Jim Adkins, frontman of Jimmy Eat World, is a true comics fan. When he heard about the audience at The Beat, his response was: “My people!” And in early June, Adkins sees his first comic, the graphic novel 555—co-written with Random Shock Studios‘s Alex Paknadel, drawn by Koren Shadmi, and designed by Tyler Boss—release from Z2 Comics.
The 555 graphic novel, a direct-to-consumer exclusive, follows in the fascinating tradition of comics spearheaded by musicians (a movement well-supported by Z2’s offerings). Inspired by Jimmy Eat World’s sci-fi music video for their song “555,” the book tells the story of Klaarg, the overseer of a factory at the edge of known space that produces cloned slave labor. When the factory is slated for closure, Klaarg finds that he too is in the expendable category.
In this interview with The Beat, Adkins shared the story behind the “555” music video (hint: it involves Rick Springfield), thoughts on the collaborative book creation process, and some of his favorite comics growing up. Check that out, along with a preview of the forthcoming book, below.
[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]
Kerry Vineberg: Tell me about the original inspiration for the “555” music video.
Jim Adkins: The song itself is about acceptance, and how that’s really the key to getting past whatever reality you’re in. Because until you reach that point, you’re moving forward in denial of something, and that’s going to come back to bite you in the ass. So it’s not easy to do, because it usually involves facing an uncomfortable truth about your current condition.
That being said, I am a huge fan of early 80’s birth-of-MTV-era music videos, because that’s scorched in my mind from being a very young kid. And they’re always, like, the most extreme things. Dudes with swords, and explosions.
Adkins: A lot of wacky! A lot of stuff that was like, maybe some director was super coked-out and thought this would be the metaphorical thing to reach millions of people and they would just transcend all that.
One of my favorite videos was Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘til You Drop.” For your readers who might not be instantly familiar, there’s this reptilian society that has enslaved these worker/peasant people. And there’s this overseer guy in a chair who’s floating above the workspace here, where his minions are doing his bidding.
They’re busy, but I can’t tell what the hell they’re doing. And there’s a stage. The video starts off with the lizard guy basically giving the literal axe to a performer who just sucks. And then Rick Springfield comes on. And his song is really catchy and it inspires rebellion! And the workers rise up and take over from the reptilian overlords.
And for some crazy reason, I thought about the song “555.” And how from the overlord guy’s perspective, it was a pretty bad day! (Or the executioner in Blazing Saddles. You should have no sympathy for him, but he’s just so overworked.) So that got me thinking about the character of Klaarg, who I play in the “555” music video.
I started thinking, okay, so Klaarg is obviously overseeing these minion people who are doing his bidding. And I started building up a backstory in my head for it, and doing as in-depth of a mood board as I could, to start to tell shot by shot how it was going.
Vineberg: It’d be great to hear about that process. What thoughts went through your mind?
Adkins: Yeah, so my experience in video and film is really limited. I tried to idiot-proof it as much as I could, like, here’s the idea. And originally, I was pitching this to just have funds to make the thing. We weren’t even thinking about a comic afterwards.
Basically, I broke down what I thought the arc could be of Klaarg. He’s having a really bad day. He’s just bummed out about his situation. He thinks he should be much higher up, he should be recognized by his overseers for the job he’s doing on this planet.
But in turn, he’s really mean to his subordinates, his minions. He’s terribly cruel to them. So there’s no reason we should feel empathy for this guy, who is overworked and underappreciated, but is a horrible person. I just thought that was an interesting place to go.
Vineberg: It’s a cool reversal. Did you feel like the sci-fi aspect enhanced the song’s message in certain ways?
Adkins: Well, that song is an outlier on the album Surviving. Because the rest of the record is pretty guitar-based rock. And that song is like… not. So it’s okay if the video itself is a little bit puzzling for people.
There’s really no bigger hook than, “Are you kidding me? Is this real? Like, what?” Any time you can have what you want to convey, wrapped in something where people have to really do a gut check if what they’re seeing is serious or a joke, then you’re on the right path.
To make it work though, it had to be totally serious. You can just do goofy, but you’re making a Super Bowl commercial then. If it’s “WTF” and it’s goofy– that’s not what we were trying to do. It’s way more effective if you lean into making it serious. So we had to think about, how do you flesh out the backstory of these people? What’s the motivation here? What’s the deal?
Vineberg: I’d love to hear more of the backstory.
Adkins: Yeah, so Klaarg is part of… I don’t want to say a Borg-like organization. But they’re definitely more evil than the Galactic Empire. Kind of an Empire vibe, that’s the closest analogy I can think of.
The other characters in the story, the Kudj Kram [laughs], are his minion people. (In the comic world, there’s probably no end to the ridiculous names. And that was kind of the point too. They have to be ridiculous names!) They’re a society with extremely powerful psychic and telekinetic abilities. But they’re also uber-pacifists.
So when Klaarg’s organization came in, they conquered them easily, because they didn’t use their powers to destroy anything. But the organization realized that the Kudj Kram would be great indentured working people because of their abilities.
But they couldn’t have the Kudj Kram ever changing to be wise and actually rise up against the organization, because they would win. So they got rid of everybody except for like, one person who was not the smartest, and wasn’t the best in abilities. And they cloned him to make that everybody. So that’s who Klaarg has working for him, harvesting power from some planet that he’s overseeing.
Vineberg: Wow! There’s a lot of storytelling and evocativeness in your songs in general. How was the creative process for the 555 book similar to and different from that?
Adkins: So I know even less about the construction of comics than I do video. I had a long talk with the writer, Alex [Paknadel], and brought him up to speed with everything I knew about the characters, and what a potential arc could be for Klaarg’s character.
And then I just got out of the way and let him run. What he came up with isn’t exactly what my backstory was. But he takes it further to a place that I would have never thought of, which is rad.
Vineberg: How was it working with Random Shock and Koren? Did you work directly with Koren too?
Adkins: They’re awesome. I just got out of the way, man. From Koren’s previous work, I knew he was exactly the person to illustrate this. Plus, I was curious to see what he would do. I didn’t want to get in his way at all. So I had an intensive back and forth about the story, but then I just let it happen.
He was basically like, “Here’s what I’m thinking.” I said, “Yep. That’s right on, man.” It was exactly what I pictured for it. Really, there’s no one else that could draw this thing!
Vineberg: Any favorite moments in working on it or insights you learned about comics from doing this?
Adkins: I still kind of don’t understand it! [laughs] I think if it’s anything like the music world, there’s generally a way that it could happen. But when it gets down to it, there’s no rules. Like, if you’re writing and someone else is illustrating, how much direction visually are you giving them, and what actual dialogue breakout are you giving them?
The one thing I wish I could have been more involved with was the interaction between those two. What exactly is delivered to you when you’re drawing something that you’re not writing?
Vineberg: Did you have strong visual ideas based on the music video?
Adkins: No, that was really just the jumping-off place. They could take it wherever they wanted. And they made Klaarg ripped! Klaarg is all buff and stuff. The total comic guy chin. Kind of a Tick vibe.
Vineberg: Nice! Did any of the other members of Jimmy Eat World weigh in on the story at all?
Adkins: No, they were just like, “All right, whatever, man.” [laughs] “Okay, Jim, that’s really nice!”
Vineberg: And did the pandemic affect anything about the book?
Adkins: Yeah, originally, we were shooting to have it done a lot earlier. It was going to coincide with a tour that we were supposed to do last year. And once everything shut down and the immediate need for having it ready for tour went away, the pace of working on it kind of seemed less important than all the insane real world things that were going on around us.
But we made it happen! Came together finally!
Vineberg: Yeah! How do you feel about the final product?
Adkins: I couldn’t be more happy. It’s so wild, man! Comics were important to me growing up and to have something that I was involved with actually exist is just awesome. It’s super cool.
Vineberg: That’s so exciting. What were some of the comics you liked growing up?
Adkins: Oh, man. I had Punisher War Journal. Punisher and X-Men. What are some other wacky ones? The Tick. There was a series called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, which I had a bunch of. Preacher, a little bit. There’s a title called Nth Man that I followed for a little bit. That didn’t catch on though.
Vineberg: So you collected comics and then shifted into music?
Adkins: I was always into music. It just turned out that I wanted to buy music gear more than I had money for comics.
Vineberg: Are there any other songs or themes of yours you’d enjoy making into comics?
Adkins: I don’t know. Part of the way I write songs is, I ask myself a lot of questions about what’s happening. If I don’t instantly have lyric ideas, I will kind of world-build around what could be happening and flesh out the scene. Usually from that, I’m able to find more details that I think are interesting to actually include in the song.
So we’ll see. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of much that already exists. Maybe. It would be more drama-based, rather than having the hook of a sci-fi element, I think… which I know is out there now. There wasn’t so much of that when I was collecting, stories that are more like true short fiction. It was all about a giant arc that would last for like eight or ten issues.
Vineberg: That’s true. Have you tried your hand at writing other fiction stories before?
Adkins: I have and it’s really, really hard. You’d think it wouldn’t be dissimilar from what I do with songs, but it’s super hard. I have crazy respect for people whose chosen torture is to write fiction.
Vineberg: Anything you’d want to tell your existing fans about the book? Or new ones who find you through the comic?
Adkins: Oh, it’d be super wild if people found out about our music from the comic. I would say, welcome! We’re hopefully going to be on tour next year, come hang out with us!
Pre-order 555 now, out in early June!