by Jarrod Jones. Satan cults, Billy Shears, mudsharks — rock music isn’t without its conspiracies (er… maybe don’t Google that last one); vile, unspeakable legends whispered sharply in our ears with a whiskey scorch and a demonic growl. Rockstars wants you to peel slowly and see the world of rock music for what it is. Or rather, what we suspect it to be. And what is it that we suspect is wriggling underneath the sallow flesh of rock?
“Conspiracies and hidden mythologies,” says Joe Harris, writer of Rockstars. “Both real and (mostly) imagined, that fit between the stitches of rock history which, frankly, is pretty damn dark. We’ll explore occult murder, demonic possession and the devil’s due. It’s going to be sexy, twisted fun but with a dark undercurrent.” Rockstars‘ artist, Megan Hutchison, is completely on the same page. “Let’s just say my story notes to Joe are ‘I need to draw more blood.'”
Joe Harris and Megan Hutchison spoke with me about their upcoming Image Comics project, the richness of rock mythology, and whether or not Paul McCartney actually died all those years ago.
1. Playing a record backwards in search of a hidden message, syncing up a piece of psychedelia to a wild piece of cinematic fantasy — these were the things that people did when the world was still analog, before the internet came along and robbed us of the allure of uncovering the mysteries of rock on our own. Is this something you wanted to recapture with ‘Rockstars’ — that feeling of discovery?
Joe Harris: Yes! I’m not a digital hater, objectively. I love how much media I can consume using my mobile devices [… I] have an enormous collection of music all ripped or originating in lossless format that follows me everywhere the cloud goes. And I was kinda slow to get back on the analog bandwagon myself, as I adore the positives the convenience of digital brings, along with the innovations. But the dawn of the iPod and other, earlier digital music players, MP3s, and what I consider to be “shuffle culture” really has robbed us of so much.
I appreciate high fidelity. I’ve spent my time on sound stages and in studios, and I’ve been too much of an early adopter of formats that have come and gone […] but the entire experience is something that’s been seriously degraded to the point that folks, clearly, are seeking a reconnection to the fundamentals. But the music I love the most was created, recorded, engineered and released to be appreciated as an album. The record is a medium, not just in the sense that it’s holding recorded material, but it’s a canvas also. The artwork on the large cover, sure, of course. But the intention of the artist, the producer, on the greatest albums in history, you need to listen from the beginning and progress through.
The end of Side A and the flip to Side B was a storytelling device. Or, at least, it could be, and has been, in the finest examples. And if you’re going to listen to something like Led Zeppelin II — newly remastered and released in 180g glory along with the entire Zeppelin catalogue, by the way — it’s not hard to argue that you’re missing out on a number of aspects if you don’t pack a bowl, turn down the lights, start at “Whole Lotta Love” and proceed through “Bring It On Home” the way the Gods of Rock intended. Though I will say, YouTube has made it much easier to appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey in the original Dark Side of the Moon.
Megan Hutchison: There is something mystical about analogue — it’s still organic and like Joe says it’s art on a canvas. I remember when I was a kid, my friends and I would steal our older brother’s CDs that were rumored to have satanic messages in them, record them onto tape and then play them backwards, convinced that there where hidden incantations. Looking back it just wishful thinking set to drug-induced song writing, but I loved that mystery.
2. The correlation between rock music and the occult is a subject that’s been jawed over for decades, from semi-ironic think pieces in ‘Rolling Stone’ to patently absurd diatribes on ‘The 700 Club’. And the metaphysical has been applied to pop music in comics for some time too — from Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ to, more recently, Gillen & McKelvie’s ‘The Wicked + The Divine’. What dark corridors will ‘Rockstars’ take us down? What new horrors can we expect from this project?
JH: I hope we are, at once, touching on some familiar territory while subverting expectations and presenting our own brand of “music comics” as we explore it all. Rockstars will delve into conspiracies and hidden mythologies both real and (mostly) imagined, that fit between the stitches of rock history which, frankly, is pretty damn dark. We’ll explore occult murder, demonic possession and the devil’s due. It’s going to be sexy, twisted fun but with a dark undercurrent that keeps you honest, I think.
MH: Let’s just say my story notes to Joe are “I need to draw more blood,” “can I make it more Aleister Crowely-esque,” and “we need more daemon orgies”.
3. You guys take special care to pepper your intent throughout the debut issue of ‘Rockstars’ — it’s all there, in Megan’s panel work and in Joe’s dialogue — you obviously want to tell a compelling story about the legends that continues to swirl around the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but there’s something going on here that feels more personal. What’s so fascinating to you about peeling back the manicured visage of the rockstar?
JH: They’re so larger than life and incandescent, and what they get from an audience, channel and give back, is powerful. But the massive complex that is rock history and the music industry, just objectively as is all entertainment, is filled with terrible people who’ve done awful things and I want to get into that too.
MH: What’s been fascinating for me about this project is the juxtaposition of the enormity of fame with the fragility of the individual rockstar. It’s been a fun concept to play with.
4. This first arc, “Nativity in Blacklight”, is populated with all sorts of devilry. There’s Blue Rider, a band that arrives to each town with the scent of brimstone emanating from their tour bus. There’s the demonic groupies that crowd around the band, their faces distorting and twisting into beastly expressions when their innocent prey aren’t looking. Then there’s poor Becky and Suzanne — two kids who see the veneer of the rock lifestyle and are only too willing to do whatever it takes to become a part of it. It reminds me of Taylor Hackford’s ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, where Satan and his acolytes lure in the weak with a debauched display of extravagance. What were you reading, or watching, that put you in the right mindset to explore this wickedness?
JH: The Devil’s Advocate is one of those guilty pleasures that I don’t really feel guilty for enjoying as much as I have — for as many times as I have — since it came out. It’s really impossible not to hear Al Pacino when even considering a suave, foul-mouthed but charming iteration of Satan. So that’s always influencing somewhere, honestly. But I’m a longtime fan and absorber of rock history, particularly of bands like Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and others whom we associate with toeing that line between the real and the surreal, the natural and dark, so the darkly alluring devilry you describe is born of a love for books like Stephen Davis’ The Hammer of the Gods and Jerry Hopkins’ No One Here Gets Out Alive. Jimmy Page’s life and liaisons inspire and inform too, right down to his occult connections, buying Crowley’s house on Loch Ness, the protracted fight with Kenneth Anger over the unfinished score to Lucifer Rising… all of that.
MH: I’m deeply fascinated with the occult and use a lot of that iconography in my personal work. Playing off of the references that Joe mentions, I often include influences based on my readings of Aleister Crowley, Wicca and apocryphal texts. I also love horror movies, so I’m sure that plays into this somewhere.
5. ‘Rockstars’ main character, Jackie Mayer, is a self-appointed private eye and pretentious rock critic. (Letterer Michael David Thomas even goes so far as to present Jackie’s musings in a blotted typeface just to underline the amateurish nature at play here.) Then there’s Dorothy Buell, a bonafide investigative journalist who moonlights as a rock critic. (Or is it the other way around?) These two have a clear yin-yang dichotomy going on — how will both of you continue to play these two against each other?
JH: Jackie isn’t for public consumption. That’s his inner monologue, and he’s clearly a bit of a fantasist about this. Dorothy, for her part, is going to be writing a story. It’s just going to take a while to find the right, true slant on things. You could come to refer to this as the overarching storyline… what she uncovers about Jackie, his family history, and the great Game they’re all connected to.
MH: I like the idea that the two of them are forced to work together and couldn’t be more different. I think as they continue building their working relationship, they’ll start rubbing off on each other both through confrontation and collaboration.
6. What’s the best (non-mudshark related) rock legend you’ve ever heard?
JH: God, I think “mudshark” was my first. You don’t forget that one, right? Just objectively. But did you know that Charles Manson, before he went on to indoctrinate young women into his “family” and murdered a bunch of folks — including actress Sharon Tate — once wrote a song for The Beach Boys? He had been befriended by one of the Wilson brothers and presented Brian with a song that Brian, in turn, went and changed the title to before recording (it was a b-side called “Never Learn Not to Love”). Manson, enraged over this, threatened to kill Wilson. He didn’t succeed, but he did more than his share of damage. This is real life though. This happened. Now how does this connect to “Helter Skelter” being found scrawled in blood at a Manson Family murder scene years later, considering Brian Wilson’s professional envy of the Beatles? These are the sparks and shoots of ideas that inform Rockstars.
On a lighter note, I’ll offer props to the rumor that Pink Floyd–in addition to allegedly recording Dark Side of the Moon as a synchronous soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz — was so enamored with 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’d recorded the epic, “Echoes” on the pre-Dark Side album, Meddle, to synch to the final “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” reel of the film. And it does line up beautifully, by the way. But the rumor, if I recall, also involved them presenting this to Stanley Kubrick and almost giving him a stroke.
7. What’s the story with Skydog? I’m getting a Hanna-Barbera vibe with this group: Psychic kid, intrepid journalist, hissy cat. Like Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog, only Jackie, Dorothy, and Skydog investigate corpses instead of hang out with a bunch of superheroes.
JH: Skydog is Jackie’s cat, but he’s also got some relationship with Sonny, a darkly charming and influential character we’ll meet a whole lot more of going forward, and who might be “looking out” for Jackie. It just isn’t clear if it’s for his own, or Sonny’s sake. So far as the name, the cat is named after Duane Allman, founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident before the band could finish the great Eat a Peach album. Eric Clapton, himself referred to as “God” for his guitar prowess in the late 1960s, called Allman the best rock guitar played he’d ever heard, and the slide guitar genius was affectionately nicknamed “Skydog.”
MH: To quote Constantine, cats are “one foot in and one foot out” of the spirit world. I love that Skydog knows and sees more than any human can but remains neutral to both parties.
8. Name the one album that will always bewitch you, please.
JH: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
MH: Nine Inch Nails’ Still.
9. Joe, back in October you mentioned in an interview with The Outhousers that ‘Rockstars’ would be exploring different musical eras as the series progresses. How do you guys plan to weave the books first arc, “Nativity in Blacklight” to future arcs? Is there one sinister source permeating throughout all popular music, or will there be other forces at play?
JH: We will be exploring other eras, and conspiracies, secrets, mysteries — in fact, [the second] arc is going to have an ’80s metal aspect to it — but there is a central, overarching narrative and mystery involving Jackie, his late father, Sonny Roth, the entertainment magnate he worked for back when, and the nature of the strange abilities Jackie has. [Those abilities will be able] to discern what’s really going on behind these kinds of stories as relates to a long running Game played by demons with rockstars as game pieces and a never-ending cycle that’s gone on since man walked upright and beat on a drum for the first time.
10. So what’s the deal — did Paul McCartney really die, or what?
JH: Hey man, I just saw Paul at the Meadowlands a couple months ago and he looked fantastic for a dead man! But the legend, that Paul McCartney was killed in a car wreck and secretly replaced with lookalike, Billy Shears (who was mentioned in “A Little Help From My Friends” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), is my granddaddy of all conspiracies. It eclipses even the “27” thing. The number of “clues” on the Sgt. Pepper album alone, you can write a book on. It decidedly did not happen, but the legend is amazing when you consider what people thought as they coalesced around it.
Clues would drip out. Mostly fantasy and people seeing what they wanted to see, [like] the title on the album cover says “One He Die” when you place a mirror along the middle of the name in the bass drum, or Paul’s back being turned on the back [of the album], George’s finger pointing to the supposed time of death in the lyrics in “She’s Leaving Home”… But fans postulated that The Beatles were, what… tormented over living this lie? Their only recourse was to leak these mysterious clues because they couldn’t otherwise let people know what happened? Then you’d have The Beatles themselves fanning the flames by dropping references in songs on later albums to fuck with everyone over it. If The Beatles were around today, I can only fathom how this kind of thing would take off on social media.
‘Rockstars’ hits stores on December 14.