This July, Mondo Tees and Z2 Comics are teaming up to bring readers a unique kind of comic reading experience by pairing the worlds of graphic novels and music with Murder Ballads. Following the tragedy and potential triumph of a failed record producer and his discovery of new country blues musicians, the graphic novel’s yarn feels plucked out of a blues song itself, brimming with hard-luck love and business ventures gone awry. Written by Gabe Soria with art by Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt (creator of Z2’s Carver: A Paris Story), the deluxe edition of Murder Ballads is accompanied by a musical score produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach with vocals by phenomenal bluesman Robert Finley. with beautiful, exclusive prints from Tyler Boss.
I spoke with Mr. Soria recently about the conceit of Murder Ballads, what to expect in the tale, and how his past as a music professional informed the project. [Also, check out the gorgeous prints by Tyler Boss that accompany the Murder Ballads deluxe edition!]
FreakSugar: For folks who are considering picking up the graphic novel and soundtrack, what is the genesis behind Murder Ballads?
Gabe Soria: Murder Ballads is a story that’s been percolating in my head in one form or another for the better part of the last sixteen years, and it started with a basic kernel of an idea: how far would one person go to make a piece of art they believed in, specifically a record? Originally what I wanted to do was a LOT more lighthearted and caper-oriented, but over the years the whole thing got darker and more intense, and started to take its current shape, which is definitely a more noir take on the fringes of the music industry.
FS: What can you tell us about what kind of story we can expect to find in the book?
GS: If I had to boil it down to its essence, I’d say that Murder Ballads is my attempt to write something that combines everything I love about Jim Thompson novels, movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mystery Train, and Blood Simple, and Peter Guralnick’s excellent essays about blues, soul and country musicians into one mean little noir story about ambition, so-called “authenticity,” love and race. I don’t know if I’ve actually succeeded in writing that, but I tried.
FS: The Murder Ballads project is unique in that it is coupled with an original soundtrack. Did that influence how you approached writing the book? Did you and [musicians] Dan Auerbach and Robert Finley, who created the vinyl release accompanying the book, have discussions as to how to align the OGN and score?
GS: Well, I can’t claim to have come up with the idea of partnering comics and music; there are PLENTY of examples of comics-with-soundtracks out there, especially since the 60s, that pre-date Murder Ballads. As a concept, it’s old; you can trace it back to The Archies, to that Marvel World of Icarus record, to Jethro Tull’s Too Old To Rock and Roll, and so on.
But Murder Ballads itself is ABOUT music and the ways it can shape you and take over your life, and that certainly shaped the way I wrote it. In fact, the project didn’t become truly REAL to me until back in 2010, when I was walking down the street when I thought to text Dan and ask if he’d be willing to write the music that would be featured in the story. I asked, “Hey, would you be into doing the soundtrack for a comic I’m thinking about?” and a couple of minutes later he responded with a succinct “Sure, man.” It was that simple because Dan’s the man. Couldn’t hope for a better friend. When the book really started to gain momentum I wrote a short document specifically for Dan that outlined the themes and the moods of each of the songs in the book. In some cases I had a title, a vibe, and some comparable songs, in other cases I just had a vague idea of how the song should fit in to the story as a whole. I had to be careful, though, because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t telling him how to write songs. Dan doesn’t give me advice on how to write comics, after all. He knows his stuff backwards and forward, but we also have a long history of just talking about music together, riding around in cars listening to stuff, trading recommendations, browsing shops together, that sort of thing, so I can say to him, “Yo, this song should have a little bit of an Eddie Hinton vibe” and he knows exactly what I’m talking about because he’s the guy who got me into Eddie Hinton years back! But when it came to recording, I just sat there during the sessions and shut up and let Dan and Robert and Dan’s crew at Easy Eye do their thing. What could I possibly add to THAT? Every once in awhile Dan would turn to me and say, regarding Robert, “This guy is amazing, isn’t he?” and I would just nod, because he is. That’s one of Dan’s real talents: finding excellent people to work with and making damn good records with them.
FS: You’re partnered with some phenomenal artists, both of whose work seem a perfect fit for this kind of story. What was the collaboration like with Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt?
GS: Well, both Paul and Chris can draw the hell out of downbeat, broke and desperate people, so yes, they were both perfect fits for this story.
All kidding aside, the way Paul establishes the world in the first half (or Side A) of the book is phenomenally moody and dark. He took what I gave him – a script and a laundry list of influences and touchstones from the worlds of music, comics and film – and RAN with it. And then Chris dug into the heavier pulp and noir elements of the second half, Side B, of the book, because he’s steeped in the mythical aspects of the blues music, the larger-than-life legendary side of the genre. Together it’s a pretty cool combination of aesthetic elements.
FS: Are there any particular musicians or types of music that influenced how you approached the tale?
GS: There’s an entire interview within that question, so my best tactic here is to simply say yes, there are MANY particular musicians and types of music that influenced how I wrote Murder Ballads. But that’s not very satisfying, so I’ll say this: I made a 90-minute mixtape for everybody involved in the book that had songs which covered the mood of what I was writing, basically a soundtrack for a book that would have a soundtrack. That mix had songs from Howlin’ Howlin’ Wolf, Royal Trux, Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Clay, Mel Brown, John Lurie, P.W. Long, Hurray for the Riff Raff…jeez, there was even a FRANK ZAPPA song on there, and each of the songs on that mix in some way influenced my vision of Murder Ballads. I’m a frustrated Music Supervisor, I guess.
FS: The story of Murder Ballads is linked so deeply to the music industry itself. What was the research like for tackling the crafting of the tale?
GS: Well, I began my career as a “professional” writer with an interview with the band Gas Huffer for the music magazine Fiz when I was 19 or 20, basically a quarter century ago, and I’ve been writing about music or been involved with the music industry in some capacity ever since then, so I guess you could say that I’ve been doing research for the better part of a quarter of a century, playing music, writing articles and liner notes, reading stacks of books, touring with bands, going to countless shows, working for record labels and music magazines, basically just immersing myself in that world. And even then I worry that I didn’t quite GET IT, you know? At least not one hundred percent. Because that’s the music world…it’s at once a business and an industry but at the same time it’s weird, it’s bizarre, it’s unknowable, filled with characters of ALL types, and with hundred of cul-de-sacs where freaky shit happens. So, the research for Murder Ballads was basically years of observation that turned into a “What if…” sort of scenario.
All that said, by no means do I consider myself ANY kind of authority.
FS: The graphic novel/soundtrack pairing gives readers option as to how they tackle the experience of taking in Murder Ballads. Do you have your own preferred method of enjoying the two? (I realize there’s probably no right way, but I was curious what your feelings are on the matter.)
GS: No, there is no right way and I don’t think I’d recommend any particular way that feels more RIGHT to me. I would hope, though, that people could enjoy each element – the book and the record that Dan made – alone AND together.
FS: Has the experience of working to put Murder Ballads together given you ideas about pairing more graphic novel stories with other media?
GS: Actually, I’ve had a kids’ musical graphic novel on deck for well over ten years, something that I was originally working on with the fantastic illustrator Nick Bertozzi and some help from my friend Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues. It’s about as different from Murder Ballads as you can get, and there’s no telling when and/or if that will ever see the light of day, but I’m still hoping. It’s pretty neat, I think, but it’s my job to think that.
But yes, I’ve been thinking about a couple of other stories that would be set within the fictional reality of Murder Ballads at different periods of time, each one with a heavy music element or connection. Not as a gimmick, but because that’s one of the ways I relate to the world, through the music and the musical ideas that shape our lives. I simply ENJOY writing about music and attempting to encapsulate how certain musical things make me feel and how they relate to day-to-day life.
You can now pre-order link for the exclusive limited edition Murder Ballads original soundtrack and graphic novel here from Mondo Tees and Z2 Comics. Fans can also pre-order the standard edition of Murder Ballads through this link.
Also, to get you jazzed for the book ahead of its release, Mondo and Z2 have dropped this snazzy trailer for Murder Ballads:
From the official press release:
Mondo and acclaimed indie publisher Z2 Comics are releasing a limited edition MURDER BALLADS graphic novel and original soundtrack 10″ vinyl record release by bluesman Robert Finley and Grammy-Award winner Dan Auerbach. The MURDER BALLADS Original Soundtrack includes Finley and Auerbach’s cover of the classic Leadbelly song “In the Pines” and four original songs created specifically by Finley and Auerbach to accompany the upcoming graphic novel release MURDER BALLADS, the highly anticipated rock’n’roll noir graphic novel about the music industry and redemption by writer Gabe Soria and artists Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt. The standard edition MURDER BALLADS graphic novel will be released by Z2 Comics this July for $24.95 and will include downloadable codes to the original soundtrack. The Limited Edition MURDER BALLADS Original Soundtrack and Graphic Novel from Mondo will retail for $200 when it opens for pre-order on May 24th on mondotees.com, and will feature original album cover art by Jon Langford, the acclaimed visual artist best known for his striking portraits of country and rock music icons including Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.
The MURDER BALLADS Original Soundtrack contains “In the Pines”, the iconic blues song performed by Leadbelly and four songs: “Bang Bang,”“Butter Sandwich”, “The Empty Arms” and “Three Jumpers.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the unglamorous side of music making,” said MURDER BALLADS writer Gabe Soria. “Accounts of glorious obscurities and the characters working the fringes…that’s my meat and potatoes right there, the stuff that has nothing to do with fame and everything to do with love, obsession and compulsion to MAKE. I dig stories about people who are just trying to get by making music on their own terms, and about the unusual and beautiful and tragic ways music can be woven into the fabric of our lives, whether it’s through someone playing sad piano in a dive bar, a one-hit wonder on a transistor radio, a bootleg blues record, or whatever. THE BALLAD OF FRANKLIN BONISTEEL and MURDER BALLADS are tales from MY secret history of music, and it’s been amazing being able to work with artists like Paul and Chris and have them to bring that world to life.”
Z2 Comics also announced today that the MURDER BALLADS graphic novel will be written by Soria, with Paul Reinwand (28 WARLORDS) illustrating Side A and Chris Hunt (CARVER) illustrating Side B.
“Having a Side A and Side B is a tip of the hat to recording history, but it’s also essential to the storytelling,” said Z2 Comics Co-Publisher Sridhar Reddy. “It reflects the tonal shifts in both the narrative and the flow of the music. Where Side A is the tale of dreamers, Side B is the dream turning into the nightmare of reality. This is also reflected in the art, where Paul’s work is looser and free, and Chris’ work has a noir edge.”
“Music has always been an important element in my life, and a key part of my creative process as a comic book creator and artist,” said Chris Hunt. “The Blues in particular drew me in at a young age and to be able to work on a project that not only lauds such a storied musical genre, but also incorporates it into the actual DNA of the storytelling process is a rare opportunity. I’m honored to be able to contribute to such a unique project.”
“I’d been playing more with screen tones and heavier spot blacks in my work when MURDER BALLADS was offered to me, and it just felt like such a natural fit with where I was at the time,” said Paul Reinwand. “Gabe had such a clear idea of the characters, but was extremely supportive of anything else I wanted to do, which meant I just got to have fun on the page, and I think that comes through.”
A meditation on music, obsession and how far someone will go to see their vision become real, MURDER BALLADS follows the fall and reinvention of Nate Theodore, the dead-broke and deadbeat owner of a failing record label who is on a cross-country drive in the dead of winter, fleeing the wreckage of his business and trying to save his crumbling marriage. Nate is given an unexpected chance to reverse his fortunes when, during a stop in a desolate rust belt town, he “discovers” Donny and Marvell Fontweathers, two African-American brothers who play a raucous brand of doom-laden country blues.
“Robert and Dan’s musical contribution to the book is as vital to the story as words on the page and the art,” said Z2 Comics Co-Publisher Josh Frankel. “It is an immersive experience.”
Mondo will open pre-orders for the limited edition Limited Edition MURDER BALLADS Original Soundtrack and Graphic Novel on May 24th. The standard edition will be distributed at comic book stores and bookstores nationwide and will be available digitally via ComiXology; it is available for pre-order now.