentences, a biocomic about Carey's life as the legendary MF Grimm.
Carey is a superhuman figure in his own way, particularly given the details of the 1994 shooting that almost ended his life and left him paralyzed. Doctors were certain that Carey would never recover from that act of violence and would be blind, deaf, and incapable of speech forever after. But Carey didn't just recover, he persevered, eventually taking on the MF Grimm identity, collaborating with such icons as MF Doom.
In Ronald Wimberly, Carey has an artistic collaborator who can truly bring his incredible experiences to life, in much the same way that Spike Lee did for Smoke in Passing Strange. Wimberly's art is powerful and dynamic, full of an explosive energy that matches and expands on Carey's own explosive vitality. Carey's story is such a fascinating one that it's more than just a work about a musician or a work for fans of hip-hop, it's a powerful work about overcoming incredible obstacles and carving out your own path.
You've probably heard of the “27 club,” right? If not, there's a convenient link to Wikipedia there for you, but the gist of it is that a ton of popular and talented musicians died at the age of 27, including Alan Wilson, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the death that kickstarted a great deal of the belief in the 27 club: Kurt Kobain.
Well, 27 is about that. Kind of. Will Garland, a famous rock musician, turned 27 at the start of the miniseries, and it follows his attempts to make it to 28.
Why is it a struggle? Well, because he's developed a crippling nerve disorder in his hand that has left him unable to play. Some people might be able to just do something else, but for Will, there is nothing else. He's devoted his life to this skill that he can no longer use, so obviously he's in a pretty dark place as he tries to just survive through it, dealing with all of the crazy things life throws at you along the way.
Crazy things like a dark god obsessed with numerology that gives you the ability to literally trigger a mystical dose of creativity (in a field not of your choosing) with the push of a button. Would you use your powers for good? Or would you find yourself chasing the dragon of your former self and hoping you get some fraction of it back?
27 is about a musician, sure, but it's also about learning to live with what you are. And if you're lucky, possibly learning how to change what you are.
Hopeless Savages is the kind of story with a ridiculous as hell premise that works solely because of how absurd it is. Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage went from the life of rock stars, partying and touring and everything, to the banality of the suburbs.
Of course, that doesn't mean that they changed their ways in the slightest. Dirk and Nikki, along with their kids, Rat, Arsenal, Twitch, and Zero go on adventure after adventure, ranging from a kidnapping plot to international intrigue.
You're never given the chance to doubt this; Jen Van Meter just kind of forces you to accept that the Hopeless Savages' crazy life is the way of things and roll with it. It's the kind of craziness that would prepare the world of comics for a series like Scott Pilgrim. In fact, Bryan Lee O'Malley was even on art duties for some of the stories.
The two series don't really have a whole lot in common with each other (aside from both being on this list), but they are representative of a type of story that takes seemingly ordinary people and thrusts them into strange situations, either the extreme world of Scott Pilgrim, where people can literally be punched into coins, or something a bit less radical, where a family of rockers adventure with each other like a modern action/adventure take on The Partridge Family. Either way, this is the way their respective universes work, and it definitely adds to the charm of it all.
There's something about Hopeless Savages that feels painfully '90s in only the best ways, like it deserves to be read between episodes of Daria, while watching the scattered music videos that were still on MTV, even though it didn't see print until after the '90s were dead and gone.
Red Rocket 7
Mike Allred's Red Rocket 7 is a love letter to rock and roll, an exhilarating ride through musical history from Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis all the way to Radiohead and U2. In between we get to spend time with the Beatles and the Stones, some punk rockers, new wavers, glams and flash. And this being a Mike Allred comic, everything is done with a touch of flash and a touch of retro-slick coolness.
The conceit of Red Rocket 7 is that an immortal being has come down from space to inspire musicians of all types and styles. Music may not be a virus from outer space like language is, but it does seem at times to be an ethereal force that has bizarre mystical powers to change peoples' hearts and minds. Hmm, when you think about it, isn't that a great idea for a comic? Allred delivers on that idea in this book, creating a thrillingly euphoric light show of unfiltered pure rock energy as exciting as your first concert and as deep as your favorite pop single.
Red Rocket 7 is a completely subjective look at reality as Allred dreams of it being, a reality filled with daydreams of Bowie and the Beatles and goofy sci-fi movies. This is the sort of surrealistically wonderful biography that works brilliantly in comics: an impressionistic, sometimes dreamlike work that lives in the glow of its own wonderfulness.
If you don't know what American Elf is, you are missing out. James Kochalka's 14-year (and counting) almost-daily autobiographical comic is nothing if not epic in its scale while appearing mundane in its scope. Note, I say appearing mundane, because Kochalka is often rather profound, whether he intends it or not.
Now, you might be scratching your head here, and that's a bit understandable. You thought you were reading a list of comics about musicians, and here's this cartoonist's autobio stuff toward the end. What gives, right?
Does that answer your question?
His comic doesn't focus extensively on his escapades as the frontman for James Kochalka Superstar, but it is undoubtedly pure punk in the vein of old-school DIY zine-printing rockers. American Elf burns with the raw intensity and sincerity of an id unfiltered and let loose upon the world.
Of course, Dazzler has always been the best musician in comics. The initial idea of the character was that Marvel Comics and Casablanca Records were going to cross-promote a creation: Marvel would create a musician superhero, and Casablanca would then put out a record by her. After trying to dictate the project from the start, however - initially Dazzler was drawn to be a black woman, shaved head, who resembled Grace Jones, but that was nixed – Casablanca backed out of the concept entirely.
But Tom DeFalco had created a character, John Romita Jr had drawn her, and Roger Stern had named her… DAZZLER. And when you’ve got those guys all working on a character, why would you shelve her? She first appeared, weirdly enough, in the “Dark Phoenix Saga” era of the X-Men, before spring boarding to her own brilliant solo series. She hung out with Angel and fought a then-evil Rogue, with writer Danny Fingeroth working with DeFalco to focus on a book which looked at Dazzler as a musician first and hero second. It was a massive camp cult hit, and her outfit, personality and image became iconic in its own time.
Issue #1 sold over 400,000 issues. It was gigantic, with an original graphic novel following, and covers from Bill Sienkiewicz. Dazzler was EVERYWHERE. Eventually she was sent into the heart of the X-Men, where Chris Claremont made her an integral part of the team during the finest era of the franchise. Times changed, though, and the character started to appear less frequently post-Claremont, and eventually went into limbo until very recently.
She has fans in the most surprising places - Jim McCann of course, but also Brian Michael Bendis and the man who brought her back: Ed Brubaker! Yeah, who would've guessed?
In the Brubaker-plotted, Matt Fraction-scripted Uncanny X-Men run starting with issue #500, Dazzler returned, with an unfortunate new costume but her same manic silly love for life and music. Subsequently Kieron Gillen grabbed her (having been the first to re-introduce her, in an anthology story), and she regained her fan-favorite status during his “Quarantine” arc. She has her career and spotlight back, and has now became popular enough that she's currently joined Greg Pak to act as the lead in X-Treme X-Men.
The brilliance of Dazzler is that she was unapologetically mainstream pop. When written best, she ignores the “dark and edgy” style of comics and offers upbeat camp value to any storyline. And just like the style of music she sings, Dazzler herself went out of fashion when grunge and dirge-music became popular. Yet as the world has realized once more that Pop is Good (hey, Girls Aloud! Hey, Lady Gaga! Hey, Little Boots!), so we have realized once more that Dazzler is GREAT! She’s never written as being ashamed of loving what she does, with her love for pop serving as an excellent metaphor for the readership’s love for comics. Don’t be afraid of liking the things you like! Other people might mock, but JUST GO FOR IT!