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Comic books characters
have often been name-dropped in the music world. The psychedelic 60’s saw both The Jefferson Airplane and The Pink Floyd paying “a Tribute to Doctor Strange.” Jim Croce warned us that “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape”, while Donovan boasted that “Superman and Green Lantern ain’t got nothin’ on me.” We even had Elvis doing Vegas basically dressed as Captain Marvel. And do I even need to mention the living comic book characters that are KISS? Or MF DOOM?
This is all great fun, and a tribute to the influence of comics books on the culture. But musically, that influence is usually surface-level. “It’s comic-book cultural appropriation! My geekdom is not your stage costume! REEEE!” Hah, that’s fine, actually. But the point is that it’s either confined to the lyrics or stage appearance, and rarely does it influence the music itself. And that’s a shame, since music has the potential to convey the same sense of crazy, fantastic escapism that we find in comics. Perhaps “prog rock” came close, but even that was still bound by rock music conventions and other counter-cultural considerations. And despite the technological advancements of today’s blockbuster superhero movies, the scores, while functional, are still pretty much conventional Hollywood scores, musically speaking; they’re basically interchangeable with any non-comic book action flick. Scores such the one composed by Vangelis for Blade Runner are notable not only for their music, but for their rarity in their attempt to stylistically match the subject matter. (One notable recent exception, via the “synthwave” movement: witness the influence of the once-groundbreaking film scores by Tangerine Dream on the soundtrack of 80’s throwback Stranger Things.)
So, then, where is the comic book music?
A Flash Back to the 90’s
The idea first came to me in the 90’s. In the letters column of an issue of Wizard magazine, people were discussing what music worked well with certain books. Some suggestions paired R.E.M. with Spider-Man, Nine Inch Nails with X-Men (appropriate enough for Wolverine). Good suggestions, but it got me to thinking: would the lyrics get in the way of the story? But even more than that, I thought, why is no one writing music for these fans, to set the mood for their reading? And then, I thought: why can’t the music be written as if it were a comic book? Not being bound by the rules of pop songs, or the expectations of other genres, but with its own conventions? And more importantly, written as a music that embraces its comic book geekery!
To be fair, that may have been a tall order before the internet, when the music industry was still an exclusive club dominated by the charts, and the recording process was still somewhat expensive for indie musicians. But in the mid to late 90’s, the technology was beginning to open up avenues for those outside the mainstream. And that technology also opened up new ways of doing things, technologically and musically. So, as a musician, I set out to explore what a music created purely for the comics community could be. With that said, I want to introduce 3 different artists, each with their own approach: Zaalen Tallis, Gideon’s Mob, and my own project, Spaceplayer, and then see where the idea can go from there.
Zaalen Tallis: “Stories Through Music”
Zaalen Tallis is an award-winning composer who not only scores for film, but also for original stories and comics. Some of these comics include crowdfunded indie hits like Jawbreakers, Cyberfrog, Red Rooster and Lair. The music may be orchestral, but it is not limited to the film experience. In one interview, Tallis explains his concept of “story score”:
“It’s really all about telling a story through music. I’ve always had the dream and ambition of making big action/adventure films and composing music for them, however I may never get the opportunity to do that, but why should that prevent me from writing such music and creating such stories? Why do people think that film music can only exist because of film? Why should film, television and video games be the only mediums and reasons why such music exists?…There is no reason why this kind of storytelling through music shouldn’t exist in its own right and be enjoyed. I’m trying to show people that this kind of music can exist without these visual mediums.”
Tallis also explains how his method for writing comic book music contrasts with his method for writing film scores:
“I try to find the right themes, sounds and tones for the characters and their worlds and then get stuck into it. The only difference between writing film music and music for comic books and other stand alone albums I have done is that I don’t have to worry so much about making the music stop or start, when the editing and director need me to do it. I also have a bit more freedom in creating the tone of the music I see fit and writing for comics allows me to explore epic stories set in all kinds of worlds full of all kinds of characters that I may never get the opportunity to write for in films. Though I do hope to have the opportunity to compose music for some epic blockbusters one day… Just maybe those epic blockbusters will be for some of the fantastic comic books and their creators I’ve already had the pleasure of creating music for.”
Gideon’s Mob: “Enter the Boom Tube!”
I asked Brian Urso of progressive rock/metal band Gideon’s Mob to speak to the comic book influence of their music. He described how the lyrics to their song “Motherbox” actually casts the listener as a character in the story:
“I can just tell you our approach when we wrote the song “Motherbox“, basically my favourite artist and creator was Kirby, and I love The New Gods, and I wanted to write a song that both honoured him and told the story of Apokalips. And we wanted the synths in the beginning of the song to sound like you were in a “boom tube” being transported to New Genesis, and the song talks about the rise of Darkseid. We mention Metron in the song, Flash’s cosmic treadmill, Oberon, and Darkseid and his Anti-Life Equation. By the end of the song you find out that you, the listener, fail in your quest and you end up being a slave on Apokalips.”
Spaceplayer: “The Music Listens to YOU.”
The music of Spaceplayer was not meant to be a “soundtrack” for any particular comic book, but to capture the feel of a comic book in musical form. That means not relying on traditional song form or lyrics to tell the story, but using sound itself as an illustrator uses color, lines, and form. The musical style itself, while originally starting from a rock-based influence, is not itself bound to any genre; The comic book is the genre. As a result, Spaceplayer has borrowed from different musical genres to explore different ways of capturing that feel; including rock, electronica, classical, spaghetti westerns, and even hip-hop, but always in the service of becoming its own thing. ‘Its own thing’ includes never before heard musical forms made possible due to technological innovation. Why try to imitate old styles when synthesizers opened up new tones never dreamed of? New tones call for new composing techniques. Sound technology isn’t the end of it though; the real advancements came in the software of the mind, in the imagination. For Spaceplayer, the emphasis is not on dancing, or musical virtuosity, but to encourage the listeners to use their imagination to provide their own visuals. It’s as if each album is a unique musical trip to a different world, where the listener can “choose their own adventure.” What Spaceplayer finds interesting, is the creative possibilities in this approach. Because of the varieties of individual experience, no two people are going to have the exact same visual. The music doesn’t dictate a one-sided conversation, but instead invites the listener to contribute, and become part of a very individual experience. Your experience. An idea captured in Spaceplayer’s slogan: “The Music Listens to YOU.”
3 different artists, 3 different approaches, all reaching for the same idea: to capture in music the same escapism and adventure found in comic books. Here’s hoping that there will be many more artists bringing their own unique vision to the musical multiverse!
To hear more and to support the artists:
Gideon’s Mob: Links to YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, and MORE