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During HeroesCon earlier this month, I ran into 27 writer Charles Soule. Being a big fan of music (and comics of course), I was ashamed to admit that I had not run across his series (which launched last year from Image/Shadowline), built upon the rock and roll legend about certain very brilliant musicians dying at the age of twenty-seven. With the trade paperback of the first four issues set to go on sale this Wednesday, Soule and I settled in for a quick email interview. I was intrigued to learn about Soule’s contest for readers. Also, we talk about e sure to read to the end of this interview for a mention of Vanilla Ice.
Tim O’Shea: While at the heart of the tale, the threat of death looms–and yet as you note in this November 2010 CBR interview 27‘s theme is “really creativity”. Can you talk about why you wanted to explore the concept of creativity partially through death?
Charles Soule: Jumping right into the heavy stuff, eh? Fine by me. The “hook” to 27 revolves around the many brilliant musicians and artists who have died at age twenty-seven – they’re known in rock and roll mythology as the “27 Club,” and the idea is that there’s some sort of curse that takes particularly talented individuals well before their time. In the 27 comic, Will Garland, a superstar guitar hero, turns twenty-seven and his life falls apart. His hand gets hit with a nerve disease that makes him unable to play, and all sorts of other terrible things start to occur that make him realize he’s been hit by the curse. From there, he has to try to beat the curse and live to see twenty-eight. Lots of supernatural craziness, lots of rock music lore, lots of thrills, chills and guitar fills.
But as you noted, that’s just the surface story – the carnival barker tease that gets people in the freakshow tent. The deeper theme is creativity; why do some people seem almost compelled to make art, and what does that cost them? Why are some amazing talents taken young, and, of course, is it better to burn out or fade away (to, er, re-coin a phrase)? These are big questions, and I thought they were worth exploring. Most people are creative to some extent, and the ‘why’ of it all is worth trying to unravel.
O’Shea: Infusing this tale with a puzzle, how complicated was it to incorporate it into the first four issues? Have you always been a fan of puzzles?
Soule: Right – there’s a cool little puzzle built into the series, but let me answer the second part of your question first. I’ve loved puzzles since I was a little kid. First jigsaw puzzles, then more complex conundrums of all sorts – except blacksmith puzzles. I hate those things. Seriously, screw blacksmith puzzles. These days, I like murderously hard crossword puzzles, as well as codes and ciphers. I think it’s particularly fun when someone hides a code or symbolic reference in a creative work, whether you’re talking about the Konami Code (Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start, friends and neighbors), the Kryptos sculpture at the NSA or even hidden genitalia in various Disney cartoons. I just think it’s cool when someone takes the time to build in an extra layer for attentive readers or watchers. Most people won’t even see it, but when someone does, it’s just a “yeah, that’s awesome” moment.
So, the puzzle in 27. Hidden across all four issues are a series of guitar chord symbols – twenty-seven in all, as you might expect. They’re stashed in the gutters of particular pages numerically related to one of the themes of the book. When you take all of the chord symbols and put them in a row, they make a sort of code. That code, when deciphered, makes a set of instructions. My original plan was to buy a plane ticket to a con for the first person who deciphered the code, to support an obviously loyal fan, but so far, despite a lot of people working on it, no one’s cracked it yet.
Because of that, and because I really do want to buy that plane ticket, I’ve changed the rules slightly. I put the solution to the puzzle into the trade, which hits stores on June 29. Anyone who picks up the trade and follows the instructions within the first week after the book is out will be entered into a drawing for the prize. I’ll pick a name out of a hat, and that’ll be that! I hope lots of people enter – it’s fun, easy, and you’ll get a pretty cool book out of it, even if you don’t win the flight.
O’Shea: When writing, I’m curious do you listen to music? Would you recommend a soundtrack for folks reading 27?
Soule: I listen to music all the time! When I’m writing, and I really want to lose myself in the work, I tend to put on records I’ve loved for years, so the music provides a backdrop but doesn’t intrude into my “writing consciousness” too much. As for what that might be, I’m all over the place. There’s an LA band called Dawes that I’ve been listening to a bunch recently. I just found a band called Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears that are mondo awesome. The Hold Steady is an old standby, and I’ve been putting on a Joe Pass solo guitar record quite a bit. That’s just the last couple of weeks, though. I go through a lot of tunes.
As far as a soundtrack for 27, you obviously want to focus on the tragic artists who died younger than they should have. The 27 Club musicians, of course – Hendrix, Cobain, Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, but it’s actually much broader than that. I don’t think you’d be too far off-base to put in some Minutemen, or any of the first few Grateful Dead records, or Robert Johnson blues, Duane Allman (he was a little under twenty-seven when he died, but he’s a member in spirit, I think), the Stooges… it goes on and on, sadly. Also, maybe some guitar hero stuff: Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai. Really, though, listen to whatever you want! Everyone likes their own type of music, and the ideas about music in 27, without getting too grandiose, apply pretty universally to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a song, by anyone.
O’Shea: When did you first learn that so many musicians died when they were 27?
Soule: I’ve been playing music since I was three. First violin, and then guitar in high school, and a bunch of other instruments since, to varying degrees of proficiency. When you grow up around music, you can’t help but hear the stories. For my part, I would say the main sources were guitar magazines, sweet rock band bios like Hammer of the Gods (the Led Zeppelin biography) and, of course, other musicians. So, I probably first heard about the 27 Club in high school, and it was really brought home when Cobain died in 1994. That was right when I was figuring out the sort of music I loved, and what I wanted to play, and thinking that this guy had achieved so much and then died so young hit me in a way that the other, earlier 27 Club deaths didn’t.
O’Shea: You did a first issue commentary for CBR, which featured this fascinating bit: “Tony Iommi didn’t just lose those fingertips, he lost them and then created new, homemade plastic fingertip prosthetics out of melted-down dish soap bottles for himself to wear. They worked perfectly — he used them (or subsequent versions) through all the Black Sabbath years.” Where do you learn musical history facts like THAT? I mean, particularly the “melted-down dish soap bottles” detail?
Soule: As a guitarist, stories about musicians who get injured and lose the ability to play are totally enthralling to me. Some people are huge horror movie fans – for me, these stories are like that. There are tons and tons of them, many that I didn’t even mention in the book. For example, poor Chet Baker, the famous jazz trumpeter, was mugged and beaten so severely that his teeth were knocked out and he wasn’t able to play his horn anymore. He had to go pump gas. Awful, but mesmerizing.
O’Shea: What kind of bonuses are included in the new TPB?
Soule: Oh, tons! As I mentioned, the solution to the 27 Puzzle is included, but there’s much more. The biggest single extra in the 27: First Set TPB is an all-new twelve-page backup story entitled Crossroads Blues, which tells a story based on the idea that blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for musical expertise. It’s got all new, gorgeous art from Renzo Podesta, and it’s really fun. Beyond that, the issues themselves have been expanded slightly with some extra pages we didn’t use in the original versions. There’s a list of cool easter eggs built into the book, a breakdown of the amazing homage covers by Scott Forbes, and really quite a bit more. I’m incredibly happy with the whole package. The team at Shadowline puts out amazing-looking collections, and the 27 trade is no exception. Whether you already read the single issues or you’re new to the series, it’s definitely worth checking out!
O’Shea: Looking back over the first four issues, was there a certain panel or page that exceeded your initial expectations once Renzo Podesta drew it?
Soule: Renzo’s style is a beautiful mix of precise and impressionist, and it suited the story perfectly. There are many gorgeous panels, but as far as work that exceeded my expectations, I would say that the whole sequence in Issue 3 where Will Garland is sitting next to a fire in the desert, having the mysteries of the creative universe explained to him by a surprise guest, really blew my mind. It was somehow exactly what I wanted but so much more at the same time. Renzo’s incredibly strong on the fantastic/supernatural side of things – fortunately, 27 gives him plenty to work with.
What can we look forward to in the upcoming arc of 27?
Soule: We’ll, we’re calling it 27: Second Set (you know, like a concert!), and it really is the next chapter in Will Garland’s story as he progresses from self-obsessed, bitter rock star to… something else. The first issue is in Previews right now and will hit in September (Previews code is JUL110437 – time to preorder!) The main theme in the second arc revolves around another potent legend in music history: one-hit wonders. Rock and pop music are littered with people who worked just as hard as any music legend to get a song out there, and then vanished into obscurity once the unforgiving eye of the public turned another way. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it – the main villain in the story is a one-hit wonder from the 80s who will do anything, and I do mean anything to get back in the spotlight. Renzo has taken his art up another notch, and Scott Forbes is providing another group of truly fantastic homage covers (this time, each reference is to a “famous” one-hit wonder). The whole team is really bringing their A game. I can’t wait for people to check it out.
O’Shea: Care to divulge any of the one hit wonders homaged in the Second Set covers?
Soule: For the first cover, we went with one of the biggest and “best” of all the one-hit wonders: the one, the only, the legend, Vanilla Ice. As far as the others, I’d like to let people wait and see. Part of the fun is revealing them one at a time.
O’Shea: Anything you’d like to ask or tell the Robot 6 readers?
Soule: First and foremost, thank you for supporting my work! It’s fantastic that the series has connected with readers – meeting people at cons or online who have enjoyed the story so far makes my day, every time. That said, if you haven’t read it, consider checking out the trade – it’s a good read, promise. What else – in addition to 27, I write the Strongman series for SLG Publishing. It’s a set of action-crime stories with a washed-up old luchador as the hero. I like to say the tone’s like Sin City, but uplifting. The second volume in that series will hit shelves in August, and if you liked 27, I hope you’ll give Strongman a spin as well. Small press books have to fight for every reader, as we all know. You can find both volumes here . I’ve got some other stuff in the works as well. The best way to stay up on my future projects is to check out my blog from time to time, or follow me on Twitter. Once again, thanks for reading!