Behind The Scenes Of Ghostface Killah’s New Album & Comic ’36 Seasons’ With Writer Matthew Rosenberg [Interview]
Ghostface Killah isn't just one of the world's most acclaimed rappers, he's also well versed in all manner of geek media – he famously titled his debut album Ironman, adopted "Tony Starks" as one of his multiple nom de plumes, and appeared in a deleted scene from the first Iron Man film; his music (both solo and as a member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan) draws on influences from kung fu movies to Speed Racer; and in 2013, he released 12 Reasons To Die, an album that tied into a six-issue limited series from Black Mask Studios.
And on December 9th, his latest cross-media project is being released: 36 Seasons, a new album on Salvation/Tommy Boy Records that's accompanied by a 24-page comic book. The record and comic tell the had-boiled tale of Ghostface returning to his hometown of Staten Island after nine years (or "36 seasons"), seeking solace and peace, and instead finding double-crosses, revenge, and unchecked violence around every corner.
The disc's storyline and packaging are the brainchild of indie comics veteran Matthew Rosenberg, who also wrote the aforementioned 12 Reasons To Die mini-series. We recently got a few minutes to speak with Rosenberg about his work assembling the album art, the creators he enlisted to contribute, and his experiences straddling the line between the music and comic industries – and we're excited to premiere a trio of illustrations from the project by Michael Walsh, Palle Schmidt, and Chris Pyrate, as well as showcasing some roughs and behind-the scenes material.
ComicsAlliance: You wrote Ghostface's '12 Reasons To Die' series for Black Mask Studios. Did Ghost's management just come to you and ask you to curate and assemble the art for this album? And did they have any specific requests, or were you given pretty much free reign?
Matthew Rosenberg: RZA and Bob Perry, who executive produced all this stuff, brought me on board for the 12 Reasons To Die comic in the beginning. They had seen some of my comics and dug them enough to give me a shot on writing and putting that whole thing together. I came in very early and I worked closely with both of them to make sure the comic matched the story Adrian Younge & Ghostface were assembling for that record. After we finished the comic Bob asked me to start pitching ideas for other records. I probably ended up pitching thirty things over six months for a few different rappers that ended up not working for various reasons. But my pitch for 36 Seasons kept coming up. We passed it on to Ghostface and he was into it so that is actually where my involvement began. I am credited as "based on the story by" or something to the effect.
As for the art, as soon as Ghost agreed to doing the record I got to work on assembling the art. Everyone was really pleased with the reaction to the 12 Reasons comics so they just told me I could do what I wanted for it. They had great suggestions along the way, but mostly I have worked with them enough that they trust me. And since the story was mine to begin with, the idea of translating it into comics was always something I had in the back of my head anyway. Even when co-writing records, I am still thinking of them as comics first.
CA: Was it an easy collaboration? Were there many changes between your original concept and the finished product?
MR: It was about as easy a collaboration as I've ever had. Everyone is so pro and good at what they do that things tend to run pretty smoothly. They have a lot of respect for my writing and my artistic ideas so there is a lot of trust there. For the music I mostly just get out of the way. They had me come into the studio a few times and give story notes on what some verses need to be getting across for the plot, but guys like Ghost, AZ, Pharoahe Monch, and Kool G Rap are all master storytellers and they know what needs to be done on a track better than I ever will.
For the art, after we got the initial look of the characters down it was a breeze. Other than the really tight deadlines meaning I made a bunch of illustrators weeks really hellish it was the easiest project I have ever worked on. Long nights but really straightforward.
CA: How did you go about selecting the artists you wanted to include? Did you approach them, did they come to you, or a bit of both?
MR: I picked everyone myself. The project was a secret for more than half a year so I just had to discreetly email a lot of people. First we needed the look of the characters. I hit up a lot of illustrators I know who are great character designers – Chris Hunt, Wilson Tanner, and Anthony Marques all designed little elements of the characters in the book. The three of them together came up with enough awesome designs for four whole comics so we were in good shape.
From there the awesome Rich Wojcicki really made the stuff come to life. It was Rich's take on the characters in action that made everyone realize this was going to work.
We also had my buddy Chris Pyrate do a standalone image we could sort of use as a target point. Chris' piece is fun and weird and I think sort of captures the record as a whole. It was actually going to go in the LP but we ran out of room for it which sucks. I hope he makes prints of it because I want one for my wall.
From there everyone's biggest concern was making sure the cover art really stood out on shelves. I have worked with David Murdoch in the past on various comic things and he contributed a bunch of stuff to the 12 Reasons To Die comic which we all loved so I asked if he would take a stab at the cover. What he sent back is basically the cover for the record. He is a true superstar and I am always shocked more people aren't giving him cover work in comics.
After that, filling the interior pages just involved me making a wish list of people I think are doing truly amazing things in comics right now. Getting a piece from David Lapham was a huge high point for me. Stray Bullets is one of the reasons I write comics and he was amazing to work with. I don't think it's crazy to say people will look back on Stray Bullets the same way they do about Love & Rockets, Eightball, or Black Hole.
Garry Brown and Ming Doyle are both consistently doing amazing, beautiful comics and I think people are just starting to pick up on how good they actually are. If people aren't reading The Kitchen or The Massive, they're f***ing up.
Michael Walsh is one of my favorite artists in comics. Whether he is doing Marvel work or his own books like Comeback, his stuff is unique without sacrificing storytelling at all. That's really rare. He just has a great head for making pages look good no matter what.
There is a whole crew of upcoming comic artists who are doing books that not nearly enough people are paying attention to. Folks like Ramon Villalobos, Aaron Conley, and Artyom Trakhanov put out some of the best comic work in the past few years, bar none. LP, Sabertooth Swordsman, and Undertow are really tutorials in how to be a young creator who has their own voice and style. These guys don't draw like anyone else, they are eager to do weird and cool things, and they are a big part of what gets me excited about the next generation of creators. All three of them are starting to get the attention they deserve, and I was lucky that all three are also great people who are willing to take on weird projects.
Angelica Alzona and I used to actually work together at the same day job before she left to draw and I left to write. She is a good buddy and an even better illustrator. She floats between all these different styles really well and manages to make them all her own really easily.
For this project, making sure that it felt New York was really important to me. Oddly, the most New York feeling comic I have read in a while is made in part by Danish penciller Palle Schmidt. Thomas Alsop is such an amazing book, maybe the best of Boom's new slate of really great creator owned titled. And Thomas Alsop works so well in part because Palle's New York is at once both oppressive and expansive, it is lonely and busy, claustrophobic and haunted. It just feels really New York to me so I was so happy he agreed to do a page.
And finally Tyler Boss. I think Tyler is going to be a major voice in comics. He is very young, but speaks and understands sequential storytelling in ways creators 40 years older than him can only hope to. He can breakdown why early Anders Nilsen work is so effective as easily as he can discuss Samnee's Daredevil. He gets the history of comics and he wants to see where they go next, which is exciting to be around. He is Michael Lark's inker on Lazarus now but he really should have his own book too. Luckily him and I are working together on a new comic called 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank so hopefully someone will realize he is brilliant and let me ride his coattails on that one.
CA: How closely are these pieces tied to the music? Are the visuals meant to depict the story of the album, or do they act more as accompaniment/compliment to the songs?
MR: Each spread in the book corresponds directly to a section of the album. Initially we were doing a piece per track, but things kept getting shifted so we have the story in 10 spreads. At first I wanted to make it more like a comic, but Ghost is maybe the best storyteller in all of hip-hop, so the idea of telling the same story he was telling as part of the packaging didn't seem appealing to me. He killed it on the record and there is nothing retelling that story as a comic was going to add to that. So we made it more like a storybook. When I was little I had those read along books for Star Wars and The Muppets where you would play an album and look at the corresponding pictures. That is sort of what I wanted to do with this. Ghost tells the story and we provide a visual companion to take it to the next level.
CA: In what format will this "comic" be presented? Is it just a CD-sized booklet?
MR: The first pressing of the LP has the whole thing printed out in a beautiful 12" booklet. I think you can only get that from GetOnDown.com and those are going to sell out fast. It looks amazing blown up that big but it's a limited edition piece at that size. It's also the lyric booklet to the CD, but it's obviously a lot smaller.
CA: Do you have more audio-visual projects of this style planned?
MR: Yeah, I really like any chance to do crossover stuff with comics and other mediums. Comics is my first love, but things that will get outsiders thinking about comics is so important. That should be every creator's goal- finding new readers. So I am working on the concepts for two new rap LPs with two of my favorite MC's and those will both have comic elements in some way. I am writing a graphic novel for a major label rock band that sort of adapts the stories of their music into this crazy sci-fi tale.
I also have this insanely ambitious music/comic series mashup that I have been working on for a year with all of these amazing indie and hardcore bands but so far every publisher has been a little freaked out by the scope of it. We'll see. I just want to try and get comics into record stores and get new people buying comics.
And other than that, I have two creator owned books at Black Mask next year that having nothing to do with any of this stuff. We Can Never Go Home with Patrick Kindlon & Josh Hood will be out starting in March. And Our Work Fills The Pews with Vita Ayala and Yasmin Liang will be out in the summer... I am really proud of both books, and hope people give them a chance!