[The following essay was first published on FB and expanded for publication on the Beat.]
Oh shit. Prince just died. Like a few hours ago.
I’m sitting here in my office in Chicago, thinking as to what I’m going to write about comics. I’ve been publishing comic books for over six months now, as the co-publisher at Z2 Comics. In that time I’ve met incredible artists, discussed stories and characters, gone through sleepless nights peppered with nightmares of cash flow, and had these brief, fleeting moments of joy as I held a new issue of a book we just made in my hands. I’m wondering how to describe that feeling, as it would be the core of this piece, and for some reason I’m having a hard time putting it together in my mind.
And then Prince fucking died.
The Purple One. The Artist Formerly Known As. The Foundation of so Much of My Childhood. As the news of his passing settles in, the world is responding with a flood of memory, of the moments of personal experience his music played a soundtrack to. People losing their virginity. People discovering their sexuality. People facing loss. People letting go. Precious memories triggered by an artist who spoke to us, who, in our bedrooms, on our radios, in our earphones, in our personal hideouts, seemed to understand us.
Very few of us personally knew Prince, but he helped us get to know ourselves. That was the power of his art. And right then and there, a memory so visceral hit me that the indescribable feelings of holding a new comic book in my hand suddenly became lucid.
Cut to 1986. It’s a cold, Saturday evening in Ocrober in Denver, Colorado. I’m eleven years old and Prince’s “Kiss” is playing on my shitty clock radio. I’ve just returned from a long day of shopping with my family at the Buckingham Square Mall in Aurora. Mom is cooking Indian food and the smell of masala fills the house. I’m sitting in my room on my twin size bed, ready to embark on an adventure. In my hand is Issue #3 of Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. The cover has a blood-spattered, shell-shocked Elektra being photographed like she was a prize shot in a big game hunt. It’s a shocking cover, equally beautiful.
I’m eleven and I know I’m not supposed to be reading this book. But I’m ready for it. For the next hour I’m assaulted with a fractured narrative, psychosexual tension, orchestral violence and immense, immense beauty. This was unlike anything I’d ever read. I was transported. I was transformed. Elektra, the sexiest, toughest woman I’d ever encountered and motherfucking Prince being the soundtrack. Can’t beat that with a bat. After dinner I broke out my watercolor set and tried desperately to make something that looked anywhere near those stunning paintings. Nowhere close. But I knew what I wanted. I had found a place, and had found the artists who helped me get to know myself.
I’d never felt this with any other comic book or novel. Elektra: Assassin was a bold, wildly inventive and innovative piece of work that didn’t hold back. It didn’t cater to anything but its own desire to say something. It directed me to other works by Miller and Sienkiewicz, to Alan Moore, to Dave Sim, to Moebius, to Katsuhiro Otomo to Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean; artists who were uncompromising in their innovation and therefore their honesty.
For me, comics are moments in time, sealed with sights, sounds, smells and locales. It didn’t happen with every issue, rather there were specific books and artists who were bold enough to simply go there and make a statement, to not create filler, to make a sign of the times. As I got older and began to understand the industry of art, I came to realize the power of people like Karen Berger and Jo Duffy, who championed artists and allowed them to express themselves without fear of repercussion. Editors who were willing to stand by their creative teams for the choices they made. This was the mystic alchemy of powerful comics, the ones that stuck, the ones that defined. I can tell you the history of my life according to single issues, just I can do with the entire discography of Prince, or Bowie, or Nirvana, The Cure or Public Enemy.
This is not a hallowed memory, as there is art that continues to define moments. The final issue of Y The Last Man, the current run of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards, Kendrick Lamar’s entire output and the films of Jonathan Glazer and Andrea Arnold. All singular voices, all championed by those who believe and defend their message. These are important works, and the conviction behind them are inspiring in their courage and their audacity.
So when it comes to our turn at the publishing table, we want Z2’s books to have the elements of being potential memories. We chose projects that resonate with us emotionally, and collaborate with artists who we reassure and empower to be themselves. Ian McGinty’s Welcome to Showside is not just a colorful adventure, it’s about young people having to meet the lofty expectations placed upon them. Chris Hunt’s Carver: A Paris Story not only harkens our love of hand-crafted European comics, but also resonates with wounded hearts dealing with loss and grief. Our new books like Indoctrination, The Sweetness, Hyper Force Neo and Legend are all built on foundations of questions – sometimes brutal ones -that we collectively seek answers to, and that journey is paved with expression, technique and flair.
Art is only as good as the artists and institutions behind them. Many masterpieces are never seen because they weren’t promoted or championed. A lot of great art gets lost in the glut of output that we currently live in. Elektra made it into my hands because a comic book store employee at Mile High Comics saw that I was a very complicated kid who was ready to read a title that was never intended for children. He championed it, and in doing so, he championed me, and I am forever grateful.
Prince created a legacy over four decades. Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith did it over a handful of records. Vince Young did it in one masterful fourth quarter against the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. Alan Moore forever changed the nature comics with a single conceit in Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, when he asked if a vegetable could be fooled into thinking it was an altruistic man. Moments of clarity all begin with a single catalyst, and where we go from there is dependent upon our commitment to finding the truth. We have hits and misses – more of the latter – along the way, but they culminate to that final moment where things begin to reveal themselves to us. A seed is planted, a kid reading a comic book decides to embark on a journey which will change her life forever.
Prince died a few hours ago. His loss , along with Phife Dawg, David Bowie, Lemmy and so many others in this brutal year for music reminds me of the transformative power of art, and our obligation to keep putting new art out there, to support the voices which may paint the future and color our past. It’s arduous, frustrating, stressful and can lead to our demise, but listen to the final three minutes of “Purple Rain” and you’ll understand why it is so incredibly worth it.
[Sridhar Reddy is a filmmaker and co-publisher of Z2 Comics and co-chairman of Modern Prometheus Productions.]