Gunning For Hits' Jeff Rougvie and Moritat Expose the Seedy Underbelly of the Music Industry
January 8, 2019 | Tobias Carroll
In the new comic series Gunning For Hits, music executive Jeff Rougvie, artist Moritat, and colorist/letterer Casey Silver introduce Martin Mills—a morally ambiguous A&R rep attempting to snag the next big band by any means necessary.
The debut issue of Gunning For Hits opens with a negotiation between record label A&R rep Martin Mills and the lead singer and manager of Stunted Growth, an ascendant rock band in the late ‘80s. As power in the conversation fluctuates between Martin, Stunted Growth frontman Billy, and manager/girlfriend Diane, the series exposes the seething underbelly of the music industry. The interaction ends with an intimate request that would make any manager outside the world of Stratocasters and green rooms submit their resignation, but Martin is a veteran expert at handling business and debauchery in equal measure.
Guiding the reader through these insider tete-a-tetes is a creative team with pinpoint experience for the genre-spanning story that unfolds. Writer Jeff Rougvie harbors decades of music industry experience, including a stint at Rykodisc where he worked on reissues, including albums from David Bowie and Big Star, as well as the albums of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band, Sugar. Artist Moritat has worked on titles as stylistically variant as Elephantmen, The Hellblazer, and All Star Western over the course of his career—and in a comic where subtle body language is key to its interactions, his fluid linework elevates the unstable chemistry of Gunning For Hits’ scheming players. Casey Silver rounds out the team, providing an electric blacklight color palette and stylized lettering.
These skills thrive as Martin embarks on an intricate monologue describing how Stunted Growth skyrocketed to fame via radio, pop-up gigs, and various gatekeepers—and what a looming record deal could actually mean for them. Within this sequence, the artistic style shifts into a more cartoonish register, hearkening back to mid-20th-century educational comics.
“I wanted to shake up the look of the book at that point; we’re coming off the negotiation and heading into an explanation of the music business—not the sexiest thing to do in a comic book (although, I think we got it),” Rougvie explains. He cites Darwyn Cooke’s use of a similar device to explain the inner working of a heist in his award-winning adaptations of the noir benchmark, Parker. “The music business has embraced and even cultivated an image of ripping artists off for some reason, so it was somewhat poetic and a tribute to Darwyn’s creativity,” Rougvie laughs.
The sequence also harkens back to one of Rougvie’s Rykodisc-era projects. “The idea of teaching via entertainment reminded me of some old educational Bell Labs films I used in a video for Bob Mould’s band, Sugar,” he notes. “An incredible amount of thought and creativity went into those films, and it’s a little tribute to them, too. In addition to explaining the mechanics of the music business, I wanted the first issue to show a contract negotiation—something that usually takes weeks, months, or even years, in as entertaining and compact form as possible,” Rougvie explains.
Gunning For Hits contrasts lived-in, nicotine-stained rock clubs against the decadent dreams that await a fraction of the bands that grace those sticky stages—all offered with period-piece obsession. The Stunted Growth album, for instance, looks exactly like an artifact from a late-’80s record store wall, fitting perfectly between The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.
Rougvie attributes that visual finesse to Moritat. For the music industry expert and writer, that prototypical indie rock aesthetic cemented the pair’s working relationship. “I was really happy to see he got it,” Rougvie says. “And that was an early sign this was going to be a great collaboration.”
But the seeds of the book stretch back into the decade when the narrative takes place. “I created Martin back in the ‘80s,” Rougvie recalls. As for Billy and Diane, they “didn’t come to me until years later. I saw a rocker couple at Gulu-Gulu Cafe, a bar/restaurant/hangout in Salem where I write a lot, and they looked like a future rock star and his manager. ”
Rougvie straddles the tightrope between his own experiences and new pop-culture creations, blending real-world musicians with fictional ones. He shows that dynamic worldbuilding in the early moments of the negotiation, when Stunted Growth make the unprecedented move of requesting that Madonna opens for them as part of their record deal. Martin counters with the opportunity to interact with the reclusive (and fictional) rock star named Brian Slade, who bears a resemblance to a certain glam innovator from the ‘70s.
“Brian Slade might have elements of David Bowie in him,” Rougvie says, but “he’s a very different character who does very different things. Just like a novel will reference real people and events as a sort of shorthand for readers, and to strengthen the fabric of its fictional world, we’re doing the same here,” Rougvie explains. “Iggy, Madonna, and John Lennon will all be mentioned in Gunning For Hits as signifiers, but I’m not planning on any of them appearing as characters in the story. It’s legally complicated, at the least, and if I was going to tell their stories they’d be biographical comics—something I’m interested in—but maybe after we do more Gunning For Hits.”
By the very unexpected conclusion of Gunning For Hits’ first issue, readers will be left with a sense of Martin’s complex history, checkered morality, and distinctive worldview. The volatile conversation that ends with this issue looks to be only the tip of a melting iceberg for Martin Mills, however. Or, as Rougvie adds, “I have about a hundred stories of Martin’s to tell.”