By Jarrod Jones. When you watch the music video to “Giants”, the first single from Lights’ upcoming album, Skin & Earth, what do you see? An earth ravaged by industry, starvation and want, water rationing, and — in this least likely of places — hope for a better tomorrow. It’s not the typical pop video fare. But then, Lights isn’t your typical pop star.
Case in point: Timed around the release of her fourth studio album is a Dynamite Entertainment series written, illustrated, and yes, lettered by the artist herself. (Issues one through three are available now.) Lights (née Valerie Poxleitner) has taken the impetus behind her ambitious concept album and ventured into an arena all her own, marrying the best of the two worlds she’s come to love for years — music and comics. Skin & Earth expands the saga contained within the album, but both are intertwined. You can enjoy one entity on its own, but pair them together and you’ll find another, more intimate experience, masterminded by an artist at the height of her craft through an act of sheer will.
Described in the official synopsis, Skin & Earth is “a story of a girl looking for hope in a hopeless world.” That’s a solid concept for any comic, even one without an original studio-produced soundtrack. But Lights, true to form, has so much more in store for you: “Caught between romance and cults, gods and mortals, and just trying to find a good borscht, Enaia Jin is lead down a dark path by new lovers that reveal a twisted fantasy world and her own true nature.”
“Once the songs were written, I fleshed out the story,” Lights tells me. “And what was originally going to be this twenty, twenty-five pages of content turned out to be six issues, one hundred and sixty pages of content, with the sixth issue being a double issue.” Then she laughs, like none of that is a big deal. “And I had no idea how to do any of this!”
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records I spoke with Lights earlier this month about Skin & Earth, her driven need to make comics, and where, exactly, one can find a really good borscht.
1. Reading through ‘Skin & Earth’, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a… similarity between you and the book’s main character, Enaia Jin.
Lights: Yeah… [Laughs] The comic is obviously connected to an album. My intention when I first created the project was to allow myself an outlet to write about something that wasn’t necessarily something like current life. As artists, when you write music, people automatically connect that to what you’re experiencing at any given time. People start to dissect your relationship and begin to think your marriage is falling apart. [Laughs]
I’d been writing my fourth record — I’d been writing from the same place for a long time — and I opted to reach out of that. I’m a big fan of comics, fantasy, and sci-fi, so I decided to create a story.
It started very simple. And without giving too much away, the basic idea that I went into every songwriting session with started with this young woman who becomes enchanted by this spirit and has to turn within herself to find the strength to overcome it. And it ended up being a very subtle commentary on mental health and depression — things that I’ve dealt with, and I know a lot of other people have dealt with as well. Songs began to roll out, and I started to read all kinds of stuff on creating comics, writing, and getting advice from friends. And of all that reading material, one of the most crucial books I read about the process was Writing for Comics by Alan Moore, which is a great little book.
The story started to come together, and I started to develop characters after that. There was a new side of me that was being brought out through these songs, because I was able to shunt them off into these characters. This character is me, and the way she was beginning to respond to things as I was writing her was the way I’d want to. And I thought, I’m going to be bringing these characters to life to a certain degree when I preform these songs… I’m going to make her wear stuff that I’d like to wear! [Laughs] Let’s see… her hair’s gonna be red, I’m gonna make her have a comb-over because that’s how I wear my hair! And then we became the same person. [Laughs]
2. Tell me about how ‘Skin & Earth’ began. When did it hit you that you wanted to craft an entire world from your music?
Lights: I had intended to make the comic — I didn’t know how long the comic was going to be, but the story came before anything else. So the songs were written about the story, which was divided into twelve parts — and each of those parts became songs, twelve songs on the record. Once the songs were written, I fleshed out the story. And what was originally going to be this twenty, twenty-five pages of content turned out to be six issues, one hundred and sixty pages of content, with the sixth issue being a double issue.
And I had no idea how to do any of this! I had to teach myself along the way, and actually, at one point, I didn’t know how to write it! So I was looking for people, and the person I approached to write it was actually Brian K. Vaughan! [Laughs] And we went back and forth for a little bit — he liked my music — and, of course, he’s busy. [As Vaughan] “My wife will kill me if I take on another project!” [Laughs] But then he said, “You’re a writer — you should try this yourself!”
It was because of him that I had the courage to attempt to write this on my own. I had never done anything like that! He gave me a little bit of advice; I don’t know if you noticed any similarities in paneling between his books and mine, but I kind of took from his model. I love the way his comics read. He said, “I don’t usually do any more than five or six panels a page and usually not more than twelve speech bubbles, and most of these speech bubble should have no more than two lines of text…” And then I started to apply all these bits of advice he had given me, and… yeah! That was where I started.
3. How did you know this was how you wanted to tell your story instead of, say, prose or even perhaps a short film?
Lights: [Pauses] It’s what I understand and what I’m probably most capable of accomplishing. I love comics too, and I digest a comic far more easily than I do a book or a novel. And movies are a completely different medium. G. Willow Wilson said this at a panel at a comic con a couple years ago, that comics are wonderful because you can hide themes that are important, you can talk about social issues that really matter without hitting somebody over the head with them. You can bring up things that you care about without preaching at somebody. You weave it into your story.
Most of the comics that I read have important commentary within them, that you just absorb by reading the story. You understand the characters as they confront important issues! It’s one of the most progressive mediums, if you ask me. I think there’s a lot of things you can say with comics.
The visuals are what drew me to comics in the first place. Like a comic like The Wicked + The Divine. The only reason I picked that up in the first place was because of the cover art, and then I ended up really loving the story and the characters. Jamie McKelvie’s a good friend of mine, and he gave me a lot of advice when it came to the art as well. He pretty much taught me how to use Manga Studio. [Laughs]
I think, you know, I’ve always loved the art aspect of it, and there are actually a lot of nods in the way that I perceive it to be two genres in comics. All my life I’ve collected old romance comics, so the whole first issue [of ‘Skin & Earth’] was a little nod to romance comics.
4. What themes are you incorporating into ‘Skin & Earth’? The first two issues have this prevailing feeling of longing to them: longing for change, longing to see what’s at the horizon.
Lights: The core concept is basically a woman looking for hope in a hopeless world. And the hopeless world is that way because we took, and took, and took, and took from our world and our environment until there was nothing left. And there’s this last bastion of humanity, living in this oasis, where this class system is extreme and people are mistreated on the wrong side of the wall. It’s corporate greed that continues to take from the world until it’s all gone. And everyone in this little world knows it. Everyone knows they’re gonna run it dry and that there will be no more. So everyone submitted to this life of numbness, people turn to these pink pills and sleep chambers to numb their minds to the fact that everything’s going to end.
There’s this sadness, this general hopelessness in that. Then there’s this one girl who’s desperately looking for something different, outside of the fact that everyone has resigned themselves to the fact that everything’s over.
5. The world we live in is as crazy as it’s ever been. How has ‘Skin & Earth’ helped you navigate it?
Lights: I think that it is a commentary on the environment. My dad is an architect and he specializes in green architecture, so we’re always talking about climate change and the importance of taking care of the earth. I think it’s something that needs to happen more greatly than what’s happening right now. So there’s obviously that commentary all through it, what will happen eventually…
6. I saw you tweet at Elon Musk the other day, asking about teleportation. What kind of innovations are you hoping to see in the future?
Lights: [Laughs] In Skin & Earth, and I made this a conscious decision too, there’s no internet. And there’s no massive satellite networks. It’s just this last bit of society, and that’s all that’s left. So I made this conscious decision to make the technology older, so everyone uses flip phones in it? [Laughs] So they’re very limited in the technology that they have. All their energy is put into getting fuel with what I’ve created called “sentinel drills,” which are these massive figurative buildings that drill and continue to pummel the earth.
So the technology in the book I probably won’t get to explore a lot — because this is a society that’s so limited — but oh god if I ever make another comic there’s gonna be some pretty good stuff in it, I’m sure. [Laughs]
7. What drew you into comics? What was the first book that made you realize you were hooked for life?
Lights: I started out reading Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes, and Herman when I was a kid. That evolved into collecting old space adventures, and Magnus: Robot Fighter, and that rolled into collecting old romance comics. And I wasn’t really reading just to commit to a franchise, because I liked the art and I liked the short stories — more importantly, the art.
What intrigued me years later, when I really started diving into it, is that oftentimes writers are more celebrated than the artist in comics! I always thought it was the other way around, that the artist was actually the one bringing all the work to life. The artist actually puts a lot more time into the project, too. I would see Jamie and Kieron from The Wicked + The Divine complaining about it, where something will just say, “Kieron Gillen: The Wicked + The Divine,” and actually Jamie probably put more time into it. Kieron’s got four or five titles that he’s writing right now, and Jamie’s only got one! He’s only got time for one. So that was an interesting thing that always surprised me.
I always collected Wonder Woman. I have this massive Wonder Woman collection. And then I got into indie comics, like, five years ago. That’s when I really started to appreciate the medium for what it is, especially the writing within it and the way you can communicate with the readers.
8. What are you reading right now?
Lights: Monstress. Locke and Key, I’m actually working through that series, it’s amazing. Keeping up with Saga all the time. The Wicked + The Divine, of course. I’m really late on this, but I’m reading Preacher right now, and loving it! Paper Girls I’m really starting to love. And Descender is actually a really great title. The art is really beautiful.
There’s a few more, but it’s a matter of… I read the trade paperbacks so I wait for them to come out, because I don’t have time to keep going in and pick up issues!
9. With the album’s release in late September, what does the rest of 2017 look like for you?
Lights: We hit the road the day the album comes out. Leading up to it I have a couple of cons — I have Fan Expo tomorrow, which I’m really excited about. This year I was actually at Comic Con, y’know, on a panel for the first time, and that was awesome. And any gaps that I have, I’ll be finishing the comic! I’ve inked the last issue, and I have thirty pages left to color. We’re getting really close to it.
And it’s funny, because I’m the only person who works on the comic; I don’t have somebody on lettering, I don’t have somebody who’s editing. So I’m delivering all these assets on all these due dates. Usually it’s the letterer or something who delivers all these, right? No, it’s me, delivering all the covers as they come out, all the solicit information. But it’s fun! I feel very, very connected to this project.
10. Where in the heck can you find a good borscht?
Lights: [Laughs] There’s a place in the Red sector called “Borscht in a Box”; I’ve created this franchise of what I think is the most extreme-looking food that can exist. And the reality is, I’ve never tried borscht! [Laughs] Really haven’t. I love that it’s so bright, and when it dribbles it can look like blood on your mouth! It’s such an extreme look and I’m aesthetically drawn to it. That’s how the restaurant came into fruition. I was like, what if you put a bunch of borscht in a tiny take-out container — how nasty would that be? [Laughs]
‘Skin & Earth’ issues #1-3 are available now.
‘Skin & Earth’, the latest album from Lights, is out this Friday from Warner Bros. Records.