INTERVIEW: How knowing David Bowie inspired Jeff Rougvie’s new comic

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GFH Issue 1 Cover

Music industry veteran Jeff Rougvie has wanted to write a comic about his business for years. Not the cliched cocaine and groupies stuff, but a story based in reality, a story about the hardworking operational side of the machine that builds the bands we love.

Rougvie read comics as a kid, getting his first at a newstand with his dad in ‘72 (Amazing Spider-Man #126…The Kangaroo was the villian), before later graduating to Cerebus, Heavy Metal, and a life-changing run of Love and Rockets. Rougvie kept reading comics after getting his first job at a record shop in the late ‘70s, going on to make fanzines, manage local bands, and sing for punk rock groups. He read comics as he rose higher in the music business, eventually coming to work with David Bowie, producing the legend’s Sound + Vision box set. He read them as he went on to work in ’90s and ’00s with acts like Bob Mould, Big Star, and Elvis Costello.

And at some point (1989, to be exact…Rougvie still remembers) he had the idea for his own book, an idea he never really acted on past musings. That, however, changed in 2016. Rougvie had been reading Think Tank, a Top Cow comic by writer Matt Hawkins and artist Rahsan Ekedal, rooted in real life DARPA military research. It was the first time Rougvie had seen comics engaged so directly in something as esoteric as the music business (you can learn more about his long career in the industry on Rougvie’s website).

“Then Bowie died,” Rougvie said during a recent phone conversation. “Bowie died. I had been thinking about this comic for a long time, and I knew him and felt he was always taking chances, that I should just do it. A few months later I was in Canada. One of the great things about Canada is you see a lot of French comics in Canadian bookstores. I came across this whole series of books about the IRS, almost 30 volumes about the IRS that have been published in France, which on the surface I can’t imagine a more boring concept. It’s like forensic accounting—it doesn’t seem like it’s something that could work in a comic book. That was the same weekend, unfortunately, that Prince died, who had also meant a lot me. So, I said I’m going to find a way to make this work, and that’s when I got really serious about it.”

Jeff Rougvie

And he did. Rougvie started to develop his script and look for artists. He had a few come aboard the project, but none that really seemed to lock into the concept. He mentioned the troubles to Eric Stephenson, chief creative officer of Image Comics, and Stephenson introduced him to the artist Moritat. The book that was in Rougvie’s head all those years is now called Gunning for Hits, and it’s due out to the world on Jan. 9, complete with a Spotify playlist to accompany each issue. He’s enjoyed his time making it so far, finding the collaborative process rewarding, if a bit different from working in music.

“With comics, there’s so much subtlety, and there is such a collaboration,” he said. “There’s not really a direct comparison. It would be almost like if you were a musician making an album and you hire a band to play with you. It’s different in that respect from what I used to do and am still doing, but it’s been a great collaboration because Moritat has been on board from the beginning with the idea of the book. I tried to find an artist for a long time prior to landing with him, and people had a real hard time grasping how would I execute this. I had a couple people on board who bailed at the last minute. Eric Stephenson had been interested in the book. I went to him and said I’m going to make a full court press to find another artist. I asked if he had anyone in mind, and he put me together with Moritat. We had a few phone conversations, and I knew that he got it and would be able to execute it.”

The concept that Moritat has executed so well is essentially a crime thriller within the music business Rougvie knows first hand. The story is set in—as previews describe it—“the shady New York City music scene of the mid ‘80s.” The protagonist is Martin Mills, a maverick who hunts for the next big band, guided primarily by instinct and his gut. Mills isn’t based on an exact person per se, although some similarities to real life may be evident. The realities of the time period are especially consequential to the story’s tone and plotting.

“It’s a factor in that ‘87 was a turning point in music in a lot of ways,” Rougvie said. “You’ve got Guns N’ Roses coming out, the first Nirvana show, The Pixies and REM breaking…you’ve also got this big weird shift in the music industry. The CD had come along…what happens then is all these old copyrights that record companies own are suddenly worth a lot because people are re-buying their record collection in a new format that’s very expensive. So, record companies are flush with money. You think that’d be good for music, but these multinational companies come in and buy them, forcing out these old maverick guys who trusted their guts and ran on instinct, real music guys. For me, Gunning for Hits is about this uneasy relationship between art and commerce. When these big companies get involved, all they want is year-over-year exponential growth, but there’s no way to really make that happen because art connects with people on different levels, and, to be perfectly honest, no matter how good your marketing is there’s still an element of luck.”

Rougvie first met David Bowie while producing his Sound + Vision box set.

Those years Rougvie carried around the story have given him enough material to follow his Martin Mills character through a long run (he’s even given him his own meta Twitter account, which will augment the plot with excerpts from the character’s journals). Rougvie has a definitive ending in mind. Still, he’d like a chance to include as much of the narrative as he and Moritat work toward it. The longevity of the title will, of course, depend upon sales, a reality Rougvie knows coming from the music business. Regardless, he’s thrilled to be here, to be doing this, to be trying something new. And he wouldn’t be if not for David Bowie.

“He was in a rough place when I met him. When I say ‘rough place,’ I mean a rough David Bowie place—little different than a rough place for the rest of us. He sort of lost his way in the ‘80s and was very aware of that in terms of art…when I met him, he was trying to get back on his feet artistically with more challenging projects. He was deliberately challenging his own work ethic to make things harder so he could dig deeper and find that artistic footing he had throughout the ‘70s. I got to see him do that. My role was to help him work on re-releasing his catalogue and put his ‘70s work in some overall context. He wasn’t a guy who looked back on his past, so for him it was weird. I was almost his guide, taking him back. I forced him to listen to those old records and found demos he’d recorded.

“He and I started working together in ‘89, talked on the phone a lot in ‘89, and then met on my birthday in 1990, which was the first date of a tour in Canada. We had a lot of similar interests. There were a lot of similar bands we were interested in. We started talking about art and different bands. I remember giving him a tape of some early Pixies demos I had. The big takeaway for me from David Bowie is you have to keep challenging your self and doing new things. As you can tell from the dates I’m throwing around, I’m not the youngest guy, but I’m doing my first comic book after loving comics my whole life, and I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t started thinking about David a lot after he died, taking inspiration from David Bowie. So, if people don’t like it, blame David Bowie.”

Gunning for Hits #1 is due out Jan. 9, with a final order cutoff date of Dec. 10.