Pop stars branch out into graphic novels

It was autumn 2007 and I was surveying the queue outside Forbidden Planet, which was spiralling round the block

The cult entertainment department store just off Covent Garden was normally a quiet place: geeky adult males wrapped around Star Trek paraphernalia, engrossed in the latest Garth Ennis tome or eyeing up the limited edition Street Fighter figurines. But that day was different. A sea of figures dressed in black threatened to engulf the whole building. It was a blur of skeleton hoodies and faces hidden beneath layers of kohl eyeliner and hennaed hair, as scores of scowling teenagers lined the pavement. They were waiting for a chance to meet their hero. “OH. MY. GOD. I can’t believe I’m going to TOUCH HIM!” screamed the excited tween girl beside me, half-Avril Lavigne, half-Emily the Strange. Her friends squealed with delight.

The “him” she was going to touch? My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, who was there to sign copies of his first graphic novel, The Umbrella Academy. My Chemical Romance were the band responsible for taking the musical genre “emo” into the mainstream, via the bedroom walls of millions of adoring fans. The same decadent storytelling that saw MCR sell 2m copies of their third album, The Black Parade, was seen in The Umbrella Academy. The tale of former superheroes struck a chord with many of those who found solace in Way’s outcast lyrics. The six-part series of comics also managed to persuade the snootier echelons of the comic book world – who were sceptical about a singer-turned-comic book author – that Way was the real deal. The singer attended the School of Visual Arts in New York as well as interning at DC Comics before he formed MCR.

The success of the series has also opened the door for musicians to utilise graphic novels as never before. “I’m pretty sure it got into the hands of people who had never read comics before, or who just had a passing interest,” says Shawna Gore, an editor from Dark Horse Comics who published The Umbrella Academy. “It was a bridge between pop music and comics.”

That bridge has become more apparent in 2010 with two significant album releases set to feature graphic novel tie-ins. In pop culture terms, the timing seems right, with music fans still craving big aesthetic experiences in spite of the downsizing of the music industry. The evidence is everywhere, from Lady Gaga’s headline-baiting frocks to musicians turning to the outré world of opera to fulfil their creative needs (Björk is the latest pop star to announce that she is penning a libretto, a 3D “science musical” with French director Michel Gondry). “As well as this aesthetic need that comics fulfil, they play another role,” Gore says. “Musicians are able to tell the same stories they tell in song via the medium of comics. It’s a natural extension of songwriting.”

The link between comic books and pop music stretches all the way back to the 1960s with the Archies and Yellow Submarine but, in recent years, alternative musical genres and the graphic novel have been bedfellows, peaking with Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett’s collaboration with Damon Albarn on the virtual Gorillaz project. “Historically it’s been tied to punk rock and heavy metal,” says Gore. “Kiss had a range of comics in the 1970s, Alice Cooper did a graphic novel with [author] Neil Gaiman and Danzig’s Glenn Danzig was a comics publisher for a couple of years in the 1990s. So I think there’s always been that attraction. As people become more confident in their creative endeavours, they grow legs and they are open to other possibilities creatively.”

This is certainly the case with Amanda Palmer. The former Dresden Dolls chanteuse has just released an album under the pseudonym Evelyn Evelyn, and the album/graphic novel allowed her to stretch her wings creatively. “I achieved a lot of success with The Dresden Dolls and solo, but now I’ve hit a place that’s sort of a midlife artist crisis, where I’m really re-assessing what I’m doing and why. Creating an album and graphic novel seemed like a logical step,” she says.

The Evelyn Evelyn project finds Palmer and musical partner Jason Webley donning the guise of a pair of conjoined twin sisters. “They are joined at the side and share three legs and a liver,” she says. The girls’ story also provided perfect fodder for the graphic novel treatment. “The material on the record is very visual. The songs are like mini radio plays.”

It also provided Palmer with something that other creative outlets could not. “It opens up one’s imagination with certain types of images and art in a way nothing else does.” On disc, their disturbing tale (filled with tales of entrapment and hinting at abuse) is told with gallows humour, but translating it on to paper was more challenging. “The story is told from the point of view of innocent children but it’s really dark. You’re telling the facts as kids see them but you’re also including adult perspectives, that was what we had to think about.”

The album might be released soon but the Evelyn Evelyn graphic novel will not be out until October. The lavish two-book package, which will feature an introduction from Palmer’s fiancé Neil Gaiman, seems like a relic of a time gone by. For Palmer, this is the products’ unique selling point. “It’s going to be a beautiful, tangible piece of art itself. In today’s world it was important for us to create something you could hold in your hands and not just watch on a screen,” she says. As Shawna Gore says, “graphic novels allow musicians to have more autonomy over the formats in which they work.”

It’s a sentiment that musician Melissa Auf Der Maur agrees with. She is set to release Out Of Our Minds, a multimedia project (album, film and graphic novel) that deals with “an eternal female force on a hunt for the heart and it’s in all of us, and it’s lived for all time”. For Auf Der Maur, former member of Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, she saw the graphic novel as a perfect way to expound on these themes. “I was attracted to the graphic novel because it allowed me to explore the language of fantasy; of the subconscious and dreams.” The rock world and comic world, she says, have similar mindsets. “There’s a huge crossover in terms of people who are comic book fans and rock music fanatics.”

Indeed the iconography Auf Der Maur uses to tell her non-linear tale (vikings, blood and witches) are ones that are common to the world of rock too. “Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath referred to [that imagery] because the original ‘heavy metal’ was mysticism, so I returned to the original route.” She asked Jack Forbes, a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts, to create the wordless, comic accompaniment to her album. “I didn’t use words because it was all about the power of the visual that we wanted to communicate. Like music, the comic form transcends words,” she says, echoing Amanda Palmer’s comments.

“I showed Jack the fluid movements, the ‘frames within frames’ form of graphic novels which appealed to me and we used that. It was a very peaceful process compared with being on the film set recreating a car crash or being in a studio with loud music.”

Is the pairing up of the graphic novel and the album the future? Palmer isn’t so sure. “As artists are getting cleverer about capitalising on their releases, some will do some groundbreaking stuff with graphic novels. But for others, it won’t make sense. Sure you may see the pop star du jour putting one out but that doesn’t mean it’s this great new thing. I’d love to read what a brilliant mind like Robyn Hitchcock would do in the genre but, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d want to see the Beyoncé graphic novel.”

‘Evelyn Evelyn’ is on Eleven Records

‘Out Of Our Minds’ is released on May 3 on Roadrunner Records

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