From 1973 to 2006, if you were looking for music revolution on the bleeding edge of counterculture, the best place to go was CBGB in New York. A hotspot for New York City's burgeoning punk and hardcore scene, the club became the launchpad for acts like Murphy's Law, Gorilla Biscuits and Agnostic Front (and a whole lot more).
While the music mecca shut its doors in '06, the spirit of the revolution lives on -- with BOOM! Studios' CBGB, a four-issue miniseries due out July. Sporting a Who's Who of indie creators ranging from Jamie Hernandez to Kieron Gillen to Chuck BB, it's safe to say that while the medium is silent, the product is going to be take a lot of chances and risks to be loud.
Newsarama caught up with writers Kieron Gillen and Sam Humphries, along with artist Rog G and editor Ian Brill, to talk about what sets this book apart, what CBGB meant to them, and of course what they listened to on the way there.
Newsarama: First and foremost, Ian, can you tell us what brought this comic on? In terms of what the anthology is going to look like, what can you tell me about how you guys are approaching this in terms of structure?
Ian Brill: CBGB Holdings Inc. approached us about doing a comic book. This was clearly a chance to do an anthology with lots of different and unique creators, many of whom we had not worked with before. BOOM! Studios is committed to delivering a wide range of books, and this continues that commitment. We have two stories per book and they can be about anything as long as it involves CBGB and what the club means to musical history.
We have many different types of stories and different types of art styles. There are a lot of places these stories go, especially with this being a mature-readers title. What they all have in common besides the CBGB aspect is that they feature the some of the best and most creative minds in comics, as this first issues attests.
Nrama: Okay, guys, can you guys tell us a little bit about the spirit of CBGB, and what it means to you? What do you feel embodies the attitude of the club?
Sam Humphries: CBGB was all about grabbing a guitar or a microphone and f*cking s#it up. I think there is a similar strong tradition to be found in comics, only with pencils and pens.
Kieron Gillen: Wot Sam Sed, basically. As a provincial Brit, CBGB is something which is more of an idea than an actual place. It's sort of asking me what heaven or hell or Narnia means to me. Which of course, is “Everything.” Ideas are important and CBGB is a delightfully seductive idea. You can trace its influence as an idea down the years of pop culture easily. To be honest, “What does CBGB really mean?” is what drives my story, so I'd loathe to give you a straight answer here, y'know?
Rog G: The great thing about CBGB's was that it enabled the entire culture, everyone could be a rock star there, even if it was just to your friends in the scene. It was the emotional and artistic outlet for all of the angry and poor kids growing up in the area. and developing without the influence of the government or big corporations it was the pure undiluted version of underground music and style. I think thats a very important development in music history and especially now that it's gone, it should be written about to help preserve the legend, so to speak.
Nrama: It seems like some comics fans can be very change-averse -- whether its capes-and-tights or edgy high concept thrillers or some of the more subversive parodies out there, there seems like there are some very fixed camps out there. But CBGB doesn't seem to fit in these sorts of preconceived "boxes" -- so how do you guys feel that it stands apart, and what do you feel the appeal of a book like this might be for readers?
Brill: This comic not fitting into preconceived “boxes” was exactly made this project appealing to us. This is a chance for creators to tell stories they couldn’t tell anywhere else. Readers can read stories they wouldn’t find anywhere else. CBGB was a place that had such a huge impact on culture and from it there are many stories that can be told of music and the people, be they those who make the music or soak it up let it give their lives meaning.
Humphries: The love and legend of CBGB is fueled by people with an obsessive passion for music. I think "obsessive passion" is something comic book fans can relate to.
Gillen: Wot Sam Sed again. When doing Phonogram, one of the things which people who weren't particularly into music said about the book was exactly that. As in, they may not understand a music scene – but they can see exactly how that is just like being obsessively into comics. In the same way that a love story works, y'know? We're not in love with the people of the story, but we're aware of the concept of love and how that feels.
G: I think this book has a chance to attract readers outside the "normal" readership of comics. The Belle & Sebastian anthology from Image, or [Comic Book Tattoo], both of those were sold in stores that normally wouldn't carry many (if any) comics and a lot of the people that bought them were fans of the group and not necesarily avid comics readers. so taking that in mind, i think it's better to do a book that doesn't pander only to a comic readers crowd.
Nrama: Quick, let's talk music cred a bit -- what did you guys listen to in order to get into the headspace to write your stories for this anthology?
Brill: Suicide, Television, Ramones. I listen to those bands a lot anyway but more when I started working on this book.
Humphries: Out of "the Class of CBGB," I listened to Television, specifically Marquee Moon, and Talking Heads' first (and superior) live album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.
To get into the headspace of one of our characters, I listened to some of Phil Spector's girl group tracks, Bob Dylan's early electric live shows, the Monks, the Velvet Underground, Berlin and Take No Prisoners by Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, David Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy", My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, F%ck Buttons, and Dan Deacon. How's that for pretentious?
Gillen: Very much '70s CBGB, and a handful of precursors. Television were the main one. I had Marquee Moon circling around me for most of writing this – and listening to Marquee Moon on repeat is always a joy. Early Ramones. Talking Heads. Blondie. Lots of Patti Smith. Heartbreakers. Volvoids. Iggy. Reaching back into the Velvet Underground and the NY Dolls. Relevant stuff like Pere Ubu. Dictators. Dead Boys. Suicide. Flashes of British stuff relevant to it, just because I traced it across the atlantic on the wings of McClaren (RIP). Oh – and Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem. If you know it, you know why.
G: S#it, I don't think I remember. I've been listening to Social Distortion a lot recently, so probably that, also Black Angels, the Dodos, and Band of Horses.
Nrama: Kieron, out of all the names here, you seem to be the most "known" quantity when it comes to music-related comics. How do you feel CBGB stands apart from the work you've done on Phonogram?
Gillen: I'm not actually sure that it does -- as in, that it stands apart from it. I think it compliments it directly, grown from a similar part of the -hngggghhh! - muse. I suspect anyone who's a Phonogram fan -- all four of you -- will like it. It's lighter than the majority of the main Phonogram stories, but tonally not unlike some of the B-sides we did in the single issues. Hell, if you imagine crossing Marc's B-side in the first issue of Singles Club with the Memory Kingdom sequence in Rue Britannia, you're most of the way there. It's an urban-fantasy riff off Dickens' Christmas Carol, about warring Ghosts of Punk-Rock Past.
Nrama: Sam, what about you? This has been a big year for you, working up from MySpace Comics to the Fraggle Rock comic with Archaia to CBGB. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to this point, and how you made it through the door with your pitch for CBGB?
Humphries: Are you kidding? After writing a story about fuzzy kid-friendly Muppets, I was a natural g*ddamn choice for a book full of punks and drunks and nihilism uber allies. It's basically Fraggle Rock, part 2. I'm a little concerned about getting pigeonholed so early in my career.
OK, I think what actually got me in the door is Ian and I have bonded over some seriously nerdy music discussions at LA area comic events, and he was impressed with my knowledge of Television.
Writing comics is something I've wanted to do since I was a little Shumphries. It just took a few years before I stopped working at places like MySpace long enough to get the job done. I love both of these anthologies a lot and feel pretty lucky to be included. Thanks, guys.
Nrama: Now, Kieron, you've got Marc Ellerby on art for this story, right? It's interesting, because he's got this very cartoony style that's so different from people you've worked with in the past, like Billy Tan or Jamie McKelvie. Can you two tell us a little bit about what the back-and-forth has been like between you guys, and what strengths you feel you each of you bring to the table?
Gillen: To rudely interject, I think what Marc and I share is a lack of strength. We are tiny weak-limbed British folk. Men like us are the reason why the Vikings kicked our arses and took our neat stuff.
Nrama: That'll work! Rob, for those who don't know about you, can you tell us a little bit about what informs your visual style? What sorts of influences are you trying to synthesize for CBGB? And additionally, how have you and Sam played off one another?
G: I usually try to pick a style that fits the story I'm doing. Which is why it varies so much from title to title. With this story I wanted to capture the gritty, dirty character of old New York. Like when you watch Taxi Driver, the city is just trashed. I wanted to express that in the art. Also it shows the environment from which the NYC punk was born in. As far as Sam and I go, it was pretty easy, Sam wrote a great script, I had a few ideas of my own that I suggested to Sam and Ian, they both jumped on board and the three of us together forged the final story that will be printed. I'm happy with how it came out.
Nrama: Something that is particularly interesting about this series is the fact that you're taking a music venue -- a place known for its sound as well as its vibe -- and translating it visually, in terms of getting story and art to all this. For you guys, how did you overcome that hurdle to get CBGB to translate into the comics medium?
Humphries: In my case, I convinced Rob G. to provide the art. Rob knows and feels this music, I knew he would draw the hell out of it. You'll know exactly what I'm talking about it when you see it.
Gillen: There's so many ways you can try to do music in comics, it's kind of a case of just choosing your mark -- or Marc, in my case -- and swinging for it. Ours is kind of a punk-rock styled documentary comic, buried in fiction, and everything we do is pushing towards that.
G: I feel that music in comics is one of the hardest things to accomplish successfully. For me the solution I came up with was to try to draw each scene in a way that would evoke an automatic soundtrack in the reader's head. By that I mean using setting, mood and atmosphere to trigger the reader to subconsciously to mentally make their own soundtrack to what they're reading. I don't know if that makes much sense, but that was my process.
Nrama: In terms of CBGB's storied history, is there any funny, heartbreaking or just plain awesome stories or incidents that have really stood out to you? Do any of you have any personal history with the club?
Gillen: Never went, alas, but a friend of mine apparently was violently sick in its toilets on one of the last nights. At a Belle and Sebastian gig, apparently. This is the sort of thing I could have probably got an entire series of Phonogram out of.
G: I loved that place, especially because it was in such a shit-hole part of town, it really reflected the whole DYI and street culture of the early punk scene. I saw a lot of great shows there including my friends Lamb of God, who on their way back from Ozzfest or something, had picked a girl who was a fire-eater. So the idea was that during their set she would come out and breathe fire and it would be awesome. Firstly, I'm pretty sure they didn't tell the CBGB's people that they were doing this, and secondly the theres no ceiling at CBGB's, as in it's just airducts and insulation. this girl comes out and blows this HUGE fireball over the crowd and instantly all that insulation caught on fire. Luckily Randy, the singer, had a pitcher of beer on stage and he quickly used it to douse the flames. Everything was fine. But all I could think was, "holy shit how awesome would it be if they were the band that burned down CBGB's?!" I think that idea is the essence of what CBGB's was, reveling in destruction.
Nrama: Finally, for those who still aren't convinced about CBGB -- what would you guys tell them to bring them on board? Is there anything in your stories that you can tease that you're excited to see hit the stands?
Brill: I would tell them that if they read this comic hundred dollar bills would fall from the pages. It’s not true, but that’s what I would tell them.
Humphries: WHAT IS THE HELSINKI SYNDROME, ANYWAY??
Gillen: Wot Sam Sed, Mrk III.
G: I dunno, but it'd probably be something insulting.