Morbid Tomes: Graphic Brutality
Welcome back to my ongoing examination of those fearsome places where the worlds of heavy music and print meet. You can find the first installment here. This time I’m looking at metal inspired by comic books, an interaction that makes sense given the overlap in fanbases and the fact that both comics and metal tend to be at their best when they trade in the bold, irreverent, and iconic.
These are among the reasons metal bands have so often commissioned work by artists known for their comics output, such as Vince Locke (Cannibal Corpse), Dave McKean (Testament, Paradise Lost, Kreator, and Cemetary) Greg Capullo (Korn, Iced Earth, Disturbed, and Five Finger Death Punch), and Alex Ross (Anthrax). And as the bands listed in that sentence amply demonstrate, this cross pollination has produced comics, songs, and albums that range from transcendent classics to abysmal trash. These include the cheaply produced and artistically lacking biographical comics recently inspired by Metallica and Slayer and the more entertaining ones that cast KISS or Pantera (in a 1994 issue written by later Lucifer, X-Men, and The Unwritten scripter Mike Carey) in hackneyed genre plots.
Musicians like Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Neil Peart, Corey Taylor, and Scott Ian have all been involved in creating comics, with mixed results. Probably the best of that vanity-fueled lot is the series based on Cooper’s The Last Temptation, scripted by one-time music journalist turned King of the Artsy Kids Neil Gaiman and featuring art by Michael Zulli. Meanwhile, comic book creators like Black Metal’s Rick Spear and Chuck BB, The Humans – which recently featured a song by Ghoul on its soundtrack – and Henry & Glenn Forever co-creator Tom Neely, or The Goon’s Eric Powell regularly tip their hats to heavy music.
For now, though, let’s turn our attention to some of the metal bands that have drawn ideas from comic book characters and stories. I hope you will expand the discussion by bringing up some other instances of metal-inspired comics and comics-inspired metal in the comments.
Megadeth – “Killing is my Business…And Business is Good!” and “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due”
Dave Mustaine has never been shy about proclaiming his appreciation for Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, and cited the character as an inspiration for two of his most beloved songs. When the vigilante first appeared in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man written by Gerry Conway and penciled by Ross Andru, he was not quite the obsessive loner bent on slaughtering every criminal in sight he would later become. Rather he found his deserving targets by working as a gun for hire. Unfortunately this left him open to being deceived by clone-happy supervillain the Jackal, at the time plaguing Spider-Man from behind the scenes as a long-running subplot. Mustaine based the lyrics for the title track from Megadeth’s debut album on this version of the Punisher, describing him as a “Paid assassin” earning “$10,000 up front/$10,000 when I’m through.” Before launching into several repetitions of the song’s title, the narrator declares, “It gives me great pleasure/To Say my next job is you.” In the source material Punisher did indeed turn on his employer, but out of vengeance for the murder of his associate the Mechanic (yeah there are lots of definite articles in the character names in this issue) rather than financial reward.
The take on The Punisher that appears in “Holy Wars…the Punishment Due,” the opening track of Megadeth’s nigh undisputed peak Rust in Peace, is considerably more recognizable to fans of the one-man killing machine’s solo comics and films. The narrator explains his intention to “Wage the war on organized crime” in retaliation after “they killed [his] wife, and [his] baby.” Of course, it’s also awkwardly shoehorned into an epic thrash masterpiece contemplating religiously motivated warfare and including an evocative classical guitar interlude. The parts are thematically linked by an interest in cycles of extreme violence, and they resolve with characteristic Mustaine paranoia that “Next thing you know, they will take my thoughts away.”
Anthrax – “I Am the Law”
Anthrax fly their nerd flag higher than any other metal band at their level of influence and commercial success. 1990’s Among the Living pays tribute to Stephen King (in two songs), Jim Belushi, and, of course, to the perennial British comic book favorite Judge Dredd. Created by writer John Wagner (who has continued to produce stories for most of the character’s existence, often in collaboration with fellow writer Alan Grant), illustrator Carlos Ezquerra, and editor/co-writer Pat Mills, the brutally effective lawman executing swift justice in futuristic dystopia Mega-City One first appeared in 1977 as part of the second issue of anthology series 2000 AD. Anthrax begin by summarizing Dredd’s resume (“Fifteen years in the academy”) and participation in the Apocalypse War, a lengthy storyline by Wagner, Grant, and Ezquerra that took up 25 of Dredd’s 2000 AD segments in 1982. They namecheck frequent Dredd associate and resident psychic Judge Anderson, who would be played by Olivia Thirlby in the 2012 film starring Karl Urban. Following the first chorus, they reference an earlier extended storyline, 1978’s The Cursed Earth, written by Mills, Wagner, and Jack Adrian, and featuring art by Mike McMahon and the great Brian Bolland. The story explores the irradiated, mutant-infested wasteland outside the city. Along with some catchy mid-tempo riffs leading into a thrash explosion at the bridge, what really solidifies the song’s frequent appearances in Anthrax set lists are the infectious gang vocals shouting “Drokk it!” (a common expletive in Mega-City One) and of course Dredd’s catchphrase: “I AM THE LAW!”
M.O.D. – “Dark Night”
Billy Milano, the provocative frontman for Anthrax side project Stormtroopers of Death, paid his own tribute to an iconic comic book tough guy. Released as a CD bonus track for the Gross Misconduct album in 1989, “Dark Night” is of course based on Frank Miller’s classic four-issue miniseries of three years earlier, The Dark Knight Returns. After a moody, bass-heavy intro, the thrash kicks in and Milano surveys the aging Batman’s career. The chorus succinctly sums up the character: “Master detective,/In him a fire burns./After years of seclusion/The Dark Knight returns.” Unsurprisingly, the man who wrote “Speak English or Die” seizes upon Miller’s satirical blows against bleeding hearts by noting “Two Face set free by a stupid liberal scum.” On the other hand, he does not mention the comic’s burlesque of President Ronald Reagan as a self-serving cowboy who manipulates Superman and sends the United States careening toward nuclear holocaust while taking refuge in a space station. Quoting the classic theme from the ‘60s television show, Louis Svitak’s guitar solo briefly recalls a more innocent and goofy time for a character whose portrayal had edged away from campiness over the course of the 70s and definitively broken from it with Miller’s portrayal.
Entombed – Wolverine Blues
At least some of the lyrics of the title track to Entombed’s 1993 album, Wolverine Blues, serve nicely as a description of its namesake in the X-Men’s clawed, indestructible loose cannon: “Vicious mammal/The blood is my call/Pound for pound/I am the most vicious of all.” The band, however, states they had no knowledge of Marvel Comics’ Canadian berserker when they wrote the song and were in fact inspired by a serial killer in James Ellroy’s novel The Big Nowhere. Thus the promotional tie-in that saw a printing of the album released with the superhero prominently placed on the cover, accompanied by a minicomic and promoted with a minimally animated video, is mostly interesting as a historical curiosity. As Albert Mudrian recounts in Choosing Death, the incident captures a moment in the early 90s when Columbia Records saw potential for profits in the death metal scene through a partnership with Entombed’s label, Earache Records. Marvel, for their part, was far from the Disney-affiliated entertainment juggernaut they are today and willing to entertain a pretty thoroughly inappropriate opportunity for cross promotion when contacted by Columbia A&R man Josh Sarubin. That said, the Marvel-approved version was rendered quite a bit more family-friendly, edited to remove various expletives and entirely lacking closing track “Out of Hand,” with its blatant, yet catchy, anti-Christian sentiments: “Jesus Christ/Lord of Flies/In disguise.”
Monster Magnet – “Ego, the Living Planet” and “Mindless Ones”
Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf, on the other hand, is unabashed in his affection for Marvel Comics of the 1960s, when writer/editor Stan Lee reigned supreme, abetted by a stable of innovative artists. Wyndorf pays tribute to the more psychedelic, “cosmic” side of these comics that made them favorites among the era’s college students. On Dopes to Infinity this means a five-minute stoner riff journey to encounter Thor villain Ego, the Living Planet. Ego, literally a planet endowed with consciousness and dedicated to conquest, was created in 1966 by Jack Kirby (also partially responsible for Captain America, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Avengers, among many other characters at both Marvel and DC Comics) with a script by Lee. Gradually pitchshifted vocals declare, “I talk to planets, baby” before dissolving into a series of incoherent screams. That’s probably the correct response to a world-sized megalomaniac.
2013’s Last Patrol saw Wyndorf turning his attention to the Mindless Ones, enemies of Doctor Strange created by Lee and Steve Ditko (who also co-created the good doctor himself and Spider-Man) in 1964. These extradimensional, rocklike creatures lacking speech, intellect, or much in the way of faces are usually employed as minions by various magicians and mystical beings. Most commonly they serve Strange’s arch-nemesis, Dormammu, the seemingly immortal lord of the Dark Dimension who first appeared one issue earlier. Wyndorf packs his lyrics with references to Doctor Strange lore: in addition to the aforementioned characters he mentions Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One; the Vishanti, the mystic trinity that (usually) grants Strange the title of Sorcerer Supreme; and describes love interest Clea as “a white haired girl.” Of course, Wyndorf also makes sure that we never lose sight of the fact that traveling as your “astral self” is generally a product of hallucinogens rather than being chosen for a heroic destiny as Master of the Mystic Arts.
Iced Earth – The Dark Saga
In the mid-‘90s, Image Comics cofounder Todd MacFarlane built an empire around his violent superhero from Hell, Spawn, beginning with a toy company and then a film and animation studio. The year before the latter endeavor produced a poorly received film starring Michael Jai White and a far superior HBO animated series featuring the voice of Keith David, Iced Earth released The Dark Saga. Graced with a cover by MacFarlane and the protégé who replaced him as penciler on Spawn, Greg Capullo, the album’s lyrics closely follow the themes, plot elements, and characters of the comic’s early issues. In the course of exploring MacFarlane’s work Iced Earth guitarist/mastermind Jon Schaffer reduced the thrash metal elements that had hitherto characterized his band, choosing instead to emphasize melody and power metal influences. Though perhaps appropriate to the pathos of a protagonist who sold his soul to see his wife again (only to find himself turned into a monstrous warrior of Hell), a mournful power ballad like “I Died for You” was not what many fans wanted from Iced Earth. The biggest exception is the ripping “Violate,” inspired by the demon Violator. Spawn’s supposed drill sergeant in his tenure on Earth often appeared in the guise of a filthy, corpulent clown, giving Matt Barlow the chance to scream the description, “Vile wretch disgusting mess/Perverted little man/Born of hell and in disease.”
Deceased – “Chambers of the Waiting Blind”
The horror comics put out by publisher EC in the 1950s featured beautifully grotesque artwork telling the darkly humorous stories masterminded by publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein. Unfortunately this made them the prime target for the anti-comic book hysteria of the era that led to a Senate subcommittee hearing and the industry’s establishment of the self-censoring, oft ridiculous Comics Code Authority. Those gloriously lurid stories have nonetheless managed to continue influencing several generations of impressionable youth, a source of inspiration that tends to be particularly visible among death/thrash metal bands (i.e. the Razorback Records lineup). The Virginian godfathers of the style, Deceased, paid their own tribute to EC in “Chambers of the Waiting Blind,” one of the dynamic, melodic, and thrashy tunes on their 2000 album, Supernatural Addiction. The album features an EC-inspired cover and eight tracks with lyrics based on horror classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Following a restrained, melodic intro, vocalist King Fowley retells the plot of “Blind Alleys,” a story scripted by Feldstein with art by George Evans, which appeared in the last issue of Tales from the Crypt to be published in 1955 (#46). Deceased, however, seem to have more directly based their song on the 1972 anthology film that featured an adaptation. In each version, the abused and neglected residents of a home for the blind take “blind revenge” – as Fowley puts it – on their tormentor by trapping him in a maze with a starved attack dog. As in most of EC’s horror tales, the corrupt and powerful see the tables turned in brutal fashion.
Horse the Band – “The Red Tornado” and “Science Police”
On their last couple albums before going into limbo, so-called “Nintendocore” outfit Horse the Band spotlighted some less well-known denizens of the DC Comics universe, appropriate to their own nerdy aesthetic. On 2007’s A Natural Death, gang vocals chant out the name of the Justice League’s resident android, Red Tornado (created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Dick Dillin in 1968), through a MIDI-heavy opening, indie rocking verses, and hardcore breakdowns. The genre-agnostic band also finds room for some metal riffage and flirts with a blastbeat by the end. Throughout, the lyrics focus on finding emotional resonance in Tornado’s struggle to balance his human personality with an artificial body of tremendous power: Nathan Winneke sings, “His emotions spin at destructive speeds/That he needs to control.” It’s not easy being red.
Science Police are the primary law enforcement agency at work in the 30th century world of the Legion of Superheroes (created in 1958 by Otto Binder and Al Plastino as a club for adolescent superheroes that regularly worked with Superboy through the wonders of time travel). But unlike their depiction of the Red Tornado, Horse the Band are less interested in close adherence to the source material than in playing off the name’s silliness, opening with the lyric “I’ve pulled you over for your dangerous curves.” That said, Winneke still works in a mention of the Mother Boxes, miniaturized supercomputers important to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga and the DC Universe as a whole.
A Sound of Thunder – Tales from the Deadside
A traditional heavy metal band with prog tendencies and a name from a Ray Bradbury story is obviously comfortable with its nerdy side. And clearly Washington, D.C.’s A Sound of Thunder have managed to communicate that enthusiasm, as they successfully crowdfunded their 2015 concept album based on Valiant Comics character Shadowman. Created in 1992 by writers Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart and artist David Lapham (best known for writing and drawing the creator-owned crime series Stray Bullets), Shadowman is the name for a series of voodoo-powered warriors tasked with guarding the Earth from an underworld called the Deadside. The particular incarnation usually starring in the comics is New Orleans resident Jack Boniface, though other versions have appeared both in print and the video games from Acclaim. A Sound of Thunder closely follows the premises and characters from the recent relaunch of the series, begun in 2012 by writer Justin Jordan and co-plotter/artist Patrick Zircher, recounting the origins of Shadowman’s enemy Master Darque (through the eyes of his sister, Sandria), Jack Boniface’s assumption of the Shadowman identity, and their inevitable conflict. The album offers occasional narration and voice acting to ensure listeners follow the story, but the heavy riffs, ripping solos, and powerful vocals from Nina Osegueda really do most of the job.