Come on, you know how the story goes.
You put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. You cue up The Wizard of Oz. To your amazement, they match up, just like the forum post said they would! If that’s true, maybe there really was more to Kurt Cobain’s death. Or John Lennon’s. Indeed, maybe there was a satanic verse in Stairway to Heaven if you played it backwards. If you want to dismiss it, go ahead. Maybe it’s all just a series of funny coincidences. Or perhaps there’s something more sinister at hand…
Today at Image Expo, writer Joe Harris (Snowfall, Great Pacific) and artist Megan Hutchison announced their new series, ROCKSTARS. Described as “Almost Famous meets Supernatural,” ROCKSTARS is what happens when you find out that all the musical conspiracy theories you learned about as a kid are true.
The story follows a “young rock nerd,” Jackie Mayer, “who not only knows everything about music history, trivia and its myriad secrets and factoids, but also harbors a mysterious, almost magical ability to ‘see’ what most people miss, and determine and divine what’s going unreported.” As fate would so have it, one day Jackie does stumble upon something that most people are missing: the fact that a series of “groupie” murders that began in the 1970s has started again in modern Los Angeles.
Jackie joins up with Dorothy Buell, “a music writer and aspiring investigative reporter.” Together with Jackie’s dog Skydog, the gang seeks to get to the bottom of the mystery. Along the way though, they stumble into a complex web of myths and legends surrounding a legendary rock band. They’ll have to deal with demonic possessions, the guitarist’s relationship to the occult, and even human sacrifices to “the dark gods of rock.”
Described by Harris as an “exploration of lost mythology and hidden secrets woven throughout the history and aesthetic of rock n’ roll,” each of ROCKSTAR‘s story arcs will focus on “a case sprung from a different rock n’ roll era—British Invasion, Punk, 80s Heavy Metal, etc.—and draw on Jackie’s unique connection, knowledge, and darkly magical associations to crack them.”
The Comics Beat recently sat down with Harris and Hutchison to discuss how music influences them as creators and how they’ve channeled their love of rock to create a complex world that is guaranteed to blow your mind from the first page– which we coincidentally also have to show you!
Alex Lu: When a major event happens in the world, no matter how well supported the “official” version of a story is, people are always drawn to theorize alternative motives and sequences of events. What do you think it is that people find so fascinating about conspiracy narratives?
Joe Harris: I think it’s similar to worshiping the Ancient Greek pantheon in that it stems from a desire to explain the otherwise unexplainable, or to ascribe some degree of understanding to things too big or too heavy to accept at face value. Further, distrust in institutions has only been heightened in the digital age with information so easily shared and disseminated, so that’s probably not helping I’d guess. Plus, they’re just colorful and, oftentimes, more interesting than the unvarnished truth.
With regard to rock n’ roll conspiracies and apocrypha, they’re often born of a desire to not let go when a bright but combustible voice is snuffed out way too young, or a desire to keep escalating what’s already reaching for something higher in a song, an image conjured, an urban legend we want to be true, etc.
Megan Hutchison: I think about this a lot, probably because I listen to a lot of horror and conspiracy podcasts. I think that as creative, narrative creatures, humans want there to be an underlying story. We are attracted to drama. We don’t want to believe that life is just chaos — random events happening one after the other. The better story is that a secret group of people controlling the world or events are leading to a daemonic apocalypse or that the lyrics to this song played backwards warship the devil instead of a couple of people goofing around in a studio. That being said – the narratives that humans have created that date back to cave painting are astounding—stories on top of stories tying into other stories. That’s the beauty and the horror of human creativity.
Lu: Do either of you believe in any conspiracy theories yourself?
Harris: As the writer of almost too many X-Files stories to keep track of, I should probably say yes… but I’m skeptical. However, I’m starting to believe the one about Donald Trump being duped into running for president by Bill Clinton, myself.
Hutchison: In the words of Fox Mulder’s famous poster, “I want to believe.” I think most conspiracy theories are nothing but great stories. However, as an avid fan and researcher of the occult, I think there are some secret, underlying conspiracies that we will never know…or should never know.
Lu: ROCKSTARS focuses on Jackie and Dorothy, a trivia-espousing rock nerd and an aspiring journalist, respectively. When we meet our leads, where are they coming from? As people, what are they searching for out of life? What does rock n’ roll mean to them?
Harris: Jackie’s dad worked “security” for a lot of big acts and artists over the years and, as a result, Jackie was introduced to something of the rock n’ roll lifestyle at a very young age. But his father died under mysterious circumstances while Jackie was still a kid and he’s been looking for answers ever since. His dad taught him how to search for backward messages on famous records and showed him some of the tricks as to where the secrets might lie and Jackie still sorta talks to his old man by way of visions, his dad appearing something of a conscience character watching over his son’s shoulder. He also taught him how to play a roadie card game, a riff on an already weird poker variation called “Blind Man’s Bluff” and this provides a visual for how Jackie sort of discerns things. It’s like rock n’ roll road tarot or something similar you might describe. What Jackie doesn’t know is the truth behind his dad’s demise, the full scope and breadth of the power he’s actually inherited… and just who might be interested in taking it from him.
Dorothy is a bit of a mystery when she shows up in Jackie’s life. First seen as a rival, trying to get at the story behind the mysterious groupie murder plot Jackie’s happened onto, she’s actually keeping secrets of her own. Dorothy’s more light and skeptical of Jackie’s theories and motivations. She wants to be a serious journalist and investigative reporter… to the point of taking herself way too seriously, sometimes. But she grounds Jackie with both her pragmatism as well as her taste in music. She doesn’t like wasting time, and she’s not a big fan of what she considers “dad rock” on Jackie’s part.
They’re both people reaching for something higher. More than anything, they want the strange mysteries behind the music to live up to the sublime thoughts that they’ve perhaps been too willing to give away to it blindly.
Lu: Meg, the level of detail in your artwork is astounding. From the very first page, the amount of detail you put into accurately mimicking concert poster styles of various eras is breathtaking. Growing up, was your art heavily influenced by rock n’ roll? Who were your favorite artists, musical or visual?
Hutchison: I grew up in a very conservative environment, so I wasn’t exposed to rock n’ roll as a kid. I was lucky enough to come to age during the grunge/industrial era and that became my way out. I was probably too young to be listening to Nine Inch [still one of my favorite bands] and Stone Temple Pilot, but I would sneak CDs into my house and listen to them while my parents were out. I’m defiantly a product of growing up in the 90’s – goth, grunge, and punk. I was in a Skaband when I was in high school and would go to punk and goth clubs on the weekend.
I don’t think I’ve ever grown out of my angsty-ness [I still listen to the Cure and wear black all the time] I’ve just focused it into my art. I’m probably also borderline OCD, which is where all the detail comes from. I listen to more mellow music now, but I still rock out to some Primus or Dead Kennedys when their songs come on…and I remember all the lyrics.
Lu: Along a similar vein– when I was first introduced to rock music, I was drawn to bands with a gift for lyricism. The words in the songs mattered as much to me as the chords themselves. As a writer, Joe, do you relate to music that way?
Harris: I’m reached by music and lyrics, honestly. I’m a writer who, as a kid, was just mesmerized by the images popping off late-era Beatles songs, the lyrics Roger Waters wrote across Pink Floyd’s catalogue, and just about everything Dylan and Springsteen that there is to dive into. However, I’m also a musician who’s been playing guitar since I’m 14. I don’t play seriously anymore, but I played in rock and blues bands when I was a kid. I was also in the high school jazz ensemble. Plus, I played bass in orchestra over all those years— I’ve always responded to musicality and daring-do, majesty and presentation and just reaching for that epic thing you know?
I’m as interested in the evolution of electric guitar playing as I am in song lyrics. I can listen to John Bonham count off When the Levee Breaks on a loop. I love considering the evolution of the rock n’ roll “frontman” and watching screaming throngs of girls rush early Beatles and Rolling Stones shows while flipping through my massive collection of Grateful Dead shows. It’s a mosaic, appreciating rock both as a matter of personal taste and in the spirit of objective appreciation of as much as the eye can hold no matter personal preference of bands or sub-genres, and it fits together, for me, in ways I hope are both objective as well as personal.
Lu: Rockstars clearly draws from a lot of the traditional musical conspiracies we grew up with, but was there a specific kernel of trivia that inspired the series?
Harris: I grew up in the era of “backwards messages” masked on tracks, both the imagined and real kind, along with hidden Easter eggs in Derek Riggs’ Iron Maiden covers and movies like Eddie and the Cruisers postulating that their Jim Morrison analogue wasn’t, in fact, dead. There were also lots of “Elvis is still alive” stories popping up back then, so the rock conspiracy culture was pretty mainstream during my childhood.
That said, there were a few formative experiences that really inform ROCKSTARS. Searching through the myriad of Paul is Dead hoax clues across Beatles albums and lyrics… syncing up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz in those halcyon days of hard-to-sync VHS tapes too, I mean… so much. I remember bringing the lyrics to Don McClean’s “American Pie” to elementary school for a presentation because I’d recently learned all about the infamous “Day the Music Died” and wondered what those who didn’t get on Buddy Holly’s ill-fated plane must have been thinking.
However, I think what first pushed my imagination in the direction that resulted in ROCKSTARS was reading a whole lot of Led Zeppelin reporting and “unauthorized” biographies when I was very young. There’s a story involving Zeppelin and a “red snapper” that was, so far as my young and barely pubescent brain could determine, both unverified and unrefuted, and so kept running through my mind from early on.
Lu: At ComicsPRO, Eric Stephenson alluded to the idea that comics publishers should aspire to put out books that fill specific needs that are not already being met. Clearly, ROCKSTARS has carved out a visually and narratively striking niche for itself in the Image catalogue, but in your words, what do you think is the core idea that separates your book from everything on shelves today?
Harris: Well, that’s a very lofty goal. I want to celebrate what’s timeless about rock— what’s majestic as well as mysterious. I hope that this series works as both a love letter to my favorite things as well as something that resonates with readers who might not necessarily be into the same music, but can relate to the connection these characters have to music.
ROCKSTARS is rooted in the Almost Famous-era 1970s, which is what I feel is rock’s grandest and most expansive and creative era. However, we’re going to leave now and again to explore other genres and mysteries too. We’ll place some young modern rock nerds, born in the century of mass information and cynical stimuli, right in the middle of older conspiracies and paranormal adventures that still have relevance today.
Hutchison: Although I didn’t grow up on classic rock, it continues to be one of the most influential eras in culture. It’s important to tell that story, and what’s more important is to focus on the mysticism surrounding it. Where did artists pull their inspiration from? What was their ethos? What inspired the epic narratives that tied albums together?
At the risk of sounding like an old person, I think in the age of technology and instant gratification, this style of storytelling is disappearing. I think of ROCKSTARS as preserving culture.
Also, the occult and daemon stuff is super fun to read and draw!
Make sure to check out ROCKSTARS when it hits store shelves later this year. Harris’ other Image works including GREAT PACIFIC and SNOWFALL are available now.