Artist: J.C. Hewlett
Writers: Ed Caruana & Thomas O’Malley
Additional contributions: Remi Kabaka
Published by: Z2 Comics
2020 was a lot of things, but it wasn’t all bad: at the very least, the long-standing animated rock band Gorillaz was finally given their own hardcover annual, in the tradition of the British comics annual. Featuring both new and reprinted art that celebrates the two-decades-long history of the band, along with written material that expands on the band members’ biographies, the Gorillaz Almanac is a worthy edition to the band’s multi-media oeuvre.
Who Are Gorillaz?
Gorillaz is, at its heart, a project built on collaboration. Created by Hewlett (Tank Girl) and Damon Albarn (Blur) in 1998. In 2000, the band’s first single, “Tomorrow Comes Today,” was released. And Gorillaz welcomed Kabaka as a producer in 2016.
The virtual band is (most often) comprised of 2-D, the ditzy lead singer; Murdoc Niccals, the bass player who sold his soul for rock superstardom; Russel Hobbs, the super-genius drummer (who is sometimes possessed by ghosts); and Noodle, the super weapon whose musical passion can illuminate the darkest of nights.
Sound Machine: Season One
Gorillaz albums are often projects that are borne of their unique circumstances. For example, during the “Escape to Plastic Beach” tour in the United States during the autumn of 2010, Alburn recorded an album’s worth of new Gorillaz songs on his iPad, releasing The Fall in December 2010. Boasting no post-production work, the songs were presented essentially as-recorded, creating a musical diary of the tour.
Then, during the 2017-2018 tour for Humanz, another album was put together on tour – only this time, bassist Murdoc was unavailable, being incarcerated at the time. As a result, the Powerpuff Girls character Ace (created by Craig McCraken) became the band’s temporary bassist on the 2018 album The Now Now.
Ace demonstrates how the fictional narrative elements can affect the band’s music: The Now Now features 2-D in a larger role than Humanz, which can be explained by the absence of the narcissistic Murdoc, who will cheerfully shove 2-D down a manhole if it means he gets more of the spotlight.
With Song Machine: Season One, Gorillaz adopted a new strategy for releasing the songs that would make up the album: throughout 2020, “episodes” would be released on YouTube, featuring new songs, music videos, and animation. While the first two episodes were released in January and February, the remaining seven episodes that make up Song Machine’s first season were released to a world under lockdown.
Tomorrow Comes Today
Gorillaz have always had an eye toward time. On January 19th, 2017, the band released the music video for “Hallelujah Money” on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Although originally meant to arrive in October, COVID-19-releated shipping delays meant that it took a few extra months to arrive… But fittingly, my Gorillaz Almanac 2020 was delivered on January 13th, 2021, the date of Trump’s second impeachment (and Donny’s visage is featured on the cover, on a sign included in the 2020 trash pile that reads: “Years of B.S.! Professional Idiot! #Resist”).
And on July 20th, 2020, episode five of Sound Machine, “PAC-MAN,” was released, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the seminal video game’s release.
Temporal flourishes like these are part of why a Gorlliaz Almanac makes so much sense — particularly for a year like 2020, when we have all be forced to stay inside Kong Studios, Stately Beat Manor, or wherever it is you’re holed up.
This is the second book featuring the Gorillaz to be released. The first, 2006’s Rise of the Ogre, was a book-length interview with the band that covered the group’s formation and history through 2005’s Demon Days, along with in-depth analysis of the musician’s intended meanings behind their songs.
However, while Rise of the Ogre was an autobiography of the band, Gorillaz Almanac 2020 is a hardcover celebration of the band’s two decades worth of history, presented in the tradition of British comics annuals.
While there are certain features that more closely resemble the prose-based stories which defined Rise of the Ogre, which frequently add pieces to the backstories of the band members, there are also plenty of alternative features, such as the “ABCs of 2020” and advertisements for Niccals Pickles and a two-page conspiracy based around Russel’s current obsession with chili peppers and laced with the number twenty-three.
Each of the four band members gets ample opportunity to say their piece throughout the Annual. An interesting article about Russel reveals the character’s history as told through personal objects, while another feature sees the drummer interviewing the sweet but empty-headed 2-D about his artwork. In the almanac’s longest feature, we get to read some of The Chronicles of Noodle, a more detailed examination of The Book of Noodle, a social media story released in 2016. And a 2-page spread describes the special features installed in the Gorillaz’s space-faring Winnebago during London’s first COVID-19 lockdown.
Also included, for the first time, are Gorillaz comics! In addition to a 4-page story that takes place between Plastic Beach and Humanz, there are several “G*Nuts” strips, which render the band in the style of Charles Shultz (also seen briefly in the video for “PAC-MAN”). Plus, there’s a gallery of art from throughout the band’s history – and while some of these pieces will be familiar, it is nice to see them again, especially in a format that’s larger than CD liner notes.
All of this is in addition to plenty of other features: letters from Gorillaz fans (including a trans-inclusive letter and response), a diabolically difficult pub quiz, Sudoku and band-themed word searches, cut-out masks (“Haven’t we had enough of masks this year?” asks Murdoc), a recipe for cookies (with a kick) – there’s enough material in there to keep you entertained for more than a few afternoons in quarantine.
Since their inception, Gorillaz has had the idea of connection through music (despite techonological and social division) at the forefront of the project, as heavily emphasized by Noodle and Russel’s interviews in Rise of the Ogre. Perhaps in some ways that’s why the band was so uniquely suited to releasing music in 2020: connection in spite of would-be divisions has been a concern of Gorillaz since the start.
2020 was quite a year, but in spite of being forced to social distance and reckon with broken racist systems, it was still possible to find connection with one another through music. The Gorillaz Almanac is a celebration of this idea, and one that succeeds because of the emphasis it puts on the inclusive community around the band. It may not be precisely the high that can be found when one’s in the audience of a really good show, but these days, this may be the best substitute you can get.
The standard edition of Gorillaz Almanac 2020 is still available from Z2 Comics.