Aug 26, 2015

Another Different Kind of Album

I delved into the formal and structural links between specific pairings of comics and music here, where I started theorizing primary versus secondary aesthetic experiences based on how well album cover art in comics form meshed with the music for which the album is primarily a vehicle. Let's have a look at some other kinds of comics/music combinations to see if they help us understand the combination of a primarily audio medium with a primarily visual one.

We're going to look today at two variations on a theme: the packaging of music with comics.

Big Joe Krash - Who Am I?

1994's Break the Chain is a hip-hop comic in numerous senses of the words. Co-written by the inimitable Kyle Baker and Kris "KRS-One" Parker, the comic is packaged with a "cass-single" containing three short songs ostensibly produced by Big Joe Krash, one of the characters in the comic. The music is catchy and anthemic, and surprisingly, for a 90s hip-hop record, not completely foul-mouthed. The comic itself takes place in a stereotypically urban environment, though one that is unidentifiable as any one particular city. Thematically, the album and the comic tackle the problem of urban youth, specifically young African-American youth, being ignorant of their cultural history, of the vast empires that once covered the African continent, of the heritage that has been obscured by the spectre of slavery that haunts American culture. The comic and its musical companion, then, are pieces of protest literature, of the kind that hip-hop, in what we might call its truest form, emblematizes.

Big Joe Krash - Break the Chain!

But how does it hold up with regard to my thoughts on primary and secondary aesthetic experiences? Break the Chain is an interesting case study, and I must admit that I assumed that the comic would be the primary vehicle and the music a secondary, complementary one. This turns out to not be the case at all. While the comic is vibrantly constructed, demonstrating the remarkable creative flourishes for which Baker is known, the most moving moments in the narrative come when Big Joe Krash sings his songs and the words are transcribed, verbatim, from the album. As such, the sections between songs act more as bridges between these musical moments than they do fundamental narrative moments in and of themselves. Put more plainly, these bridging moments bring very little to the overt message of Big Joe Krash/KRS-One's message in the music, that is, the importance of Black culture, of education, and of standing up and grasping both of those things.

Big Joe Krash - So Much Greater

Had this story/album been packaged as a record (and there's some evidence that it was released as a 12" album), I would have decisively said that the primary aesthetic vehicle and experience was the music, about which Baker's narrative and art is wrapped. It's only because the comic was sold as a comic with a cassette included that I would even think about calling the comic the primary vehicle. What we can conclude from this particular comic is that the comic was marketed as the primary vehicle, by dint of its actual form, but once experienced, both visually and aurally, it becomes quite clear that it is the music, the audio element of the hybrid package, that carries the primary thrust of aesthetic experience and performance. Much like the comics that adorn the album covers in my previous column, Baker's work here is secondary. While nice to look at, its overall contribution to the aesthetic experience is negligible.

The case of 2002's Static-X, published by Chaos! Comics, is a little more difficult to parse. The comic comes with a CD containing audio and video music and interviews with this unfortunate (an appellation I'll address shortly) band. But where the primary and secondary aesthetic experiences fall is a difficult question to answer. 

Static-X - This Is Not
Static-X tells what is ostensibly an origin story for a group of freedom fighters, modelled on the band themselves, in the totalitarian society of 2072 A.D. The science fiction and thoroughly mechanized setting jibe nicely with the industrial sound of the band (even though they are more often associated with the "nu-metal" movement), though the comic suffers from something I'm coming to understand as the Chaos! Comics style.

(Chaos! is a bit of a conundrum for me. Their production values are very high, and they attracted some fairly large names in the industry, but their comics were always mediocre. I begin to wonder if they set out to be mediocre, and thus succeeded spectacularly, or if they wanted to be great, and failed. I'll ponder on that a bit more when I get to their oeuvre in the 40 Years of Comics Project.)

The plot hangs somewhat around the lyrics to the song "This is Not," and actually holds some promise of an interesting revolutionary narrative, one that has the potential to lift Static-X's music out of the depths of nu-metal and into consideration as protest music. Unfortunately, Chaos! folded shortly after the publication of this issue, so the second volume, advertised both within and on the back cover, never appeared. All this aside, this package offers a further consideration with regard to primary and secondary aesthetic vehicle and experience. As I come at the package from the point of view of a comics fan, it is the comic, its words, pictures, and overall narrative, that I privilege over the CD and the music that comes with it. However, I can imagine that from the point of view of a fan of the band, the comic would be secondary to the experience of the songs, videos, and interviews on the disc. Thus, here, we can propose a primacy of aesthetic vehicle and experience based upon the point of view from which one approaches the package. Such a claim cannot be made for the album covers from my last column, as their aesthetic value is markedly secondary to the music they accompany. Similarly, for Break the Chain, there is a decided primacy to the music, regardless of the perspective from which one approaches the package. Having read and listened to Break the Chain, one is able to see the primacy of the music. Having read and listened to Static-X, the hierarchy is far less clear.

Let me elaborate now on my characterization of the band as "unfortunate." I felt it behooved me to do a bit of research about the band before writing about this comic based upon them, and what I found was not happy. The band went through a prodigious amount of personnel changes, all revolving around frontman Wayne Static. Tripp Eisen, who is featured in this comic, and was lead guitarist when the comic was published, was arrested 3 years later on charges of sexual relations with a minor. He was subsequently booted from the band. And then last year, Static himself was found dead at the age of 48. So while I am still of the opinion that this comic was, at best, mediocre, there is a perspective from which it stands as a testament to a group of artists just before things went very badly wrong for them.

I was going to feature one more comic/CD package in this column, the Students of the Unusual Giant-Sized Music Special, but it's somewhat different from the two works I've addressed here, so I'll leave it until next time. In contrast to the previously discussed record albums, the works I've looked at here require deeper consideration before we can make any claims as the primary and secondary aesthetic vehicles/experiences that each provides. The albums use comics solely as art to enhance the primary experience of the music,even in the case that the one has little or nothing to do with the other. The comic/music packages I've looked at today require both media to be experienced before we can make the distinction. In the case of Break the Chain, I'd go so far as to say that even if the comic was read without the benefit of the music, it is the transcriptions of the music in the comic that would be the most influential portion of the experience, so even in absentia the music is the primary aesthetic vehicle and experience. In the case of Static-X, despite my misgivings about the quality of both the comic and the music, I think that the two complement each other quite well, and incorporate one another quite well. That the band existed prior to the comic might skew our decision as to the primary aesthetic vehicle/experience in favour of the music, but as I stated earlier, the perspective from which one approaches this package is more likely to inform that decision. The revolutionary message is inherent in both media equally, whereas in Break the Chain, it is predominantly encapsulated in the music and its transcription.

My next look at the combination of music and comics will address the aforementioned Students of the Unusual comic, which is packaged with a CD of music composed in tribute to the comic. This is a thoroughly interesting phenomenon, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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