Music, Magic and Comics: Hearing Stories, Drawing the Invisible

Beverly Bryan

By Beverly Bryan

on 02.20.15 in Features

“I think it’s the closest thing to magic that exists.” That’s how comics writer Kieron Gillen describes music — and he should know. In different ways, music is the subject of both Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine, two ongoing comics series he created with artist Jamie McKelvie.

Gillen and McKelvie are at the bar in Yotel, the compact luxury hotel where the two Englishmen are staying during New York Comic Con. Gillen is explaining why their comics deal intensively with popular music, and why the subject continues to interest them. “I’ve read loads about the science behind music, but there’s no real reason for it,” he says. “It’s a bug in the human brain.”

‘Music creates a world from sounds. Comics create a world from everything but sound, from the absence of sound. We’ve spent our careers trying to do something incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible, trying to translate music into comics. — Jamie McKelvie’

If we understand magic as whatever we don’t yet fully understand, then it’s pretty fair to put music in that category.

But in the universe of Phonogram, music literally is magic. The book’s protagonist, David Kohl, is meant to be read as a music critic, though it’s never explicitly stated. He’s also a phonomancer — a type of sorcerer who uses music in his magical workings. In the opening sequence of the story arc Rue Brittania he attends a Ladyfest in Bristol, England, not because he believes in the festival’s feminist cause, but because the other people there do, which gives him “energies to tap.”

Phonogram is both oblique and literal about the nature of phonomancers. In the books, they use music to work magic, but very often the things they actually do — such as always being on the guest list — are within the skill set of muggle-world scenesters. Some of the phonomancers, like Kohl and the other members of his coven are lost souls, hardened and narcissistic; some of the younger ones we meet in Singles Club, the second collection/story arc, are endearingly vulnerable, but may be on their way to turning out like their cynical older peers.

The series is characterized by a wry but sympathetic depiction of music fandom. For me, putting it in metaphysical terms seemed like the best possible way to tell the truth about the power of music, and comics the best possible medium in which to do so. I felt Gillen and McKelvie were able to close in on something that is usually very difficult to explain, or even adequately describe. To hear McKelvie tell it, pulling off this synthesis wasn’t easy. “In many ways they’re complete opposites,” he says. “Music creates a world from sounds. Comics create a world from everything but sound, from the absence of sound. We’ve spent our careers trying to do something incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible, trying to translate music into comics.”

Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine have an American cousin in the independently published series Blokhedz, which mixes hip-hop mysticism with a bit of sci-fi. The book follows the inner-city coming-of-age of young Blak, who discovers he has supernormal gifts as an MC. In his world, good and evil hang in the balance during rap battles and a record contract can endanger your soul in a very literal way.

‘The thing with Nas and ‘Illmatic’ was that it was so visual. The way he put his words together, it was cinematic. I can see the movie in my head and I relate to a lot of what he’s saying. We wanted to translate it into comic form, because there’s others out there that would get it, the way Nas got it. — Mike Davis’

Brothers Mike and Mark Davis created Blokhedz under the name MadTwiinz, among other graphic delights such as DMC a hero comic in collaboration with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and a host of other comics creators. In a phone interview where he is joined by his brother, Mike Davis makes clear that music is a huge inspiration. He cites Nas’s Illmatic as a direct inspiration for Blokhedz: “The thing with Nas and Illmatic was that it was so visual. The way he put his words together, it was cinematic. It had this really visceral, visual component to it. It just clicked. This is a world that he’s talking about. I can see the movie in my head and I relate to a lot of what he’s saying. We wanted to translate it into comic form, because there’s others out there that would get it, the way Nas got it. We had never seen that in comic books so that’s what we wanted to do.”

Music’s unexplainable power, its magic, is a big part of Blokhedz. Mark Davis explains that the idea for the series came out of a conversation between the two brothers about the power of music: “Jay Z had a lyric [that was something like] ‘I don’t do jerseys no more, I do button-ups,’ and after he said that, almost instantly people stopped wearing sports jerseys and started wearing button-up shirts. Me and Mike started reflecting on that, like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of power. That’s almost a spell.’ And from there we just kind of explored that deeper, like; it is actually magic.”

Mike Davis expands on that thought, making it clear that the magic and power they see in hip-hop, indeed, goes much deeper than influence over street style: “A lot of ancient traditions like African shamanism or things of that nature always had an oral tradition. And we would always have these conversations about how hip-hop, it’s born from that. It’s just taken on an evolution to fit into these modern times. The history of it is lost but the actual tradition and the rituals still exist in a modern form. That conversation really fueled the Blokhedz world.”

The relationship between music and independent comics goes back to the 1960s. “Underground comix,” as they were called, to distinguish them from the safer offerings of Marvel and DC, was a movement pioneered by creators like Robert Crumb (also a musician) and Harvey Pekar (a jazz critic and avid record collector) who grew up alongside the music, radical politics and avant-garde art movements of the era. It was a time when artists of all kinds brought a spirit of cultural sedition to popular forms like rock ‘n’ roll and film. They were a bizarre and often disturbing mélange of antiauthoritarianism, psychedelic art and general sleaze — with a fair amount of racism and misogyny mixed in. They were both mainstream comics’ id and rock ‘n’ roll’s sexually frustrated younger brother.

The Wicked + The Divine

The Wicked + The Divine

It makes sense, then, that a fair number of indie comics (the gentler descendants of the underground comix) would draw direct inspiration from pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop and other mind-altering sounds. From KISS comics to Love and Rockets to the countless comic zines documenting punk life, music comics is practically its own subgenre. Many well-known comics writers and artists are also serious musicians and vice versa. In comics artist and creator Mike Allred’s rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi comic Red Rocket 7, for which there is a companion music album and film called Astroesque, the musically inclined alien clone protagonist hangs out with the Dandy Warhols. Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor has written One Model Nation, a graphic novel about an East German krautrock band in the ’70s who cross paths with David Bowie, Uta Hagen and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Gerard Way, who fronted My Chemical Romance, has also found success writing the comic series The Umbrella Academy. Even James Kochalka, creator of award-winning indie comics such as American Elf, finds time for his band James Kochalka Superstar.

The hip-hop world declares its love of comics more overtly than any other genre. From MF Doom to Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon persona to Jean Grae, loads of rappers have taken their names from the funny pages. Davis points out, “There’s so many references, even just lyrically, in hip-hop. Kingdom Come by Jay Z was named after a [Superman] graphic novel from DC and he makes a reference to it on his album.”

In Kingdom Come, Superman comes out of retirement, a concept which provided the conceit for Jay Z’s comback album. He toys with the conceit in lines like: “Ladies sayin’, ‘Where you been Superman?’…The Bruce Wayne of the game have no fear.”

Maybe the prevalence of music in independent comics has to do with the fact that both art forms are still often considered trash culture, or kid’s stuff. In Gillen’s words, “They’re both disreputable.” And, of course, records and comics are both very collectible in similarly fetishistic ways.

“They’re both forms of escapism, right?” offers Mike Davis. “That’s one of the avenues I’ve explored. It’s a form of entertainment, and people who have a collector spirit or are really into feeling a different world. Everyone likes movies, but some people dig a little deeper and like to quote movies and have conversations where everyone is just quoting movies. There are the people who consume music in the same manner, and those people usually dig deeper into comics as well. It’s the creativity that people are attracted by.”

In the summer of 2014 Gillen and McKelvie released a new music-inspired series called The Wicked + The Divine, which is populated by musicians, fans and a journo, but instead of being sorcerers, the musicians are gods.

In the story, 12 deities manifest as young British pop stars. They are divine beings destined to flourish magnificently in the spotlight for two years, then they must die. They repeat this cycle, called the recurrence, every 90 years, and have been doing so for a long time. A teenage acolyte, Laura, is willingly drawn into their dangerous but alluring world, positioning popular music as a kind of modern mystery religion. It’s a metaphor so perfect that it’s almost just a statement of fact. Pop stars are, for many people, modern divinities, embodying all that we aspire to be and become. And, like the members of Greece’s ancient mystery cults, subculture initiates, and industry insiders guard hermetic knowledge. The gradual unfolding of this metaphor makes for addictive reading.

Cassandra, the doubting-Thomas music journalist in the story, analyzes and questions those artists who capture the public’s imagination. Others, like goober-with-potential Laura, must become one of them.

In the first issue, easy-to-identify-with Laura sneaks out to a club to see Amaterasu, a radiantly ethereal pop artist McKelvie describes as “a little bit of Kate Bush with Florence Welch,” who exists within a pop archetype matrix that he says includes both Stevie Nicks and Grimes. (In Japan’s Shinto religion, Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun.) Standing enraptured in the front row the true believer with dip-dyed hair gazes up at her idol and thinks “I want everything you have.”

In the world of The Wicked + The Divine ancient gods sync directly with modern pop archetypes. It’s hard not to see Baal, a pop star with a gift for inflammatory public statements, as a press-baiting, self-adoring Kanye West. Sakhmet bears some physical and temperamental resemblance to Rihanna. The blonde, pansexual Luci, is a conflation of Thin White Duke-era Bowie with the devil himself, in the guise of a magnetically androgynous woman — who bears a certain resemblance to La Roux. The gods’ collective purpose is to inspire mortals. As Baal pronounces in issue 4, “We don’t get to change anything. We get to change you, and then you choose what to do with it.”

It’s a comic about music and fandom, but it’s also about creation, and creating oneself, daring to be extraordinary, and the inevitable cost of that choice. Ultimately, it’s about mortality — and immortality.

The Wicked + The Divine is kind of informed by the 10 years since I became a creator,” Gillen explains. “Before that, I was a critic myself and before that I was someone who wrote fanzines. It’s about the whole process of how you get from A to B. We’re interested in art as a transformative force, and how it changes people’s lives. Music transformed me and art transformed me.”

Though the books are different (“Opposite sides of the coin,” as McKelvie says), they weave similar spells. Both function as a kind of meta-music criticism that enters directly into the bloodstream through the senses — commenting on the experience of art by showing it, instead of telling us what it’s like. The experience of art, especially art that means something to you, is often private and strange, even if that experience is shared live with hundreds of other people.

In his great work of sequential art Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud observes that, in comics, time and space merge, and the passage of time is illustrated through inventive representations of sound and movement. Think the streaky horizontal lines drawn behind a speeding car or panels of different lengths suggesting moments of varying duration. A single comics panel freezes time, but it gives the reader the opportunity to imagine all kinds of sounds and simultaneous actions.

This ability to manipulate our perception might be what makes sequential art excellent for illuminating something as ephemeral as music. McCloud points out that sound can only exist in time. A comic panel can pin a brief moment — such as the climax of a song or the flourishing of a music scene — to the page, making it a great tool for investigating different aspects of music’s mysterious power, panel by panel. Gillen and McKelvie often seem cognizant of this power, and use the full range of graphic possibilities to materialize the immaterial.

‘In the Wicked + The Divine there’s going to be a rave issue and I’m going to try to do that disassociated moment in clubs, try to translate that experience into another medium, and how the bass comes in and the effects and endorphins and all that kind of stuff. — Kieron Gillen’

Rue Brittannia contains a nice piece of comics-as-music-criticism when Scout Niblett takes the stage at Ladyfest. The lyrics she intones are lettered in a loopy style, while she herself is rendered in a stark chiaroscuro that leaves half her face blacked-out. It goes halfway to illustrating the captivating charm of the real-life singer-songwriter/drummer’s music. David Kohl’s narration does the rest: “As stick hits bare drum, as bare voice hits ear drum, a charge runs through me.…For three minutes, we’re hers.”

It’s not an easy task to convey things about the unseen musical art form using the sequential one, but Gillen and McKelvie have collected an arsenal of techniques.

“The closest we’ve come to directly trying to illustrate music was the last issue of Singles Club, which was built around [the TV on the Radio song] ‘Wolf Like Me,’ which literally had the build, the beat, the chorus, the fadeout. There’s the song structure, and the instruments come in and all those kind of elements. So we’re very explicitly trying to do a story which is shaped like ‘Wolf Like Me.’ That’s as good as we ever got,” Gillen confesses.

“In the Wicked + The Divine there’s going to be a rave issue and I’m going to try to do that disassociated moment in clubs, try to translate that experience into another medium, and how the bass comes in and the effects and endorphins and all that kind of stuff,” he says with excitement.

It might be that illustrating the impossible — the ephemeral beauty of live performance, the flowering of a larger-than-life talent (both of these things essentially objects in motion) — is the kind of thing that comics artists are drawn to, and which brings out the best in them. Comic books are great at crystallizing the fragile and the fleeting, you have only to look at Blankets, Craig Thompson’s critically acclaimed graphic novel about first love to see that. Perhaps, the comic book page is the closest we can get to being able to see certain things about the music we love.