A few weeks back at Fan Expo, I had the opportunity to meet Charles Soule, author of the music inspired 27 from Shadowline/Image. I hadn’t read the series, but I’d noticed it pop up on the Comixology App a few times over the last little while and I was intrigued. As it happened, Charles had copies of the gorgeous trade paperback for sale. I picked one up, had him and cover artist W. Scott Forbes sign it and went on my merry way. A couple of hours later I was home, and started reading the book. A couple of hours after that, I was finished. 27 was a great story, one of the best things I’ve read in a few years. You don’t have to be a music expert to enjoy it (though it does add to the experience), you just have to dig great art and storytelling.
On that note, I share with you an exclusive email interview with Charles Soule where we discuss the roots of 27, collaboration, rock and roll and much. Like 27 itself, it’s a lot of fun.
Andy Burns: 27 is one of the most unique stories I’ve read in years. As a guy who spent nearly a decade in rock radio and had Doors, Zeppelin and Yes posters in my room, it really resonated with me. Can you give me an idea as to where the idea came from?
Charles Soule: The legend of the 27 Club is something I’ve known about for years and years. For those who don’t know, the 27 Club is a list of talented musicians and artists who tragically died at the young age of twenty-seven. The club includes epic names like Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and many others – the most recent addition, of course, being Amy Winehouse. In the 27 series, the 27 Club legend is structured as an actual “magical” curse hitting these people. The main character, Will Garland, is a modern-day guitar hero who turns twenty-seven, gets hit with the curse, and has to figure it out so he can beat it and keep playing his music (and of course, live to see twenty-eight.)
As for where the idea came from… I’ve been a musician myself since I was very young – first on the violin, and then guitar in high school. It adds up to decades of playing and listening to all kinds of music. But growing up in music doesn’t just mean the tunes. It also means I was exposed to the myths and legends of rock. I’d argue that rock and pop music can resonate almost as powerfully in society as “real” religion. The cultural impact of, say, Jimi Hendrix can absolutely be held up to something like Batman. Larger than life all the way. Anyway, growing up with all that meant that writing 27 was an absolute natural for me.
Andy Burns: How did 27 wind up at Image (who did a great job putting together the trade paperback, by the way)?
Charles Soule: The 27 series is at the Shadowline imprint at Image, which is Jim Valentino’s shop. Virtually all the credit for the look and feel of the trade paperback (and it is a pretty gorgeous book, isn’t it?) can be laid at his feet, along with some fantastic design work from Tim Daniel and the stunning cover from Scott Forbes, who does all the covers for the series. The submission process for Shadowline is pretty similar to that at Image Central, in that you provide a short sample of the interior art (five pages is typical) along with a written summary and a cover. If the editor likes it, then you’re good to go. In this case, I know Jim is a big music fan in his own right, and I think this particular idea just resonated with him. The beautiful work from Renzo Podesta on the interior art and yet another Scott Forbes cover played a huge role as well.
Charles Soule: I found Renzo through a sort of comic creator classified board called digitalwebbing.com. It was as simple as posting up an ad looking for artists – well, maybe not quite that simple, as I got about a hundred responses. Some of those could be weeded out right away, but I was left with around six or seven artists I thought might be able to take on the project. Of those, Renzo was simply the best choice. He brings this great style to the book, a mix of precision with dreamlike qualities, that I thought was absolutely perfect for a book about rock and roll mythology.
As far as our working process, I send Renzo a typical comic script (more or less like a screenplay, but with each scene broken out into specific pages and panels), and we go back and forth a few times on iterations of each page until we get to a final. The pages are then lettered by another essential member of the 27 team, Shawn DePasquale, and I’ll usually do one last pass on the dialogue at that point. The group is scattered all over the world, literally – I’m in Brooklyn, New York, Renzo’s in Cordoba City, Argentina, Scott lives in Toronto, Shawn’s based in LA and Shadowline’s up in Portland, Oregon. God bless the internet, because I don’t know how this book could possibly have existed if we were relying on mailing each other pages back and forth.
Andy Burns: One of the things I really enjoyed about the story was how Will Garland could have been a jerk or a cliched rock star, but you managed to make him sympathetic and likable – did you always know who Will was, or did you discover his personality as you wrote his story?
Charles Soule: I like this one – I sort of based Garland on some of the musicians I’ve known over the years, myself included. The thing about getting to the level where you’re a true, honest to goodness ROCK STAR is that you have to have a pretty healthy ego. You have to be absolutely certain that your talent is significant and unique enough that you should try to make it despite the many obstacles in the way. It’s essential, otherwise people would get discouraged and give up. So, while Garland certainly has his moments where he manifests that “I’m a superstar” vibe, really he’s just a musician trying to make sure he can play his music for as long and as well as he can. Garland is a guy whose whole identity is wrapped up in being able to play the guitar incredibly well, and when it looks like he’s going to lose that… it makes for some pretty strong drama, I think.
Charles Soule: Well, as I mentioned, there are some people I know who are incorporated into Garland in one way or another, he’s definitely also inspired by some of the guitar heroes of 80s and 90s rock. Van Halen, of course, but even guys like Randy Rhoads, Prince, Steve Vai and Jonny Greenwood are probably in the mix.
Andy Burns: I was pleasantly surprised to find that numerology plays such a powerful role in 27 – it’s something that I’ve developed an interest in over the last few years. You write about it so well; when did you start becoming interested in it? Why?
Charles Soule: I’ve always liked math and numbers, just because they’re concrete. A math problem is like a puzzle to me, with one solution, and I like puzzles – always have. Also, when I was working on the initial story outline for 27, I was working on finding an explanation for that number – in other words, “Why twenty-seven?” When it occurred to me that two plus seven is nine, and nine itself has so many connections to the creative world, it just clicked perfectly.
Andy Burns: Which bands/artists were you listening to when you were working on 27? Did the music you were listening to while writing wind up influencing the story at all?
Charles Soule: All kinds. I’m a huge omnivore when it comes to music. I like musicianship, but I also like really unique production or a perfectly crafted pop song. So, there’s not really any one band I was listening to. But to give you an example, I’ve been working today on some 27-related stuff, and I’ve listened to Freelance Whales, Fleetwood Mac, Springsteen, Fountains of Wayne, Broken Social Scene and Bon Iver. It totally varies, though – yesterday was almost all jazz, particularly this great 7-CD set of Wynton Marsalis live at the Village Vanguard from a few years back.
Andy Burns: What’s your favourite album? Favourite musician?
Charles Soule: This is an impossible question! I’ll give you a few who seem to provide a bottomless well of new things to discover, though: Hendrix, Radiohead, Van Morrison and Zeppelin.
Andy Burns: Were there any particular comic books that made you think 27 would work in this medium?
Charles Soule: All of them, really, if that’s not a copout. The great thing about comics is that there are absolutely no limits whatsoever. Literally anything goes, from music-related comics to superheroes to slice of life to erotica to philosophy. And while I’d love to see 27 adapted to another medium at some point, I think that perhaps for its initial presentation having the story appear as a comic was really the way to go.
Andy Burns: I first discovered 27 while I was browsing the Comixology online store. As a creator, I’m wondering what your take is on the whole digital comic initiative that’s happening.
Charles Soule: I’m excited about it, because I see it as an obvious and significant way to expand the audience for comics beyond where it currently sits. The next few generations may not find their way into the direct market (that is, comic shops) for a while yet, but they’re screwing around with mobile devices and computers from a very early age. I can’t say where it will go, but it’s injecting some electricity (ha!) into the industry, and I think that can only be a good thing.
Charles Soule: Well, not to spoil too much about the way 27: First Set ends, but Will Garland is left in a position where he may not be totally done with music after all. In Second Set, he’ll grapple with this question: is it better to make beautiful music that a hundred people hear, or mediocre music that a million people hear? To put it another way, Garland’s worried about becoming a member of yet another exclusive club in music – the one-hit wonders. Each cover for Second Set will be an homage to an album cover for a famous one-hit wonder, which has been really fun to put together. The first issue of Second Set will hit on September 14, and so it’s a really great time to grab the collection of the first trade (you can find it on Amazon here) and get caught up before the next arc starts. We’re doing a bunch of fun stuff to promote the launch, which you can read more about on my blog at http://charlessoule.wordpress.com, or on my Twitter at http://twitter.com/charlessoule.
Andy Burns: Finally – are there any comics or albums you’d recommend Biff Bam Pop readers check out?
Charles Soule: Well, I’ll stand behind any band or artist I’ve named in this interview as being worth a spin. I’ve also really been digging Dawes lately, as well as The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady. Sufjan Stevens is another longtime fave. As far as comics, I don’t think you can go wrong with almost anything Image is putting out right now. In particular, there’s the Skullkickers series written by Jim Zubkavich with art by Edwin Huang and Misty Coats, and anything written by Nathan Edmondson (Who Is Jake Ellis?, The Light, Olympus, etc.) Beyond Image, I adore the Locke & Key series from IDW, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez and The Sixth Gun from Oni, written by Cullen Bunn with stunning art from Brian Hurtt
Thanks to Charles Soule for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! 27: Second Set is in comic shops today.