Michael Allred has orbited around the magic and mystique of David Bowie for decades through his various creator-owned and work-for-hire work, and now he's landed square in the middle of it with a 160-page biography OGN thanks to co-writer Steve Horton and Insight Editions.
Scheduled to debut January 7 in bookstores and the day after with comics retailers, Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns, & Moonage Daydreams is a look at the first half of the man born David Robert Jones' musical career.
Coming in the wake of music bio movies Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, Bowie has been in the works for several years. Now, with the book complete, Newsarama spoke with Allred and Horton about distilling Bowie's story and style to comics.
Newsarama: Mike, Steve... why David Bowie?
Steve Horton: He's my favorite musician and has been for some time. He was such a visual performer and there have been so few graphical works based on him. I thought, "Why not?"
Michael Allred: In retrospect, it feels like a cosmic natural progression to have Bowie introduced into my life when he was.
From my earliest memories art and music were ever present dominated mostly by the Beatles, the Monkees, and comic books. But I found Bowie completely on my own when I was looking at comic books at the Payless drugstore just off the hill from where I spent my childhood. Something from the magazine rack stole attention from the comic book spinner rack. It was Bowie looking like something from outer space on the cover of Creem magazine. I recreated this cover in the book. Looking through it, I was introduced to the tail end of the glam rock explosion and Rock n Roll journalism. There was a Diamond Dogs poster as the center spread.
Long story short, this all set off an explosion where I bought every Bowie album up to the just released Diamond Dogs album in a very short period of time, changing my brain for the better. All the sci fi imagery and weird sexiness for a a kid just about to hit puberty was intoxicating. And it taught me early on to not just tolerate people who were different from me, but celebrate uniqueness, progressive art, and creative expression from perspectives beyond my own. Bowie is my epicenter for the spirit of artistic discovery.
Nrama: What did you rely on for the facts of David Bowie's life?
Horton: Both Mike and I used many, many reference works: other biographies, interviews, movies, TV shows, music encyclopedias and general knowledge.
Nrama: And this more than just a illustrated encyclopedia entry - how did you go about capturing the style and spirit of Bowie?
Horton: Lots of study and listening to lots of albums over and over again! Working with a world-class artist like Mike certainly helped. One of the main goals was to have a lot of fantasy sequences, and not just be a straight biography. I was pleased that the Elton John biopic Rocketman took a similar approach. Why just tell the story when you could have a little fun with it too?
Nrama: Mike, when it came time to draw this did you already have Bowie's likeness pretty well down pat, or did you do some additional prep work to get it down?
Allred: Oh, Man! I’ve been regularly drawing David Bowie since 1974, And I still feel like I have a long way to go to perfectly nail down his likeness. There’s something amorphous and intangible about his likeness that is almost impossible to capture in a a completely satisfying way. It’s rare to find artistic interpretations that lock it down.
Guy Peellaert, who did the art for the Diamond Dogs album cover, and the the book Rock Dreams was the early standard. Helen Green, a British artist who has become a dear friend, is my favorite contemporary artist who regularly does Bowie illustrations as well as covers for the David Bowie Glamour Fanzine. I’m constantly stumbling across cool Bowie illustrations. He clearly inspires a lot of artists to try capturing his illusive visage.
Nrama: What did you rely on for visuals of Bowie's life and looks?
Allred: Well hundreds and hundreds of photographs of course. I have a collection of books threatening to stack as tall as me. Countless magazines, and every video and film he ever did. I’ve followed his life so closely I can look at almost any photograph and tell you the year it was taken. Between 1970 and 1975 I can often tell you the actual month, week, or even day that a photograph was taken based on the clothing and cut or length of his hair, or an obvious event. It gets a bit obsessive after a while.
Nrama: Does this cover Bowie's entire life, or just a portion?
Horton: It covers roughly the first half of Bowie's career, up until the Farewell Speech at the Hammersmith, immortalized in the Ziggy Stardust concert movie. There's an extended epilogue, though, that touches on the rest.
Nrama: How did you go about capturing the style and spirit of Bowie?
Allred: That’s the ultimate challenge. While the great majority of my artistic output isn’t based on photographic likenesses, I wanted to make sure that the book looked organic, where the events looked natural and not just copying photographs. I got to where I could rely on photographs to reference clothing or hair styles but free myself up to loosen up on the staging and compositions. This was important to keep the art flowing.
Early on I was in danger of crushing myself with an unrealistic desire to make every panel perfect and please every David Bowie fan that might ever stumble on to this book. Happily, I rediscovered the spirit I had when I first started drawing Bowie as a kid. Just out of pure fun for myself, without ever thinking anyone else might see what I drew as I listened to all his music, constantly fueling inspiration.
In my early teens I’d done a painting of Bowie floating off into the Negative Zone as seen in a Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comic. Though just done for own selfish pleasure, my mom took it and entered it into the county fair where it earned "First Prize”. I drew a kind of recreation of that in this book as well.
Ultimately, I just approached this book as my completely selfish expression of childhood fandom, in order to attempt capturing that elusive Bowie style and spirit, but with all the professional experience in storytelling and skill I’ve accumulated throughout my career. And, of course, my not-so-secret weapon, Laura’s phenomenal color work!
Nrama: Steve, how did Mike's name come up, and how did he ultimately get recruited?
Horton: I needed a new artist, and my pal Phil Hester suggested I reach out to Mike. I tracked down his e-mail and we were off to the races. The book would have turned out very very differently without him. I'm sure we wouldn't have had all the publisher interest without him too, as Mark Irwin at Insight Comics is a lifelong fan.
The inside credits page is styled like a movie, because that better reflects the back-and-forth collaboration process. Thanks to Mike, the final book is very different, and far better, than that initial script I sent him years ago.
Nrama: And was it an easy decision for you, Mike?
Allred: Steve simply sent me an email out of the blue asking if I’d be into doing a Bowie bio if he could set up a satisfactory deal.
An easy “yes” to that question.
Anyone paying attention would know that I was afflicted with "Bowie Obsessiveness", as I’ve drawn or referenced him constantly in almost all of my books. And he’s the obvious influence for Red Rocket 7, what you could call my version of a "Ziggy Stardust graphic novel”. I just kept it out of mind as Steve and his agent shopped it around to various publishers until Insight stepped up with an arrangement I could live with, and an editor in Mark Irwin that gave me the support and encouragement needed to keep me inspired, energized, and worry free. I struggled early on with collaborating on something so personal to me. There’s something almost autobiographical about tackling something like this with so much personal meaning, and lifelong affection and interpretation.
Nrama: Mike, up until now you were best known for fiction comics - how did it come about, and how is it for you to work in this new way?
Horton: I was inspired by the comic book art exhibit that Robin Harman curated, called Moonage Daydreams, which displayed at Orbital Comics. I tweeted one of the artists involved in that exhibit and that kind of got the ball rolling, including literary representation. It ended up not working out with that artist, which is when I approached Mike Allred.
Nrama: As I said before, this is a very different kind of comic book for you. I assume it's all written and you're just waiting on publication - what will 2020 be like for you for this book?
Horton: It's been done for several months now! I'm hoping to sign at as many comic shops, music stores and conventions that will have me, and Mike has some amazing plans as well. I'm just hoping people like what they see.
I'd love to do another music biography graphic novel sometime. Or a fictional music-based OGN. Nothing in the works (though I did pitch a Freddie Mercury one unsuccessfully), but who knows what doors will open as a result of a book like this?
Nrama: Have you had any communication with Bowie's family or those who were close to him about this OGN?
Allred: Not me. No.
Horton: Not at all. The Bowie Estate has never approved any biographical work, even while Bowie was alive. Like most biographies, it's unauthorized. But we did put in the work. I did attempt to contact several living figures mentioned in the book, but was unsuccessful.
Allred: But again, I approached this in the most personal way I possibly could avoiding as much detouring as possible, even possibly, unintentionally, alienating Steve and his contributions. I know Neil Gaiman, who wrote our introduction, is friends with Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, so it’s a safe bet it’s been discussed. Too intimidating to think about, especially while in my creative bubble.
Nrama: What are your goals for this Bowie OGN?
Allred: Well, the first has been largely reached, satisfying my self-centered selfish obsessive fandom. Though like every book I’ve ever done, I now see all the things I’d like to redo, add to, or polish.
Beyond those narcissistic intentions, it’s my greatest hope that anyone who loves and celebrates David Bowie, will appreciate what has been done here. And maybe even reach a level of success that will justify and support a sequel. As deep a dive that was taken here, there is so much more story to tell.