Comic Books and Rock ‘n’ Roll by LJ Maher

27 Apr

There were a number of paths that lead me away from the law and toward a study of comics, not least of which was that comic books are far more interesting to read than judgements and legislation. However, somewhere along the path I came to see exciting possibilities for comics studies under the umbrella of transmedial storytelling. Where transmedial studies generally focus on cinematic and televisual storyworlds (with some gaming and books thrown in for good measure), I focussed on those storyworlds crafted across music and comic books. Identifying this affinity is hardly ground-breaking; storytelling and music are intimately linked, and comic book bands such as The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats ‘performed’ in the 1960s, while other live-action bands, such as The Monkeys, The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch were also successful musical and narrative performers. Meanwhile, pop-bands such as The Beatles and The Jackson 5ive performed through animations. However, these earlier instances of transmediality are predominantly more reminiscent of transmedial franchising rather than transmedial storytelling. The transmedial elements were marketing strategies, not storyworld telling. Therefore, while music might be an element of these storyworlds, it is as an event that occurs within the story. The music is made accessible to readers as an experience within that world; such music does not contribute the process of telling or expanding the storyworld. More recently, the animated band The Gorillaz also achieved popular acclaim as a band at the centre of a deftly constructed transmedial storyworld and Neil Young also developed the less commercially successful, but equally elegant Greendale narrative.

My particular focus is on transmedial storyworlds where:

1) music and comics are part of the discursive form; and

2) there is an element of autobiographical “frottage”.

As such, I have not looked closely at either The Gorillaz or Greendale in this project, rather I have looked to the storyworlds performed by Coheed and Cambria (a progressive rock band from New York) and Amanda Palmer (a punk-cabaret performer from Boston). These artists have developed storyworlds where music works with comics and graphic novels or a photo-book (that discursively functions in a similar way to a graphic novel) to expand the storyworlds, and have used this storyworld to explore/reveal elements of their own lived experiences. This discursive choice conflates the authors/performers with the readers/audience. This conflation is not merely a theoretical supposition, but is a process of corporealisation that occurs within the narratives’ “gutters” (McCloud, 66). In these spaces the storyworlds’ emotional “truths” (as understood by readers) are manifested within the readers’ body when they hear (or sing along with) the musical text. This corporeality has repercussions both within the storyworld and in the legal and economic narratives that frame the discourses of “property” in creative works, I expand on this destabilisation within my thesis however that issue is outside the remit of this blog post.

Both The Amory Wars (TAW) and Who Killed Amanda Palmer (WKAP) are transmedial narratives; storyworlds constructed across multiple media. They are not adaptations; they do not retell the one story through a number of media. Rather, TAW and WKAP engage in the process Henry Jenkins calls “the art of world making” (21): each media develops a different part of the storyworld and it is up to the readers to search out the coherence between the different medial explorations. As such, it feels artificial to approach transmedial narratives like TAW and WKAP as story fragments; to look at a singular medium and experience rather than to recognise the organic confluence of the whole work. It is for this reason that it is essential to determine how the books and music work together.

TAW’s ur-text is musical and told across five albums: it is a work of poetry, loaded with repetition and metaphor and is, more often than not, dense to the point of incoherence. In contrast the WKAP ur-text is only the one album, and although the lyrics are more cogent, they are richly intertextual incorporating layer upon layer of narrative into the seams of Palmer’s story. The comics and photobooks orbit the musical texts that preceded them, clarifying the lyrical poetry with direct prose’ comforting beam. TAW and WKAP assume that the reader/audience is familiar with the music before they engage with other texts that create the storyworld. Therefore music frames the ideal readers’/audience’s encounter with the remainder of the storyworld. This is a reasonable expectation given that the authors’/performers’ music has been released prior to the books and that the music is generally more readily available for readers to purchase and engage with. TAW’s graphic and codex novels are often hard to track down outside of specialist and online stores, and the WKAP photobook was limited to an initial print run of 10,000 books. Further, the storyworld itself is often sourced and pieced together by and fans who have performed close readings of the lyrics and matched them with information provided by the authors/performers these epitexts. This has the effect of bringing together the music and the book within the reader/audience, of rubbing them against each other so that the music is painted into the words and images. In turn this decentres the storyworld ensuring that author/performer, the music and the books are not at the heart of the transmedial labyrinth – the reader is.

In TAW Claudio Sanchez has crafted a science fiction epic that invokes the traditional Hero with a Thousand Faces trope, with regular references to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This intertextuality encourages readers to search for references to both other storyworlds and to Sanchez’s own lived experiences. This means that when the reader/audience is engaging with the storyworld they utilise the gutters between comic frames and the spaces between paragraphs for three purposes:

1) To determine the temporal passage between frames,

2) To recall the layers of narrative invoked by intertextual references within the frames; and

3) To recall and embody the storyworld as it is extrapolated through other media, specifically, through music.

The gutter is therefore no longer a space that is the exclusive domain of the reader (McCloud, 66), rather it is a space that is partially guided by the author/performer and that is manifested (in a corporeal sense) within the reader. Transmediality (as a practise) inscribes the storyworld into the memory and imagination of the reader/audience. When music is thrown into the mix, this effect is heightened. This performance is also performative in the reiterative (Butlerian) sense; it is played over and over to shape the story, unlike a book that might be read once (more often if it is beloved), music bears repeated listening, it becomes familiar and intimate. Music resonates within our bodies and soundwaves manifest the story beneath our skin.

In TAW this manifests as concepts repeated within the books and the music, ideas that press against each other for a moment, before breaking apart again to explore the story from different perspectives. TAW’s flittering storyworld is demonstrated in Coheed’s second album, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3 (IKSSE3). The album opens with ‘The Ring in Return’. We hear a ringing telephone and a woman in heels walking across to answer it before the recording swings into the IKSSE3 theme and an electronic segue. The track ends when a man’s voice (impliedly the protagonist, Claudio Kilgannon) says “Hello, Apollo. Where should I begin?” The title of the song indicates the purpose of the opening track and this is expanded upon in the graphic novel. The protagonist, Claudio Kilgannon returns to his high school sweetheart’s house and tries to call her to explain his prolonged absence. When she answers the phone, he is unable to speak and eventually hangs up on her. He then sits in her garden and narrates his adventures to her dog, Apollo. This establishes a narratological framework for the remainder of the story, bringing together the music and the text in a press of synchronicity (the ringing telephone) before musically exploring Kilgannon’s experience of linguistic rupture and differending; his inability to articulate the hurts he has experienced during his exile. This exile included time spent in a concentration camp on the planet Shylos XII, where Kilgannon’s nemesis, Whilhelm Ryan, was exterminating a non-sapian race called The Stars. Genocide narratives are often articulated in non-linguistic or grammatically unstable semiotic forms as a way of expressing experiences that are outside the order of language, being entirely abjected and otherwise “unspeakable” (Maher). While music does not directly relate the experiences of trauma, it allows the emotive imputation of anguish to beat against the illustrated panels. Minor keys crest in the comics gutters to remind the audience/reader of the experiences Kilgannon had in Second Stage Turbine Blade (SSTB) and between SSTB and IKSSE3 that are not written into the canonical text. This allows the reader/audience to both recall Kilgannon’s explicit narrative and to incorporate their understandings of such horrors as they have and do occur in our own world, thereby temporally dislocating the reader/audience. They simultaneously experience the character’s previous, existing and potential temporalities as well as the narratives and histories from their own lived experiences, all within the space between and around the panels in a graphic novel.

Transmedial storyworlds invoke a revolving rather than a lineal understanding of time, and I note that the returning musical motif, or even the repetition of chorus and verse within an individual song, allows the storytellers to reference a number of elements in a few short notes, including the character’s identity, their emotional state and their temporality both within and without the storyworld. These positions in time and of character within the storyworld are corporealised by the reader/audience, through their bodies, as musical sound-waves, and within their minds as memory and imagination. Anthony Storr writes that music “brings about similar physical responses in different people at the same time… Music has the effect of intensifying or underlining the emotion which a particular event calls forth, by simultaneously co-ordinating the emotions of a group of people” (24). The soaring theme that is associated with Kilgannon intimates his position as both sublime godhead and abjected tragic. This instrumental passage is played on synthesiser along with stringed instruments. This instrumentation echoes the character’s hybridity as part angelic Prise, part IRO-bot, and part human. This simple passage constructed between books and music explodes the audience/readers’ control over the text, it re-directs readers/audience toward certain readings and encouraging them to search out the author/performers’ commentary on the story.

I contrast this frottage of music and comic with Amanda Palmer’s WKAP. Palmer’s WKAP is more akin to a braid, a collection of stories and parallel universes wrapped around each other to create a cohesive whole. Structurally, the WKAP photobook is akin to a comic book. Photographs of Palmer’s “corpse” are juxtaposed with her own song lyrics and stories by Neil Gaiman. The images and text are framed, allowing for open space between the words and the images, like McCloud’s gutter. The WKAP album is also conscious of the gutters between musical tracks, and fills them with a recording of Palmer’s own lived-experience, her feigned death and a former partner’s discovery of her “corpse”. This establishes an autobiographical framework for Palmer’s music that the reader/audience may subsequently impute to the photobook. Throughout both texts Palmer’s corporeality/corpseoreality is present, waiting for the reader to press their own subjectivity against it.

Within the photobook, the juxtaposition of text and image aligns Palmer’s music, as referenced by the lyrics presented as poetry, and Gaiman’s stories with a collection of photographs taken by Palmer and her friends from the mid-1990s to 2007. Each image and story (and obviously the lyrics themselves) brings the reader/audience back to the album, both the music and the spoken word recording that is interspersed between the songs. The images’, lyrics’ and stories’ initial moment of frottage is with Palmer: her body is representative, reiterative and ludic. Palmer herself stated in an interview on February 8, 2010 that storyworld creation is “never just about music, ever… because behind the music is the people and the emotion and the intention… It’s impossible to separate the art and the artists who are making it and the story behind both” (youtube). Subsequently, upon recognising this press of the symbolic, emphatic and playful, the audience/reader experiences their moment of frisson.

This press is elegantly demonstrated in ‘Oasis’, a story that fictionalises traumatic events that Palmer experienced. She terminated a pregnancy at the age of 17 and three years later she was date-raped. In the song, an unidentified man (“the Barbarian”, who is a character, rather than a named individual) rapes Palmer’s character at a friend’s party. Palmer’s character subsequently tests positive for a pregnancy and decides to terminate it. The song relates the unstable back and forth of teenage girl friendships, exploring the notion of the “frenemy”, as well as the social taboos associated with women exercising autonomy over their bodies.

Palmer is explicit about her experiences but her lyrics are playful. She employs a 1960s surf aesthetic (specifically, Palmer was mimicking the Beach Boys), framing Palmer as a narrator who is innocent and naïve, an aesthetic associated with that musical genre. Palmer’s recollection of trauma is at odds with the playful music. This uncomfortable juxtaposition is made more explicit in the film clip where her high-camp aesthetic and the large smiles on both her face and her rapists face testify to the social acceptability and normalisation of rape culture in society. This aspect is also addressed in the photobook, where (next to the lyrics for ‘Oasis’) Palmer’s “corpse” is slumped across a bed. She is wearing a child-like, pink party dress and her normally short, dark hair is covered with a long, blonde wig. She is wearing a tiara that slides off her head and her make-up can be seen as smudged around her eyes. There is a bruise on her hand that is in shot and her legs are spread, with the pink, frilly skirts bunched around her knees. Her mouth is open. The costume and pose place Palmer’s body somewhere between a Beauty Queen and an inflatable doll, signifying her position as object of gaze that is celebrated for its aesthetic appeal and her position as a tool for the gratification of heteronormative, masculine sexual desire. In her blog Palmer writes “the song isn’t even so much ABOUT [rape and abortion], it’s about denial, it’s about a girl who can’t find it in herself to take her situation seriously. That girl exists, everywhere”.

In both TAW and WKAP the storyworlds are felt and lived experiences for the reader/audience. The body, my body, your body, becomes the gutter for the storyworld, and there is immediacy to our bodily and musical experiences that cannot be abscinded.


Articles and Chapters

Maher, L.J., “A Little Glass Booth: Auschwitz, Snow White and the Performance of Fear”, antiTHESIS, Vol. 10 (2010), 55-71.


Coheed and Cambria, Second Stage Turbine Blade (Equal Vision Records: New York, 2002)

― In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3 (Equal Vision Records: New York, 2003)

Good Apollo I’m burning star IV : Volume one, From fear through the eyes of madness (Columbia: New York, 2005)

Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV: Part 2 No world for tomorrow (Columbia: New York, 2007)

The Year of the Black Rainbow (Columbia: New York, 2010)

Palmer, A., Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (Roadrunner Records: New York, 2008)


Coheed and Cambria, Live at La Zona Rosa (Sony BMG Music Entertainment: Hudson, 2004).

Live at the Starland Ballroom (Sony BMG Music Entertainment: Hudson, 2005).

Live at the Hammerstein Ballroom (Sony BMG Music Entertainment: Hudson, 2006).

Palmer, A., M. Pope et al., Who Killed Amanda Palmer: A collection of music videos (Roadrunner Records: New York, 2008)


Barthes, R. Image Music Text (Fontana Press: London, 1977).

S/Z, (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1990).

Butler, J. Bodies That Matter (Routledge: New York, 1993).

Campbell, J., Hero with a Thousand Faces (Fontana Press: London, 1993).

Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1994).

Jenkins, H., Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide (New York University Press: New York, 2008).

Kriwaczek, R., On the Many Deaths of Amanda Palmer (and the many crimes of Tobias James) (The Overlook Press: New York, 2008).

McCloud, S. Understanding Comics (HarperPerrenial: New York, 1994).

Milton, J., Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics: London, 2003).

Palmer, A., N. Gaiman et al, Who Killed Amanda Palmer: A collection of photographic evidence (Eight Foot Books: New York, 2009).

Sanchez C. and C. Shy, Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV: From fear through the eyes of madness (Evil Ink Comics: Los Angeles, 2005)

Sanchez C. and P. David, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3 (Evil Ink Comics: Los Angeles, 2010-2011)

Year of the Black Rainbow (Evil Ink Books: Nashville, 2010).

Sanchez C. and G. Vasquez, The Amory Wars: The Second Stage Turbine Blade (Image Comics: Berkley, Calif., 2008)

Snyder, I., Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth (Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1996).

The Literacy Wars (Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, 2008).

Storr, A. Music and the Mind, (Harper Collins: London, 1992).

After completing a combined Law and Performing Arts degree in 2006 LJ Maher returned to study (much to the disappointment of her parents who thought she might actually grow up and get a job) and began her studies in English literature. She is now midway through a PhD with the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash University. Her thesis interrogates autobiographical representation and corporeality through trans-media literature (or, as she prefers explaining it, comic books and rock ‘n’ roll FTW). Her previous research addressed queering in Young Adult literature, women’s access to human rights discourse and prostitution, and the role of the abject and the sublime in vergangenheitsbewältigung literature.

1 Comment

Posted by on 2012/04/27 in Guest Writers


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One response to “Comic Books and Rock ‘n’ Roll by LJ Maher

  1. Kate

    2012/05/10 at 02:07

    You might find this one interesting as well a musician exploring classic stories via music and animation.



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