The Middle Ground #85 | Music Sounds Better With You
It makes sense, I guess, to try and mix comic books and pop music; the two share similarities, after all — both are relatively modern art forms, and both speak to something of an immediate response, even if the works in question benefit more from a more considered reading (or listening, in pop music’s case). But in so many cases, crossing the two together doesn’t result in some kind of contemporary pop culture now monster of zeitgeist and awesomeness, but something that just feels empty and unnecessary.
Admittedly, the majority of pop music comics that I’ve seen have been something close to biography or something similar; aside from things like The Last Temptation of Alice Cooper or the like — damn my young desire to read everything Neil Gaiman wrote! — I’ve seen far too many comics settle for either trying to tell the life story of some much-beloved musical figure or, almost as doomed to boredom and disaster, watched artists attempt to bring specific songs to life by illustrating the lyrics, an idea almost destined not to end well in the majority of attempts.
(That said, some creators can pull that trick off; I think of some of Put The Book Back On The Shelf, the Image Comics anthology based around Belle and Sebastian from a few years back, and that had some of that kind of comic creating, unless I’m misremembering; I really liked that book, and thought that it caught a lot of what makes B&S songs work.)
Perhaps fittingly, the most successful music comic I can think of doesn’t really concentrate on one artist or song, but on being a fan – Phonogram, the couple of mini-series by Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie manages to capture the best sense of listening to music not by trying to evoke the music itself, but by allowing the characters to tell you how it feels, how they feel because of the music or because of the dancing or the belonging or any number of things that music can do to you, change in you. It succeeds because it understands that pop music isn’t about narrative, whether it’s the narrative within a song or the story of a particular band or performer, but about the experience of hearing something and what that does to you.
The thing that brought all this to mind was falling in love with the ridiculously beautiful cover to Baby’s In Black, a forthcoming First Second release that contains a lot of warning signs for me: It’s not just a biography, but a biography of (a) a band before they became famous, and (b) a period already covered in the (enjoyable enough) movie Backbeat. And yet… look at that cover! I remember when Arne Bellstorf’s strip first got attention online last year – at the time it was originally published in German, I think? – and loving his work back then, and looking at this cover now just reminds me of how much I can’t wait to read this book. The trick, I think, will be for me to divorce the music from the comic, and just enjoy it for what it is: A beautifully illustrated love story. Music sold separately, of course.