Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Heroes and Villains

By Ken Lieck

JULY 13, 1998: 

Daniel Johnston's version of Captain America

The floorboard of a van. It's a ubiquitous sight to any member of a touring band, one whose cluttered face always sports, more or less, the same sea of scattered items; empty snack food wrappers, battered and broken cassettes, and crushed beer and soda cans. And once upon a time, there was another commonly trod-on item among the debris - often stuffed under the seat so it wouldn't get stepped on: comic books. After all, what better diversion could there be for a road-weary musician? Short, easily digested, and readily available along with the beef jerky and candy bars of the quick stop mini-mart, these small, colorful magazines full of pictures and tales of superhuman adventurers, costumed and ready to take on the world, once shared something in common with the average musician; the heroes of these comic books greatly resembled the fantasy-selves of those trapped in the van, a different breed of adventurer, who one day hoped to be the great axe-wielding hero bathed in cosmic light and screaming out his words to the world - a world that might one day worship them as a god!

It's not surprising, then, that superheros have become the subject of more than a few songs. XTC alone has run the gamut from Supergirl to Sgt. Rock, while bands from the Kinks ("Superman") to the Temptations ("Plastic Man") regularly raided the pantheon of comic book creations. No less than ex-Beatle Paul McCartney took it upon himself to immortalize second-string Marvel Comics villains Magneto and Titanium Man in song (and the former of the two, as we know, later had at least a couple of bands named after him).

In fact, the bulk of comics reading among rockers over the years has been of the casual variety, though at one time or another we've all wandered into a "band house" and found 15 years' worth of X-Mens stacked in chronological order (including the Annuals!) in a bookcase.

For many of those musicians that made it to the altar of rock godhood themselves, there was never any doubt as to their affection for costumed heroes. Many attempted to become those heroes themselves - KISS, Alice Cooper, and the like - spreading the gospel of the Fantastic Four and Spiderman wherever they went, and in their moments of greatest triumph actually joined them on the comic book page with adventures of their own.

"I like stories about heroes," states local bluesman Guy Forsyth matter-of-factly. "I think people need something that's not the super-realism of TV and a lot of movies today. It's good to have something to aspire to. You can learn a whole bunch from comic books as far as simple questions of ethics. I think you get a lot better message from some comic books about social responsibility than you do from TV, without a doubt.

"The central theme of Marvel Comics for a long time was that with power comes responsibility. It wasn't that just because you were immensely powerful that you could just do whatever you wanted - which is the message that you get from TV."

The master of the heroic form in comic books, the late Jack Kirby (1917-1994), known for his renditions of crusaders like Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and the New Gods, comes up constantly in conversation with any comics-reading musician. And no wonder. With his larger-than-life heroes - and roots in comic books' very dawning - Kirby was the medium's Elvis, and like Elvis, carried the nickname that went with the role: "The King."

"He's the bomb," says Bill Jeffries, onetime "trumpeter on call" for acts like Pork, Stretford, and the Chumps. "He's the best!"

"Old Jack, nobody can replace him," adds songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston. "I always liked people who drew Captain America in Jack Kirby's style. Nobody can replace Kirby, that's for sure."

Those who followed in the footsteps of KISS, creating larger than life costumes and personas and taking them to success in the Nineties, also credit the lowly comic book for shaping their lives. One need go no farther then Marilyn Manson, GWAR, Glen Danzig, or Rob Zombie for evidence of this; all of these artists freely credit the beyond-human heroes and their all-too-human creators in interviews. Zombie, for instance, provided the introduction for the collected adventures of the Dark Horse Comics title The Nocturnals, while GWAR put out their own comic series, and Danzig took the whole thing full circle by founding his own comics company specializing in tales of the erotic and macabre.

"[Zombie] is like obsessed with it," recalls former Austinite and current Marvel Comics freelancer Marie Javins. "He even came up to the Bullpen once [the company's office]. So did Foreigner!"

Very little seems likely to replace Kirby in the hearts of comic fans - musicians or otherwise. In fact, with Marvel Comics going bankrupt and the field currently glutted with poor storytelling and what Forsyth calls "anorexic, skintight-clothed women with guns" the whole field may be sliding toward South Park standards. Forsyth, who says he himself has plenty of the aformentioned girlie-gun comics, says he still frequents Austin Books to get his fix before he leaves on tour, but finds little that interests him besides the works of Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and a Japanese comic about a Samurai rabbit called Usagi Yojimbo.

"When The Sandman came out," says Jeffries of Gaiman's brilliantly written gothic series for DC Comics, which recently ended its limited run, "I started buying comics again - though I mostly started buying back issues of Kirby."

Luckily, the rock musicians' choice in comics also swings far to the other end of the spectrum as well, to those books that most resemble the workings of a struggling young band - the underground comics. Mention the underground scene, and many comics connoisseurs immediately think of the Sixties and Gilbert Shelton's dope-addled Freak Brothers, but the truth of the matter is that if there's any aspect of comics that's currently alive and reasonably well, it's the underground (or independent) comics. This encompasses everything from classic Shelton and Robert Crumb to the current crop of books from Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez of the punk/slacker epic Love and Rockets and other oddballs like Chris Ware and longtime local and Chronicle weekly contributor Roy Tompkins.

In an unusual but predictable cross between KISS antics and the underground ethic, bands themselves have tried to duplicate the KISS experience over the years by getting buddies to draw comics (usually black & white photocopied minis) to give or sell to fans. Jeffries has added his contributions to the list of small-press operations with comics about bands such as the Motards and Paranoids - as well as his first: a special one-shot Pork comic.

"That was with my friend Derek Milner," he says. "We were inspired one night after seeing Pork, and they liked it so much that they included it in one of their singles. We just made up a bullshit story, then they printed the cover as a T-shirt."

Through the power of the undergrounds, in fact, Jon Horne, formerly of the Crying Out Louds, has managed to do what even the venerable members of KISS couldn't manage - he actually became an existing comic book hero! How is that? Well, after being introduced to comics through Zippy the Pinhead and the undergrounds of the late Seventies/early Eighties, Horne became enamored of the work of one Peter Bagge, a then-underground artist/writer with a "freak-out" style that brought his comic to the attention of Robert Crumb.

"I started getting into Stop! magazine where I first saw Bagge's stuff, then Weirdo and then Neat Stuff," says Horne. "I'd always look forward to that stuff coming out."

Bagge eventually replaced Neat Stuff with a comic called Hate, featuring a character he'd spent a long time developing, Buddy Bradley. The ultimate comic book dream for punk/alternative kids not interested in warring gods and sound effects, Buddy Bradley was instead a slacker who lived a real, hilariously exaggerated, twentysomething's life. He also, coincidentally, looked exactly like Jon Horne. When Bagge announced a lookalike contest, Horne's sister and her boyfriend demanded that he enter, which he did; in fine Buddy Bradley fashion, Horne managed to get his photo to Bagge the day of the contest's deadline.

Austinite Jon Horne won the Buddy Bradley lookalike contest

"I got a call from Peter Bagge," says Horne, "and that was that."

Soon Horne's mug was plastered across the cover of an issue of Generation X's favorite comic. Did that lead to recognition at Crying Out Louds gigs? "Oh, yeah!" says Horne, including one time when the band played a gig at Emo's with the Cheater Slicks. It turned out that one of the guys in that band had been a runner-up in the contest and had his photo featured in the issue as well. Talk about a confusing meeting for the two - not to mention the audience!

With price increases and an ever-shrinking market, the days when sitting around reading funnybooks was one of the cool things about being in a band may just about be over.

"Comics are more specialized," laments Forsyth. "They're slicker and glitzier and people are trying harder to do something different and getting away from the story and the point - the storytelling aspect."

In fact, every year since Jack Kirby's death has seen the great comic icons and the days of simple, brightly-colored heroes fall farther behind us.

"I tried to do a Captain America album at one point, but I was having too much sex at the time and that kinda distracted me," jokes Johnston.

Not surprisingly, sexuality does play a large role in ridding the young male of his interest in comics. It's been said that as an adolescent male realizes that he has the ability to attract girls and have sex, he finds that he does indeed have an even stronger "super-power" than his comics heroes. And as has been proven time and again, performing onstage with a rock band is a good way to augment that power (the glam era proved it when musicians started wearing silly looking Spiderman-type tights).

Mike Allred's current heroic rock & roll adventure

It's also a given that more often than not, people outgrow comics (at least the type of comics that remain predominant in this country); this writer has been unable to find much evidence that younger, newer bands are embracing the form as their distraction of choice (unfortunately, the Hanson boys were unavailable for an interview). Television and computers are pulling eyes away from the printed page at an astonishing rate, and for years now, video games have been eating away at the number of potential young comic book initiates.

Still, as Forsyth points out, there's no predicting the future of the medium. "There's good things out there for a while, and then it'll sort of bottom out for a while. It's sort of like music - like records. Sometimes there's a lot of good stuff out there and sometimes there's nothin'."

That's an apt metaphor, but even without a record industry, it's tough to imagine that music itself would ever go away. No, it's far more likely that when Buddy Bradley's, er, Jon Horne's kid gets to "that age," he'll be impressed that his dad was in a rock & roll band. When presented with a copy of Hate, however, he may well look at Horne's photo on the cover, flip through the pages of wacky drawings and word balloons and ask:

"Dad, what kind of magazine is this?"

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