[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’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.
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.
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 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.]