By Jakob Free
“No one can destroy the metal
The metal will strike you down with a vicious blow
We are the vanquished foes of the metal
We tried to win. For why, we do not know.”
—“The Metal,” Tenacious D
Daniel Warren Johnson is in the business of making something from nothing.
Lately, the writer and artist’s characters have been in that business, too. Last year’s Extremity, the story of a young artist caught in the middle of a science-fiction blood feud, addressed concepts of revenge and justice but also the beauty of creation and the pain of having that ability taken away.
“In a lot of ways [being a creator] feels like magic,” Johnson says. “But it's still immensely difficult and requires an incredible amount of willpower and work. Not only that, but the regular everyday struggles we face as humans can oftentimes make it harder to conceptualize and give birth to something new. Since it's such an everyday struggle for me, I think I naturally tend to gravitate towards stories and characters that are creative in some way.”
Johnson’s newest work alongside colorist Mike Spicer and letterer Rus Wooton, the upcoming Murder Falcon published under the Skybound imprint, stars Jake, a musician who’s turned his back on making music after personal tragedy strikes. His smashed guitar sits idle in a dusty corner of his apartment, never to be played again.
Without warning, a beast of unknown origin (or dimension) attacks him in his home. With mere moments left before Jake becomes monster food, a bipedal avian bruiser, the titular Murder Falcon, pays him a visit. This mysterious hero is an extra-dimensional warrior powered by rock music—but not just any old rock music. Murder Falcon is fueled by metal.
Johnson may be known for his comics, but that doesn’t mean he’s a stranger to making music; he’s been playing guitar for over 20 years. In Murder Falcon, he finally brings his two loves together.
“Drawing and music are two art forms I usually try to keep separate,” Johnson says. “Ever since I started drawing full time, some of the innocence of making pictures has been lost. Having an art form that's so intrinsically tied to paying the rent has a tendency to complicate things, and I wanted to make sure that didn't happen with my guitar playing. However, with Murder Falcon, I wanted to show the love I have for playing music in a visual way.”
In order to slay the monster in Jake’s apartment, Murder Falcon needs Jake to shred on his guitar. And after the splintered instrument magically reconstructs itself, Jake offers a barbed melody to fuel Murder Falcon’s fisticuffs, aided by an imposing mechanical arm. While the music literally powers Murder Falcon, it also reawakens Jake’s love of power chords and pentatonic scales—such is the awesome transformative might of heavy metal.
“That's what music does for me,” Johnson says. “And the simple mindfulness shift that can happen oftentimes is very comforting. I think one of the things that makes me gravitate towards metal is its fearlessness of the dark. I consider metal to be a purge, an avenue to explore the harsher parts of myself and the world, and be encouraged then to deal with those things in healthier ways. I also like how a big part of metal is about just having fun, especially in the '80s.”
But much like Extremity, Murder Falcon’s bombast sits on a framework of subtle, and often emotionally devastating, character moments. When readers encounter Jake in the debut issue, he’s still reeling from the double-tragedy of losing a loved one and his band, Brooticus.
“I think I was trying to find an interesting way to show trauma in Jake's past in different ways, especially with his band breaking up,” Johnson explains. “It's more of a human drama in that way, and I think it fuels the story very organically.”
Murder Falcon doesn’t only emphasize the serrated riffs and double-bass-pedal barrage of the devil’s favorite music genre—sounds of all kinds play a huge role in the story and its presentation. Johnson has placed dozens of hand-drawn sound effects throughout the book, giving sequences big and small a lyrical quality that viscerally communicates a sensory landscape. Drawing the effects directly into the artwork also provides a more cohesive experience for the reader. Johnson calls this “drawing letters,” and channels itself from the onomatopoeia of KRANGs and SHRAKAs from Jake’s guitar, as well as more subtle effects like the GLUG of a satisfying beer swig.
“At this point, it's pretty natural for me to think about narrative pacing this way. I get a lot of inspiration from manga and anime when planning out my pages, and the timing in most of those comics is incredibly inventive. Lately, I've been reading the manga Cross Game, and there are multiple, seemingly small details, like the act of someone stepping off a bus, that are told with an intentionality that I'd love to see more of in American comics. So when Jake takes his guitar out of the case, I wanted the reader to feel it, to really get a sense of how cool it would feel to pull out a sweet guitar, put it on, and save the world with music.”
Playing music is more than just a character trait for Jake, just as it is more than a hobby for Daniel Warren Johnson. Making music, like drawing comics, is a form of creation. Taking a quiet room or a blank page and filling it with something that wasn’t there before, something that comes from within, is a difficult process, but for Johnson, it is a worthwhile endeavor.
“I also think music is a wonderful way to give people agency,” he says. “It's so easy to make music, even if it's just a kazoo, and everyone loves being part of something bigger than themselves. I feel that being in a band can accomplish that, and knowing that you're making a sound that is unique to a musical group that is needed and appreciated, I think that can have a powerful impact on a person.”
Murder Falcon #1 releases in comic stores on October 10, 2018.