Music and the Makers: Bringing Life to Comic Books

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

– Plato

It may sound like an advertising tag line, but music inspires our lives. One of the first things we do when getting in our car is to turn on the music. When it’s time to exercise we find the right playlist to inspire us to run further and harder. If you are a maker of any kind music can get the creative juices flowing.

So, it should be no surprise that music inspires the creators that bring our favorite comic book characters to life. It’s easy to imagine the writers and artists of titles like Superman or Batman being inspired by the amazing soundtracks that accompany their movies but what about non-superhero books?

What kind of soundtrack would books like Royal City, or The Wicked + The Divine have? What music inspires their creators to bring to life the worlds their characters inhabit?

Recently some creators have been putting together their own soundtracks for their comic books. With the ease of creating a curated playlist on services like Spotify, creators can quickly and easily share it with their readers.

While you may have your own soundtrack to go along with a particular comic book, the playlist that a creator has in mind is part of the DNA of that book. It’s that music that helped inspire the events and characters on the page. Having the chance to hear what guided the creative process can sometimes unlock a deeper understanding of the artist’s original intentions.

Art by Jeff Lemire

Prolific writer/artist Jeff Lemire has created playlists to go with every issue of his newest book Royal City. At the end of each issue he includes a link to a playlist of music that he listened to while working on it.

I asked him about the relationship between the music and his comic book creation: “Music has always played a huge part in my work,” he says. “I constantly listen to music while drawing and writing so it is quite literally feeding me emotionally as I work. It’s been this way throughout my career as a cartoonist. Music can transport you emotionally to the place you need to be while creating a certain scene or drawing.”

Lemire hasn’t selected songs for individual characters but chooses music that goes with the book sort of like pairing wine with food. “If anything it reflects a tone, a mood and an atmosphere that I think marries well with the story and the characters. I don’t aim to pick songs that directly reflect a story point or anything, but I’m sure that sometimes there are happy accidents in this regard for sure. That’s the thing that is so great about music, it can be interpreted in so many different ways. It’s rarely as literal as a story or film is.”

This type of music curation definitely harkens back to the days of making mix tapes for crushes or giving a mix to a friend to enjoy. “It’s a lot of fun. I feel like this is something that Tommy Pike (one of the characters from Royal City) would do. I used to make mixed tapes all the time as a teenager. I loved doing it. This has brought back some of that fun! I wanted to do something extra to help create a sense of community around Royal City.”

Art by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson

Kieron Gillen, co-creator/writer of the The Wicked + The Divine series, has created an ever expanding playlist that not only acts as soundtrack for the book but for the individual characters well. He continues to add songs as the series goes on and is currently up to 371 titles.

“When I’m pulling together a playlist for a project,” Gillen told me, “I’m grabbing songs which feel connected on some level to the project. Sometimes it’s songs which have expressly given me something for a project – for example, one of the first tracks on the WicDiv playlist was Florence + the Machine’s Shake It Out, which I was listening to on a plane, and I had the image of a girl in the crowd and a girl on the stage, and the distance between the two of them. That’s the core image in the first issue.”

Gillen also uses the songs on his playlists as character sketches for his creations. “[T]here’s songs which just more express the vibe and mood of a character or a relationship – Sympathy for the Devil obviously being very Lucifer, while From Her To Eternity is very Baphomet/Morrigan. They’re almost soundtrack choices. And then there’s songs which are specifically about the shape of a plot. And sometimes there’s both at once, where a song becomes a sort of synopsis of theme, character and moment.”

Music can be a way of coming at a plot or character from an entirely new direction giving creators a unique perspective they might have otherwise missed. “This is most key in WicDiv, which is basically a 400 song Tarot deck. I press shuffle, and see what turns up, and because each song is semiotically loaded, it lets me think about the book from lots of different angles. The shuffle putting songs beside each other in unpredictable ways creates new approaches.”

Art by Tony Parker

For her cold war thriller Mayday Alex de Campi created a playlist with songs from that turbulent era and included songs that she both loves and hates. In the first issue she says “There’s a running joke among my friends that Kieron Gillen puts music in his comics because he loves you, and I do it because fuck you. That is….not inaccurate.”

I contacted her to find out why she would include a song that she hates. “It’s a catchy song,” de Campi told me. “And was pretty much the best selling song of its year — when it came out, the 45 single was selling 100,000 copies A DAY, just in New York City, for its first fortnight or so in stores. It’s also a very creepy song, in the way that pop songs can be. In the book, two FBI agents have the radio on in their van, tuned to a pop station, and this would be the song that was playing. It also contrasts so well to the hard, early metal that pulses through the rest of the book. Like, here’s the hard, shiny veneer of pop, and then here’s the darkness that’s brewing under its surface.”

Besides writing comic books, de Campi is also a director that has a number of music videos under her belt. While creating a music video is making a story from the music it is not that much different from creating a comic book story that has music as an atmospheric device.

“It all comes from the same well. Scenes have their own rhythms, like a song does. I don’t write a scene specifically to the rhythm of a song, but I do think about what “sounds” similar to me, in a synaesthetic sort of way. Which is probably why you get some unexpected turns from me, like soundtracking a shootout to a Steve Reich tape-loop song.”

Gillen, Lemire, and de Campi haven’t been the only creators to share playlists with their readers. When Scott Snyder and Jock were working on Wytches they put together playlists as soundtracks for the main characters that tried to capture the spirit of each with genres of music.

Artist Amancay Nahuelpan put together a video playlist on Youtube to share music with readers of his Aftershock Comics book Clandestino. The songs featured on the playlist are angst-filled melodies that match the revolutionary feel of the book perfectly.

Playlists have been around for years in some form or another as a way for us to curate moods for ourselves and our friends. It can be seen as letting someone else can connect with something inside you. Everyone has a relationship with music of some kind at some point in their life and can relate to the feelings that it can create within them.

These feelings can be used to power the imagination and bring life to creation; in the case of comic books it helps to make the characters jump off the page and into our minds. Though the music may not always be a direct inspiration it  undoubtedly plays a part in the inception of ideas. Gillen sums it up nicely: “Sometimes you use music, and have no idea until way down the line, and you see exactly what your subconscious was reaching for.”

To get in on the fun I created my own playlist to accompany this article. The music I chose are the random themes running around in my head during writing.

Jeff Lemire’s Royal City playlist

Alex de Campi’s Mayday playlist

Kieron Gillen’s WicDiv playlist

Scott Snyder’s Wytches playlist

Amancay Nahuelpan’s Clandestino playlist

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