Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Sex and Drugs and Comic Books

No-one really expects comic creators to be rockstars, but that doesn't stop them from walking the walk. Creators with charisma - they're out there, but does pop credibility get them credit?
21 December 2001

He's a man that many people can't get a handle on. He's experimented with transvestite shamanism, been abducted by aliens, lived in New York, LA and Paris and appeared in Vogue magazine. He hosts occasional DJ events and has collaborated with musicians ranging from Genesis P. Orridge to Steven Severin. Who are we talking about here? David Bowie? Michael Stipe? Good guesses, but no.

I won't beat around the bush any further. You know as well as I do the identity of the man behind the curtain. All the things mentioned above, and many other things besides, are facets of the life and times of Mr Grant Morrison Esq., current writer of Marvel Comics' NEW X-MEN.

It would take a more practised liar than I to attempt to claim that 99% of these attributes were anything remotely like what one would normally associate with a comic book creator. Imagine Howard Mackie in a skinny-fit tee, spinning some Jurassic 5 as the kids chow down blue and yellow purple pills on the floor, or Jeph Loeb setting up an Artists' Collective Warehouse in Soho, where young girls in binliner skirts and fun-fur jackets print psychedelic t-shirts and make movies on Super 8. Weird, isn't it? When you think about it, though, there's no reason why it should be.

Comic books and music are both creative media led by, at most, a handful of individuals on each project. That's not to say that other media, such as cinema or television, don't have a strong creative aspect, but it's much harder for your average Joe to get his hands on, say, a second unit director, or a studio complete with live audience, or what have you.

On the other hand, get yourself a second-hand acoustic guitar or a piece of paper and a pen and you're away into the world of music or comic creation. People look at Bowie and Stipe and see people who are (or at the very least were) creative fountains, brimming with new ideas, taking themselves in new directions every year or two. That's Morrison in a nutshell. So why doesn't the general populace care? Where are Morrison's features in Uncut? His interviews in The Face? Why is Bowie 'cool' in the eyes of the mainstream media while Morrison isn't?

Maybe it works the other way. Maybe the fact that Bowie is cool is what turns people on to him at first. Maybe Stipe-the-enigma is a more compelling draw than Stipe-the-musician. The question then becomes, can we work the same magic? Can comics be made cool by having the people who write and draw them be cool? Comic creators as rock stars - is it the way forward?

Warren Ellis once described Grant Morrison as being the closest thing to a popstar that comics has. He may well be right. He relates the story of how he knocked on Morrison's hotel room door one evening in New Zealand and a giggling Morrison appeared swathed in bedsheets and smoke, proclaiming that New Things were coming to him and that he was in the process of being extraordinarily creative. Sounds like the kind of anecdote Lester Bangs used to relate about his time with various rock bands in the '70s, and that's no coincidence.

For some creators, music and comic books are inextricably linked in both form and content. Ellis himself, having witnessed the resentment harboured by some comic readers over the use of the term 'pamphlets' to refer to individual issues of a given title, coined the term 'singles' to replace it. Try as I might, I can't come up with a better term. The analogy of individual 'singles' and trade paperback 'albums' doesn't hold up if you look at it too hard, but goes to reinforce the links between the two media. We have the format - singles to grab attention, trades or original graphic novels to hold it - so all we need now are the personalities.

Odd as this might sound, the X-MEN titles are the place to find at least two of those personalities. Morrison I've already spoken about, but Joe Casey deserves investigation too.

Less of an unpredictable character than Morrison, Casey has managed to end up writing the flagship characters of the two biggest comic companies in the world, in the form of UNCANNY X-MEN and ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. And guess what else? He's a cool guy.

I'm not talking 'cool' in the sense of Morrison or Millar, where the sheer force of idea-waves emanating from their person threatens to reduce your clothing to the shredded all-over Hulk look, but 'cool' in the sense of Joe Cool from PEANUTS. Wizard Magazine, in a rare moment of good journalism, ran a round-table interview with the four current Superscribes, which began and ended with Casey leaping onto the table and shouting about how much of a buzz he was getting out of writing the character.

Now, this is not how comic book creators conduct interviews. This is how rock stars conduct interviews. And just look at him - apart from the Wizard Top Ten Writers picture they seem to endlessly recycle, I don't think I've ever seen him without those yellow Bono sunglasses on. Casey is evidently going for the target market that the Superman titles lost so long ago: the Kids With Pink Hair And Piercings, and let's face it, he's going to win them back. He's young, reasonably handsome, and funny. He's already racked up more points in the cool department than someone like Kid Rock, and look at the units he shifts compared to the sales on ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

Apart from these two, though, there are still other contenders for rock star status. He may not lead the same wild, hedonistic lifestyle, but Warren Ellis is charged with the same creative fire as Lou Reed (and, deserved or not, he has the same reputation as a generally amiable curmudgeon - Grant Morrison once described him as having a snarl for every occasion, or words to that effect).

Ellis is something of a Renaissance man, working in other media (including prose fiction, computer games and webisodes), and pushing harder than most for the original graphic novel to become the standard format for comics. Sharp-tongued and loath to suffer fools, he has all the qualities associated with Reed without any of that inconvenient heroin-addiction that tripped Lou so often.

Then there's Kevin Smith. The epitome of geek chic, Smith has undoubted indie cred on the back of his movies, even though his closest musical equivalent is someone like They Might Be Giants. Smith's name is a draw, and with his final New Jersey movie having been released internationally, his profile is higher than ever. He might not be a rock star, but he has 'cool' credentials, even if it is only that sort of hyper-refined slacker cool, and goodness knows he has Kids With Pink Hair And Piercings aplenty as apostles of his church.

Mike Allred is perhaps even more of a Renaissance man than Ellis. He writes, draws, composes, paints, and does it all with a glorious pop sensibility that has definite Warhol overtones. If there's one creator out there who deserves to explode into the mainstream consciousness in a huge four-colour extravaganza, it's Allred.

And let's not forget Alan Moore. He keeps a certain mystery around him by not being as eager to do interviews as someone like Morrison, but he continues to knock out seminal works with no apparent difficulty. Big shaggy hair, magic, smoking and Jack the Ripper - he's Middle America's worst nightmare waiting to happen, and they just don't know it yet. Poor foolish mortals.

So it seems there is a preponderance of potential when it comes to our very own rock stars - yet people still don't seem to be taking notice. Perhaps rockstars are no good to us...

And perhaps that's the answer. JIMMY CORRIGAN and GHOST WORLD got attention by being good, not by having a cult of personality on their side. WATCHMEN didn't knock down barriers because Alan Moore looks a bit intimidating; it won people over due to sheer craftmanship and talent. Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes aren't likely to start hurling TV sets out of hotel room windows any time soon, but that's not stopping them from getting media plaudits.

We don't need Lou Reed or Andy Warhol, David Bowie or Michael Stipe. We don't need to smash guitars on stage. What we need is for our own stars to produce good work that will stand on its own merits. Thankfully, creators like Morrison, Casey, Ellis, Smith, Allred and Moore are already leading the way in that regard, managing to give us both style and substance.

Rock on.

Alistair Kennedy is the coordinator of the PunchDrunk Pop blog and a former editor for Robot Fist.

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