The Trippy ‘60s, Beatlemania, Cashing in on a Craze, and the Rise of Underground Comics
While there are some earlier examples, I thought that the ‘60s would be a good place to start our tour. The ‘60s were wild period of social upheaval, and music and comics were right there at the forefront of the revolution. The modern incarnation of Marvel Comics started in 1961. Society wasn’t the only thing undergoing a rapid transformation, comics were as well. Thanks in a large part to the Comics Code Authority essentially bringing an end to popular horror titles, the comic book industry became a shadow of its former glory. Comic titles were frequently being cancelled, and publishers started bringing certain characters together as teams instead of publishing their individual books. Fans loved it, and soon new character team-up titles were being created. After emulating this team-up approach, Marvel helped to usher in a creative new age of comics. The ‘60s saw the rise of such teams as The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and The X-Men, and with them new readers.
Even though under the boot of the Comics Code Authority some of Marvel’s stories were kind of campy by today’s standards, that didn’t stop the counter-culture from embracing them. Readers loved the creative and iconic new artistic aesthetic, unintentionally hilarious double-entendres, and “trippy” flights of fancy in the pages of comics during this period. Comics could be found in music stores and head shops right alongside vinyl LPs, love beads, incense, Lava Lamps, black lights, and assorted smoking paraphernalia.
Comic book publishers didn’t ignore this new demographic, and soon started paying attention to certain fads popular with youth culture. Here we really start to see the comic connection to music. One of the biggest music sensations to take America by storm in the 1960’s was The Beatles. In an effort to cash in on the wild popularity of “The Fab Four” comic book publishers started plastering images and mentions of The Beatles on the covers of their comic books. It just blew up from there. Some of these are just hilarious and painful!
It wasn’t just music influencing comics during this period either—comics influenced music in return. A prominent music producer of the era, Don Kirschner, was the driving force behind the band The Monkees. After Kirschner and The Monkees parted ways over creative differences, he was desperate to find his next cash cow. One day he noticed a kid reading an issue of Archie Comics featuring “The Archies” band on the cover. He approached the publisher and they came to an agreement which allowed a band of studio musicians to be formed under the moniker “The Archies.” Their hit song, Sugar, Sugar, would go on to become the top-selling single of 1969.
The 1960s also saw the rise of underground comics. While mainstream comics tended to adhere to the strict standards of the Comics Code Authority, underground comics refused to be censored. The most prominent creator of underground comics to emerge during this period was Robert Crumb. A musician himself, in 1968 Crumb was approached by the road manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Dave Richards, about creating a cover for the Janis Joplin album, Cheap Thrills. As the story goes, Crumb agreed to this deal with one stipulation—that when he got to meet Ms. Joplin he would be allowed to, ahem, pinch her bosom [my wording, not his more abrasive version]. Crumb created the album cover, and by all accounts, was paid in full a few months later. Mr. Crumb decided that he liked creating album covers, and would go on to draw hundreds of them over the course of his career. A collection of his album cover work has been published in a book titled, R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection.
“KISS” Off Flower Children, Here Comes the ‘70s
While not as exploited as Beatlemania in the ‘60s, the ‘70s would have their fair share of trending bands plastered in and on comics to help sell issues. The most prominent example of this would probably be the band KISS. In 1977, KISS made their first appearance in Marvel’s Howard the Duck #12. Also in 1977, Marvel published A Marvel Comics Super Special!: KISS, which was infamously printed with special ink combined with the bad member’s blood (drawn by a registered nurse and witnessed by a notary public).
KISS would go on to be featured in many comics over the years. Even in the last ten years they have appeared in comics from such publishers as: Dark Horse Comics, Platinum Studios, Archie Comics, and IDW Publishing.
Underground comics continued to flourish during this period. In 1976 the alternative comic publisher Fantagraphics Books was founded. Their contribution to the music scene cannot be understated, as we will see in the next section.
Music and Comics in the ‘80s and ‘90s: “Here we are now, entertain us”
When searching for connections between music and comics, the ‘80s and ‘90s provide many examples. As punk music rose and spilled into a new decade, many underground and indie illustrators would publish their work in zines and create album covers. This DIY ethic provided a sharp artistic contrast, in both music and comics, to the Reaganomics, rampant consumerism, generic entertainment, and yuppies who ruled the decade.
I have lived in or near Seattle for most of my life. I was fortunate enough to be just the right age to experience the explosion of music and comic creativity that took place here in the late ‘80s and into ‘90s. Music and comics are so deeply woven into the fabric of NW life that it is easy to take them for granted. I mentioned Fantagraphics Books in the previous section. They are based here in Seattle, and their contribution to the local music scene over the years has been immense. Fantagraphics artists provided many of the iconic illustrations which are associated with our former music glory. If sludgy guitars, simple but catchy power chord rifts, heavy Zeppelinesque drums, and vocals fueled by the heady mixture of potent coffee and microbrews are the soundtrack of Seattle in the ‘80s and ‘90s—then Fantagraphics were the ones providing the visual elements for bands in Seattle and beyond.
Besides providing iconic images for show fliers and album covers, Fantagraphics artists also offered wry observations in their comics about the music scene.
And at times absolutely scathing commentary as well.
Even today, Fantagraphics maintains a tight relationship with music. The Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle shares space with a large collection of vinyl in the adjoined music store! They even publish books that document the music and photography of times past.
Other noteworthy bands also received the comic book treatment in the ‘90s. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t include Weird Tales of the Ramones and in this article.
Or mention Todd McFarlane’s artwork for the band Korn.
Music and Comics in the Modern Day
Looking all the way back to the ‘60s, it seems like we always used to see comics in music stores. It was still a fairly common practice into the ‘90s. Besides random holdouts, this practice is fairly uncommon today. Why is that? What changed? Well, gentrification, changing business trends, Diamond Distribution, and digital distribution have all factored in to the current state of things. However, it seems like the link between music and comics is far from dead. Certain publishers and individuals seem to be making an effort to rebuild this link.
One project that I would use as an example of this is Black Mask Studios. This is collaborative effort between Epitaph Records founder and Bad Religion member Brett Gurewitz, musician and horror writer Steve Niles, and director of Atari Teenage Riot videos, as well as DIY Fest founder, and comic creator Matt Pizzolo, to explore new ways to attract new readers to creator-owned comics. I have written about this project before, so I won’t go into complete details here, but I feel that this is a relevant example of the modern day connection between music and comics.
This leads us to Dark Horse Comics and the NYCC news that inspired this mind-spill and journey through music and comic history. Dark Horse is no stranger to music/comic collaboration. Their Eisner Award-winning comic book series, The Umbrella Academy, is written by Gerard Way from the band My Chemical Romance. Another Dark Horse series, Orchid, is written by Tom Morello (you can read my interview with him about Orchid here) from Rage Against the Machine and The Nightwatchman, with each issue containing a code to download a song which serves as the soundtrack for that comic. Dark Horse even has employees that work in, or have worked closely with, the music industry (like the always awesome Aub Driver).
Now Dark Horse is doubling down on this strategy. At NYCC they announced a new comic miniseries titled, House of Bone and Gold, penned by Corey Tailor of the bands Slipknot and Stone Sour.
Dark Horse wasn’t done yet. The long-awaited comic, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, from Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), Shaun Simon, and Becky Cloonan is finally moving forward as well.
Far from the old ploy of slapping The Beatles on a comic to increase sales, so far the Dark Horse titles written by musicians have been quite good. They definitely don’t have that exploitation feel that Bluewater’s Justin Bieber comics have (that statement really has no place in this article, as I don’t consider Justin Beiber’s work actual music, or Bluewater’s books about him actual comics–but I digress), or other ill-advised music/comic missteps.
If done right, I think strengthening the long standing connection between music and comics is a good strategy that could potentially benefit the industry and help bring new readers into the fold. Even kids who might discover Johnny the Homicidal Maniac or Lenore in a Hot Topic can’t really be a bad thing—at least they are reading comics! In order to survive and thrive, the comic book industry desperately needs to find ways to reach out to new readers. If the link to music is part of that salvation, then I’m willing to listen.
So what do you think? What are some of your favorite examples of music and comics influencing one another? Do you have other examples that weren’t included in this article? Are comics written by musicians a flash in the pan trend or a good idea? What ideas do you have to market music and comics together? Sound off in the comments below and let us hear your thoughts on the subject!