I got into reading comic books well before gaining a deep appreciation of music. With a rather limited allowance, my comic purchases would usually come in the form of a “Three For The Price Of One” bag of assorted comics that would often contain back issues from either DC or Valiant Comics. The top comic would be visible through the plastic wrap, but the others would be a mystery. Sometimes, when my siblings and I were on our best behaviour, our parents would buy us each a fresh comic provided it wasn’t too violent. I could sneak some superhero titles past them, but it seemed more often than not that I’d be stuck with something Disney affiliated or one from Archie Comics. Eventually, comic books became something I shied away from when I was approaching adolescence and my interests shifted towards other things.
When getting back into comics after a five-plus year absence while in my late teens, I found just the perfect comic series to draw me back towards the speech-bubbled art form: Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics! The first issue I got my hands on was the Metallica one. I liked the idea that one of my favourite bands could stand alongside The X-Men and Batman in a comic shop. The band looked rather distorted and angular on the cover, and the lava lamp pattern wasn’t too easy on the eyes either (the original cover was given a facelift in re-releases), but I knew I needed to read this comic. Seventeen issues later (plus a recent order of four more), and I’m still enjoying them.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics was a series put out by Revolutionary Comics, a company founded by Todd Loren in 1989. The company had a rather brief but highly notable existence. Their comics were highly popular with music consumers, but certain artists and/or their management weren’t having any of it. Revolutionary Comics faced much litigation, including a case revolving around the New Kids on the Block. There’s a documentary (The Story of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics) that covers all their history better than I can say it, so I’d recommend watching that.
Despite all the legal pressures Revolution Comics faced, they held rather firm in their anti-censorship stance. To catch a glimpse of the creator’s mindset, here’s some opening remarks that were featured in the Alice Cooper issue.
Todd Loren certainly comes off as a passionate man, and this translated in an entertaining (at least in my opinion) line of comics for music lovers. I’ll just run through the series and my collection briefly to touch on some of the variety as well as some personal insight.
There were sixty-three issues of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics in total, but the cool thing is that you can just buy the ones that interest you as there’s no continuous story line. It’s not as if you need to study up on Van Halen before you can get to The Black Crowes issue, and the history of Janis Joplin is not prerequisite viewing for that of Madonna. Leave the ones you don’t want in the back issues bins, and put the money saved towards getting more albums. That’s what I’d do anyway!
The beauty of the unauthorized aspect of the series (which was branded as “Unauthorized And Proud Of It!!”) is the over-the-top nature that will often creep into the story telling. They come across like if you watch a Behind The Music of a band when you are half-asleep. You don’t get a grasp on all the finer details, but it gets the point across. You are likely to catch couple of incorrect factual references, witness some slight indulgence in urban legends etc. For instance, in the Metallica story, the moment Dave Mustaine gets kicked out of the band, he instantly starts ranting about his future plans as if he’d planned on leaving the band for a long time.
The illustration here actually reminds me of Steve Grimmett of Grim Reaper, as he’s looking a tad on the husky side here, but that’s besides the point. The process of determining his next music venture took a bit more time than shown, but this is a clever way of fitting the origins of a Megadeth story into a more graphic context that captures their conflict and reveals the next stage of his career all at once. However, why not go a bit more descriptive while you’re at it.
“I’m going to start a new band called Megadeth, and they’re going to play even faster. I’ll meet my bass player by throwing a potted plant at his window while hung over. We’ll have an album called Countdown to Extinction that will peak at number 2 on the charts. Not as high as you’ll achieve, but still.. pretty damn good! Plus Vic Rattlehead.”
And then there’s this battle of egos in the history of Genesis:
This passive aggressive sniping they take at each other occurs in a few other panels. Peter Gabriel seems to have developed a strong case of Lead Singer’s Disease, but Phil Collins comes across as a scheming villain who plans on overthrowing his tyrannical band-mate. If only I could be the singer!!! I’ve been exposed to a number of stories regarding Genesis, and don’t recall this level of animosity within the band. Gabriel’s exit seemed to be mostly a matter a musician wanting to move on to do different things, granted his iconic use of on-stage costumes did help catapult his fame above those of the musicians behind him.
Some stories take unique approaches in their presentation. The Queensryche issue has Doctor X, a fictional character from their concept album Operation: Mindcrime, acting as the narrator.
This goes a step beyond the breaking of the fourth wall, but is ideal for the format. However, should he really be boasting about the exposure he was given by the band? I don’t believe he was depicted in the most flattering of terms on that album. That being said, I’ve never given the sequel a proper listen. If this comic is canon, maybe Doctor X becomes a spokesman for Ronco, because he was certainly selling me on turning the page to read onward.
If you’re a fan of corny jokes, there are good odds that an issue you’d stumble across randomly would close with one. Case in point, the final panel of the Whitesnake issue.
There are several issues of this comic series that I’d love to get my hands on, but based on my exposure, I can already wager some safe guesses on how those will end. Naturally, the Queen story would end with a “We STILL are the champions!!!” proclamation. How about the end of a Bruce Springsteen comic? Would he hint at retirement? “Who, me? Baby, I was Born to Run!!!” There was an planned issue based on Yes that was never published. Could that have been due to the writers becoming over-exhausted trying to work a good Tales From Topographic Oceans pun into the closing panel? The world may never know!
From cover to cover, most issues I own aren’t strictly filled with a biographical story. Many other comic strips and band parodies are featured within. Take this snippet found in The Rolling Stones issue.
These side stories don’t interest me that much, but the ideas depicted in some so absurd and silly that they can be entertaining, not too different from MAD or Cracked magazine. A random mishmash of pop-culture. “I pity the fool.. who doesn’t phone home” surely comes to mind to The Simpsons fans out there.
An ongoing theme that is spread throughout this series in their fight against censorship and pro-First Amendment sentiment is in their negative depiction of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The organization is chronicled/lampooned in the Public Enemy / 2 Live Crew comic. One panel of the comic I found amusing references so good ol’ Canadiana, bringing up one of the first hardcore punk bands I was ever exposed to, the Dayglo Abortions. Here’s some TV footage of the obscenity case in question.
One slight negative with some of these comics comes in the inconsistency from panel-to-panel at how the people appear. In one panel you may have a teen-aged Jim Martin (from Faith No More) looking like he’s in his thirties, or another where Ozzy Osbourne circa 1986 is shown playing in concert with the wrong guitarist (Zakk Wylde when it should be Jake E. Lee). However, these inaccuracies vary depending on the illustrator, one of which in particular seemed to more mindful of authenticity than others. A good example of this is the work of Greg Fox. Aside from the Genesis sample shown earlier, here’s a taste of some of his work on the David Bowie issue.
The series features a few issues where the illustrations were done in colour. Only a few were done this way, which I’m guessing was reversed to keep costs lower. To be honest, I prefer the look of the black and white, so maybe it’s possible others agreed and they switched back due to reader requests. Here are some previews from the AC/DC and Alice Cooper stories.
For those who collect comic books, I suppose my copy of the Ice-T story may interest you the most. It came signed by Jay Allen Sanford, who was the writer of the issue.
Of course to 99.99% of the population, that pales in comparison to one singed by Ice-T himself. I agree, but I can’t help but admire Sanford’s work on this story. Like most issues, much of the dialogue is pulled from various interviews with the artist over the years, but the manner in which they are pieced together flow so well in this issue. Sanford really seemed to be able to capture Ice-T’s character based on all I know of the man, and from what I do know, the man is one straight-shooting character.
When exploring the entirety of their artist selections, they were fairly good in their selections. Not many of the artists selected have faded into obscurity. Even most of the hair metal bands can still make a decent living on the touring circuit, and Paula Abdul got a huge profile boost when on American Idol. Of bands that didn’t get comics (other than ones I know who blocked them), I would have liked to see ones made of The Cult (since I know little of their history), Iggy Pop / The Stooges, The Misfits/Danzig (which had potential for a great cover), and The Smiths / Morrissey would be among my nominations.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics produced several eye-catching covers, but of the ones in my possession, here are some of my favourites.
These showcase three artists from radically different genres of music, but the covers share common traits. They all feature rather good likenesses of the featured band members, and make effective use of colour. I didn’t even own Straight Outta Compton when I grabbed the N.W.A. / Ice Cube comic, but I clearly must have liked what I saw. You can check out the entire gallery of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics covers on sites such as Comic Vine to make up your own mind.
Revolutionary Comics also did a few stand-alone music issues (such as Women In Rock) and some editions that contained longer stories of bands spread across multiple comics (including Pink Floyd and The Beatles). I can’t remember where I purchased this, but years back, I found multi pack featuring Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Guns n Roses, Metallica, Motley Crue and Warrant. I don’t have most of these stories in my collection, so this was a very convenient compilation for me, which couldn’t have cost me any more that ten bucks. With the exception of Warrant, all these bands are legends. It was titled Encyclopedia Metallica, and unlike what his future reputation would have you believe, Lars Ulrich didn’t take them to court.
For those with interests beyond music (that should be all of you), Revolutionary Comics also did bios on a wide range of celebrities from actors to politicians to athletes. I recently grabbed a copy of one of Wayne Gretzky, and if you’ve seen his performance on Saturday Night Live, he’s about as far from a rock star personality as you can get. I briefly touched on lawsuits Revolutionary Comics experienced, and here’s a clip discussing one involving the issue that featured Gretzky’s rink rival, Mario Lemieux.
One issue I’d like to get my hands on is the David Lynch issue, which is from their Bio-Graphics run of comics. While also a comic from a non-musician line, in the years since it’s release, Lynch has created his own musical projects, and has collaborated with a number of musicians including Chrysta Bell and Lykke Li. The recent relaunch of Twin Peaks (which happens to feature Bell in an acting role) has him lending exposure to music acts such as Au Revoir Simone and The Cactus Blossoms.
There may be a few rarities out there, but you should be able to find a typical issue of Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics for anywhere from $2 to $10 (Canadian dollars). Not a bad price for a taste of rock history.