Building A Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy: Paul Cornell and Tony Parker Talk ‘This Damned Band’ [Interview]
Earlier this month, Dark Horse released the first issue of This Damned Band, a new series from writer Paul Cornell and artist Tony Parker that tells the story of the seminal early '70s band Motherfather --- a group that attempts to enjoy the trappings of rock stardom, but at the same time become mixed up in forces far beyond their control.
In advance of issue #2 hitting stands next week, ComicsAlliance had the opportunity to sit down with Cornell and Parker to talk about the series.
ComicsAlliance: Portraying music in comics is always something of a tricky proposition, using a visual medium to capture something that's purely a non-visual experience… Was that a concern when you began work on a book about a band, and did you devote much time to figuring out how you'd depict the musical elements of the story?
Paul Cornell: I think there's one central problem, which we've got past --- we don't feature any lyrics or music, we leave that part in the audience's head. So we see them singing, we don't know what they're singing, and we never have any useless comic-writer-made-up lyrics floating in the air above them. I think that always takes you out of the pop comic, because a comics writer is not going to be a good lyricist, it's a different skill set. We hear some titles of what Motherfather have as a repertoire, but the audience can imagine for themselves what it's like.
CA: Are those actually completely different skill sets, though? Alan Moore is, as he is in many situations, a possible exception to the rule...
PC: Actually, This Vicious Cabaret, his single for David J, the chap out of Bauhaus, was excellent! "In no longer pretty cities there are fingers in the kitties, there are warrants forms and chitties, and a jackboot on the stair."
Tony Parker: [laughs] Wow! Very nice!
PC: Thank you!
CA: So, what made you decide to jump in and do a music comic despite those inherent obstacles?
PC: Well, I always like stories where a bunch of people who are professionals in one field get KO-ed from the side by something completely outside their experience. And this series is about a bunch of people who are really privileged, who are very rich, working class kids who suddenly got rich and have lots and lots of money and have all the pretensions that, in the 1970s, went along with that. And having their pretensions hit by something real is really, really interesting. It's about these personalities that are actually at odds, and the money has inflated how at odds they are, and the magic and the horror really gets into the cracks between them.
TP: It's this utter chaos --- they got on well in limited doses, but when you're working together like that, you're together all the time, you're not out of each other's sphere. They might say they like each other, they might even really like each other to some degree, but there's this element of hatred that's coming up; I can't stand the way you breathe, the way you snore. It's almost like an enforced five-way marriage.
PC: And because we've got this rock documentary format, where we've got people doing interviews to cameras, talking straight at us, and we see how they behave, we get a lot of comedy out of the difference between what people say and what they actually mean.
CA: So with that distinct format, was that part of the concept from the beginning, or did you get the idea for a story about a band and then set on using this structure to tell it?
PC: It all sort of came as one grand thing. I've always wanted to use that format for a comic, and since there are so many rock documentaries, it seemed the right thing.
TP: It's good because you have that public face and that private face, and you can use this format to break the fourth wall intentionally. It avoids those awkward, "Oh, is he talking to the reader, or is he talking to someone there with him?" moments, and gives us the personal connection to the audience.
CA: Were there any particular rock documentaries you looked at, and drew inspiration from?
PC: Well, there's Don't Look Back, which is sort of the big classic. And Ziggy Stardust, the concert movie, the one that has lots of concert footage and ends with Bowie announcing, to the surprise of his band, that the band is splitting up --- that's exactly the kind of thing that would happen to Motherfather.
TP: For me, visually, it's everything from around 1968 to 1974. The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, and any time I could find even little snippets of behind the scenes of The Who or other people, picking up on that.
Because it's not just the big stars, it's watching what people actually looked like then. The clothes, the acne, the bad facial hair, real people's real bodies. Because all the characters in the book, we wanted them to be real characters. The pin-up models, the beautiful people, they all have their awkwardness, and it's a late-'60s/early '70s beauty, not a 2015 beauty in 1974 costumes. I wanted to make it living, make it like you are there.
PC: I love that Tony has given Justin, the leader of the band, this amazing little boy body language. He's forever reaching behind his head, contorting his arms, it suggests how very uncomfortable he is.
CA: When doing visual research, were you looking for specific details to pull from, or was it more for the feel you wanted to evoke?
TP: A combination. A lot of what Paul gave me for design was, "This is what I'm looking for, with this," so I'd pull bits of this and bits of that. We're doing a tattoo, it can't be a modern tattoo, so I had to look for what tattoos looked like in 1968-69. And sometimes, there is a bit of artistic interpretation: "Okay, we'll flare those bell bottoms a bit more, we'll drop them down a bit", and adapting things to fit the characters, but always with the idea of creating an actual, not an idealized version.
CA: I'm also intrigued by that concept of how different people looked then. I mean, Pete Townshend was a trendsetter, he was striking and stylish, he helped define the entire 'Mod' aesthetic, but he was far from conventionally beautiful. You look at bands now; The Arctic Monkeys, say, are all good-looking young guys.
TP: Well, looking at what was the beauty of the time… we've got a woman who has, let's say, lower back problems due to her upper-body problems. But it's not someone who had work done, it's someone who has a larger, curvy figure, and that's her body type. We're aiming to create real people.
CA: So Tony, Paul mentioned how he's careful to not specify the lyrics or music, but given that you're drawing this band and creating their visual style, does it also fall to you to actually interpret the musical aspects of the story to some degree?
TP: To a degree, but when you look at the old concert photography, when you look at those images of The Stones or whomever, you can't tell what song they're singing. It's all about the expression they put themselves into, the contortion of their mouth or their body, or how they might be ignoring the audience and just standing there.
So I really wanted to give every single character their own gestures, their own poses, their own stances, how they hold themselves. But I'm also looking at it like, "Is it more of an intense song, is it more of a ballad, it there more of a strut or is it more of like a Who ab-crunch where they bend over, yelling into the mic?" So I tried to make sure that they had their own personalities, onstage and off.
PC: There's always one member of every band who hasn't quite got the aesthetic of the rest of the band. In our case, it's the bass player, and Tony's given him a wonderful John Entwistle suit --- whereas everyone else has gotten with the spirit of the early '70s, he's still rather buttoned-up. And it's entirely Tony's idea, that's just him reading the character really well.
CA: Given that you're creating this period-piece story, are there other era-specific things that you're channeling into this? The poster design, the underground comix, the styles and visual vocabulary of the time?
PC: I guess we do get to something very like the underground, simply because the subject matter is one that hasn't been onstage since the comics of that time… So it does kind of refer back to all that. And this being satire, a lot of the characters are combinations of two or three people, and incorporate either things they did, or legendary takes on things they did, which aren't necessarily what they actually did. There are elements of Jagger and Daltrey and a couple of others in our lead, and Kev, our guitarist, who is the most out-of-it, is Keith Richards and Lemmy and a couple of other guys. I think that's really good, because then we're working with archetypes instead of commenting on individuals.
CA: So, as a music guy, I'm also fascinated by the specific era you chose to set this in, specifically because it doesn't seem like the definitions between genres were so sharply defined. I mean, Queen is a great example: they were a prog band, and a metal band, and a glam band…
TP: And with this book, that's kinda what we wanted. There's not one uniform. The band members all have their own styles, their own nuance, and it's that convergence that we're going for.
PC: It's where they want to take themselves next, and they all have slightly differing opinions on what they want to do.
One of the lovely things is this being a documentary told-to-camera, for the sequences where nobody was there to record it, like the drug trip sequence in the first issue, it's like when an artist is called up to draw what happened in court. We've got a "local artist" who takes over and "draws" what happened. So when they're in Japan, it's a manga-style artist drawing the sequences; when they're in France, Tony got all Tintin. Tony's also been called upon to draw in Super 8 style, in hand-held camera, concert footage, and two-camera interview. So it's all different styles of drawing.
TP: It's all exciting challenges.
CA: So, without giving away too much, are there moments in those sequences where, in the same way the band members have different ideas about the musical direction they're going, they don't always agree on the story of how things happened?
TP: [laughs] Oh, very much so!
TP: There's a sequence in issue four that… Well, I can't say exactly, but it's a moment that I can't wait for people to see.
CA: And are you leaving yourself open to sequels, or is this a stand-alone story?
TP: I don't think there's really anywhere to go once we wrap this up.
PC: It's absolutely finite, this is the whole story --- it's done at the end of six!