Biographic Music Comics

By | Tuesday, April 06, 2021 Leave a Comment
The Making of Farewell to Kings
By something of a coincidence, I happened to recently pick up both Rush: The Making of Farewell to Kings from late last year and Rock 'n' Roll Comics #60 (about Genesis) from 1993. As they're both basically limited histories of musicians, it's virtually impossible not to make comparisons.

I should probably start by saying that Rush and Genesis (particularly their 1970s era) are my favorite bands. I'm a fan of progressive rock generally, and they were the earliest introductions to the genre. I'll also say that I have a background as a drummer, and Phil Collins and Neal Peart were two of my earliest influences. So I'm coming to these comics with more than a passing familiarity with their music. And I suppose that's actually why I haven't spent more time checking out music-related comics biographies -- I've always assumed that the complete lack of an audio component would inherently limit the ability to relay the story effectively. Although, to be fair, that assumption is largely based on when I've seen music and bands portrayed in comics that were NOT expressly focused on the musicians or the music itself, and those interpretations were always pretty awful.

The challenge for relaying the stories of these bands, in any form, lies largely with their longevity. Both were formed in the late 1960s and kept producing new music for nearly a half century. (Although they have another tour planned for later this year, the last Genesis album of new material was in 1997. Rush kept producing new work through 2012 and continued touring until 2015; however, Peart passed away last year.) What both of these books have smartly done is make their focus considerably more finite. The Genesis biography concentrates on the 1970s (technically 1969-1980) and the Rush book, as the title explains, centers exclusively on a single album. Even with those limitations, the pages fly by, albeit for slightly different reasons curiously. The Genesis biography is only 30 pages and I know a lot of material gets glossed over -- they go from Collins taking over as lead singer to guitarist Steve Hackett quitting in about two pages. In The Making of Farewell to Kings, there's 144 pages for the one album, so there's certainly plenty of room to tell the story. It goes quickly, though, because they put a lot into atmospheric art, with a number of colorful splash pages with minimal text. The two books are at opposite ends of the spectrum in that regard.

Rock n Roll Comics #60
One of the challenges with any biographic type artwork is capturing individuals' likenesses. Particularly in a comic where the people have to be drawn recognizably and consistently across the entire work. Juan Riera and Ittai Manero do an excellent job capturing Rush's likenesses. While the drawings are cartoony, borderline caricatures, they're pretty consistently and readily identifiable. They even took up the additional challenge of showing both the band as they were in 1977 and as they looked in 2018 (used repeatedly for some framing sequences). Greg Fox's depictions of Genesis are a bit more hit-and-miss. Some panels show spot-on likenesses, and others you can't tell who you're looking at. Granted, depictions like that can be particularly challenging, as I said, but I think a writer has to be particularly careful to ensure their script identifies who is who if the art fails to do so at any point.

The writing styles are markedly different between the pieces as well. Jay Allen Sanford wrote the Genesis piece largely as a straight-forward comic book narrative. The dialogue isn't perhaps always the most natural, but it is used to move the story along. Sanford doesn't shy away from captions but tends to use those more specifically for relaying how well albums sold or how individual songs charted. David Calcano and Lindsay Lee use dialogue more expressly to relay character, and captions are reserved for pushing the broader narrative. While they're mostly pretty restrained in that respect, the first 15-20 pages are a bit caption-heavy as they provide background and context for where Rush was going into making their 1977 album.

Of the two books, I definitely prefer The Making of Farewell to Kings -- they're able to get more in depth and (somewhat ironically) don't rush the story. They provide a lot of atmosphere in addition to relaying the actual events. Rock 'n' Roll Comics seems more... "perfunctory" is the word I keep gravitating to, but that's not really right. It comes across more like its production was just a job -- last month was Eric Clapton, this month it's Genesis, next month it's Elton John. Do this issue and move on to the next. It's not bad -- certainly for the time and the publisher -- but it feels more manufactured than created. But that said, I figure these types of comics -- biographies about musicians -- are conceptually hard in general. You've got to create something with broad enough appeal for the comics market, but interesting and detailed enough for the fans of the musicians. There's a handful of musicians who are probably broadly liked enough that you can more readily go in either direction (folks like the Beatles or David Bowie) but for most, I think you'll find yourself trying to straddle that line. Rock 'n' Roll Comics seemed to strike that balance reasonably well, considering the series ran for 65 issues over about four years. The Rush book seems more directed towards its fans, given the level of detail the get into, but they still provide that introduction for those who aren't as well-versed in the band's history.

Honestly, I'm still not convinced about music biographies in comics format. I know it's easier than ever nowadays to call up any song that I could play in the background while I'm reading, but particularly for bands that I already enjoy, I find I get lost in the music itself and can't pay attention to the book. I do really enjoy comic biographies generally and, if they come out with another Genesis or Rush one, I'll probably get it -- maybe King Crimson, too -- but it's definitely not a sub-genre I plan on spending a lot of time seeking out.
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