Isola's Brenden Fletcher on Making Musical Comics and Comics Musical

Brenden Fletcher’s affection for all things musical isn’t a secret: just read his comics. He escorted the DC character Black Canary to the stage as a fishnet-adorned goth rockstar during his run on the book with artist Annie Wu, and his current fantasy revelation with Karl Kerschl, Isola, swims with ballads and lyrical dialogue. But Fletcher is more than a fan; for decades he played throughout Toronto and Montreal with indie rock bands including Ragni, Receivers, and the Black Canary Band, which produced two EPs to dovetail with the comic series.

Much like Fletcher’s narrative skills, his music is introspective and thoughtful, whether he’s playing guitar, keyboards, or weaving a gentle melody. One of his earliest projects, Ragni, invited a collaboration with current Isola artist and childhood friend Karl Kerschl, whose equally vivid, gentle linework led to a graphic novella that released with the band’s EP. Fletcher outlines his history of music and comics—and where they’ve harmonized—in the Q&A below.

You’ve played in a host of bands for nearly 20 years, switching from guitar, vocals, and keyboards. What inspired you to be a musician? And how much of that ties into the indie renaissance that occurred in Montreal and Toronto during this time?

I primarily played guitar and keys on stage, but dabbled in a host of other instruments in the studio over the years. I’m a singer. I’ve always been a singer. My mom says it was how I first communicated, singing from my crib. And it’s always been the form of art I’ve been most comfortable with. I love drawing and painting, I love writing stories, I enjoyed my career as an actor on stage and screen, but music was my first love, and singing has always been the purest way of expressing and engaging with it.

My parents met when my dad invited my mother to sing in his band. Both sides of the family were very musical, so needless to say, it was an auspicious union. As I grew up around people making music, it was only natural for me to follow along and make music with them. But being musical, learning to sing properly, taking lessons, didn’t necessarily lead me to play in bands. That was something else entirely.

My time living in Toronto saw me playing in a number of cover bands, mostly for money, but also for fun. And it was a great learning experience. I wasn’t involved with any local acts that gained international or even national acclaim at that point. It wasn’t until the move to Montreal that I got firmly entrenched in a “scene,” so to speak. In fact, my move to Montreal was a result of working on my second album with a local producer, Joseph Donovan.

Joseph is Montreal music royalty and really my gateway into working in popular music as a field. He’s a Juno-winning producer (Canada’s Grammys) and former member of The Dears who’s worked with pretty much every band that calls Montreal home. He’s been one of the greatest influences on my life as an artist in and out of music. We continue to work together when we have time, though I’m now based in Brooklyn, and he’s still way up north in Montreal.

Songs and comics ultimately have the same function: they tell a story. You started out at the University of Windsor’s visual arts school with Karl Kerschl before segueing to music, so you have a foot in each medium. How much does your experience as a musician flavor your comic writing?

I was doing a double degree at the University of Windsor, in visual arts with Karl, but also doing a separate music track, studying voice as a second major. So even when I was working on becoming an illustrator, I was still involved with music.

Yeah, it’s funny, but even when I’m not working on something overtly musical, like a comic book script, I still feel out the project in a very musical way.

I almost always write to music, and when I don’t have a song playing on headphones or speakers, there’s still a melody flying around in my head. The tone of the song in question, its sense of rhythm, inspires the flow of the storytelling on the page. There’s even a sense of musicality to sentence structure, to names. Even the placement of words on a page can influence the rhythm of your read. So yeah, I’d say music is a big influence on my work in comics.

One of your early groups, Ragni, included an early (your earliest?) collaboration with Karl—a black-and-white graphic novella you sold with the EP. What was the novella about, and how did Karl incorporate the album into the art?

The Ragni EP release was only four songs. Karl didn’t work on the music directly, but he certainly influenced it, offering some critical suggestions in the mixing phase, as I recall. It was around that time that I spoke to him about the packaging for the physical release, the CD. I really wanted a visual component to act as a doorway into the sonic world of the album, so listeners could “see” where we were going with the songs. Karl chose to loosely adapt the third track, “The North Sea Epoch,” perfectly capturing the tone of the song and the album in a loose-line style under silky ink washes. Looking at it now, it could almost be a side chapter of Isola! Perhaps we should revisit it down the road…

As well as performing live with the Ragni band to a moving picture show of comic images from the novella, we published the story online way back in 2007 as part of the Transmission-X project, along with Karl’s Abominable Charles Christopher and weekly strips from a host of other future comics superstars (Cameron Stewart, Ramon Perez, Andy Belanger, Michael Cho, Scott Hepburn to name a few!) The site has been offline for a few years now, but it was interesting to see how readers felt about discovering the music as a soundtrack for a comic they’d read online, as opposed to experiencing both aspects of the project simultaneously through the CD packaging or our live shows.

That was a musical project that had a comic element, and now Isola is a comic project with musical elements—issue two features Rook and an unnamed character singing the same ballad. And it’s not your first cross-pollination: you recorded two EPs for Black Canary. How do you successfully incorporate musical themes into comics using visuals alone?

It should’ve been easier with Black Canary, as it was a story about a superhero joining a rock band. Turned out to be tougher than I’d thought, as neither my collaborator, Annie Wu, or I wanted to go the traditional route of using notation and/or lyrics to suggest sound on the comics page. Thankfully, Annie’s a genius and along with our colorist, Lee Loughridge, we attempted to come up with a new visual language for the feeling of music and the power of sound. Creating actual music to go along with the series with my old producer/bandmate, Joseph Donovan, was the easy part. (Just kidding!! Joseph worked his butt off on those songs, and they’re AMAZING! Please give them a listen if you get a chance!)

In the Black Canary series, Lee would use color to suggest themes, and we’re doing something like that in Isola as well. Where in a film you’d hear a character’s leitmotif every time they walk on screen, you’ll note in Isola that Michele Assarasakorn (MSassyK) uses particular colors to directly suggest certain characters or elements of the story.

We’re also attempting to deal directly with sound in a different way in Isola. We don’t want the reader to get bogged down in the exact spelling or potential meaning of Western-style onomatopoeia, so we instead use invented symbols to evoke the feeling of sound on the page. Karl incorporates them into the art, making them integral to the reading experience.

Karl and our letterer, Aditya Bidikar, are inventing new symbols and visual languages nearly every issue to suggest some new part that sound and music might play in the world of Isola. They’re doing really remarkable work on this series!

Are there any plans to record any companion music for Isola?

I hope we can record some music for Isola. Even just a theme song. I have a lot of ideas but little time to crack into it. Sure, I could hand it off to someone else to do, but what fun would that be? Hahaha!

Isola #5 is out now with Isola Vol. 1 releasing on October 30, 2018.