Rockstars: The Secret History of Rock'n'Roll [Interview]

IMAGE COMICS: ROCKSTARS is a rock'n'roll thriller. What's that mean, exactly?

JOE HARRIS: It is, literally, a thriller set against a rock'n'roll backdrop. It's one part murder mystery and investigation story, one part treatise on rock music that carves out its own fictionalized place within this colorful history of the form I just adore, as well as one seriously dark and creepy supernatural conspiracy exploration that gets at this connective tissue behind the myriad urban legends, unexplained mysteries, rumored occult connections, and the long, vast mythology connecting rock'n'roll in all its forms, colors, and shades.

IC: Jackie Mayer and Dorothy Buell are the central characters for the series. Joe, how do you describe them as people? Megan, what's your approach to drawing both of them?

HARRIS: They're both music fans and troublemakers. Jackie Mayer was born into things. His father worked security for a lot of huge acts and famous bands throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He saw music change, along with his employment prospects and his family's stability. Jackie grew up around music, toddling around backstage and hanging with dad. But there was always more to Jackie's father and his connection to the music scene and this secret, darkly supernatural undercurrent that ran through it all. Jackie has his father's abilities. They're unexamined and unrefined, but when we meet him he's chasing down rock's untold secrets. He's a total catalog for stuff like the truth behind the Beatles' "Paul Is Dead" mystery, or just what's really encoded in backward messages and masks on classic albums. But, most important, this talent of his helps him discern where the truth behind the urban legends really lies.

Dorothy takes herself very seriously. She has this sardonically charming, and dramatically fatalistic, view of the media and journalism—to say nothing of popular music. She's chasing a story via some very dubious contacts when she first crosses paths with Jackie. She's ambitious, relentless, and sharp. She also calls Jackie out on his shit right away and gets him, I'd like to think, to cut out the hero worship and see some of the fucked-up things about the music industry and scene for what they are, the people who get hurt, etc.

MEGAN HUTCHISON: Dorothy is a pretty, smart young woman, so she's used to getting things her way, but this also makes her a little entitled. Living in LA you get quite few people like this. I wanted her to look like a cool chick—someone you'd want to hang out with, but is a pain in the ass because she wants to do things her way. She's the kind of girl who always does her hair and can find a killer jacket in a vintage store because she cares about these things, and she uses it to her advantage. I also think she always smells good.

Jackie, on the other hand, is rather the opposite. He's cute in a dorky way, but he's a music dweeb. Dorothy's tricks don't work on him because he knows he's WAY out of her league, which makes them a good match. I think as the story progresses and Jackie grows into his own man and out from under the shadow of his father, he'll become more sure of himself and his look will change. It was Joe's idea to give him Ryan Adams hair—it makes him look like he's accidentally cool. The same with his fashion. He wears vintage stuff, which is retro—he wears it because he's a music nerd, but that style can be seen as hip so it's quite by accident that he looks like he has style.

IC: Joe, you've said this was a story that's been kicking around in your head for a while. What's the appeal for you? Were you a rock'n'roll kid?

HARRIS: I grew up a rock nerd, like Almost Famous removed one generation. I didn't have older siblings, but whenever I was around friends' older brothers, or older cousins of mine who were into music, I would just descend on their music collections. I traded bootlegged Zeppelin shows with the older kids. I played in bands when I was in high school—in addition to being an orchestra kid and playing guitar in the jazz band too—and I would book us in clubs around the New York area while we all were underage and not really allowed in anyway. We'd record music I wrote, and for a while that's where I set my ambitions.

IC: Megan, ROCKSTARS bounces from the past to the present and back again. That gives you a lot of period-specific clothes designing to do. Do you have a favorite era to work in so far? Is there a design or outfit you're particularly proud of?

HUTCHISON: I'm a bit of a fashion nerd and I did costume design for years in the theater, so I love doing costume research. I love modern fashion and I try to make people look cool in the books that I draw. Since I live in downtown Los Angeles, I pull a lot of inspiration from walking around. However, the '70s was an era that I had the least familiarity with, which was a blessing in a way because in my research I was able to see things without a predisposed opinion. '70s rock fashion is also very specific and fun, so it was interesting to play around with what that looked like. Also, drawing big hair is a blast. Honestly, drawing the demon groupies both past and present is the most fun I've had. I get to play with different ideas and mix up styles since they're timeless—it's fun to make their period outfits look anachronistic because they don't belong to any time.

HARRIS: If I can just chime in here—ROCKSTARS has its roots in the 1970s, for sure. But the goal is to branch out into other eras and genres on subsequent arcs and cases Jackie and Dorothy get into. I think the central premise of ROCKSTARS—that there's this supernatural conspiracy or agenda connecting so many of the known and unknown mysteries and stories throughout rock history—can apply to any decade and against any musical genre backdrop. Getting into '80s metal next is the plan. But I've got ideas for 1950s greaser and doo-wop era stories, the punk scene—hell, I'd love to do a ROCKSTARS story that fills in some of the lost details of who killed Biggie and Tupac. Maybe one day we'll explore a declining Mozart encountering the younger upstart Beethoven in 18th-century Vienna. If we can connect the era/genre/whatever to the core idea behind ROCKSTARS, we could go in any number of directions.

IC: In a general sense, what kind of mood are you evoking in ROCKSTARS, both in terms of plot and visuals? Are you inspired by anything specific?

HUTCHISON: I love horror movies, so I definitely love to play with a creepy, horror tone. I'm also very interested in the occult and study witchcraft, so that mysticism can be seen in not only ROCKSTARS but a lot of my work. However, I think where Joe and I click the most is that we're both pretty goofy, and both his writing and my illustration have that silly quality to it. My inspiration for this book is Aleister Crowley, '70s slasher movies, and Scooby Doo, all with a bitchin' rock soundtrack.

HARRIS: I second all those influences and inspirations, btw.

IC: Joe, you're playing with cult figures in ROCKSTARS. There are mentions of the massive bands of the past in the first issue, but will they figure into the story more directly in the future? Or is it better to keep them at arm's length and preserve the mystique?

HARRIS: Well, we mention bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and others to set the era and evoke all the things that come with it, but the focus of ROCKSTARS is, typically, going to be on legacies we create for characters, acts, and legends that fit within the musical periods they're set in. What I'm trying to write, and give to Megan to immortalize, are original mysteries and quirks in history that fit alongside the commonly known ones, you know?

IC: Kelly Fitzpatrick, colorist of SNOWFALL, is coloring ROCKSTARS, too. Joe, Megan, what do you like about her work? Why was she the right choice for the series?

HUTCHISON: Kelly makes my drawings come to life! She's amazing and I reference her style when I have to color various covers. I'm so lucky that not only is she mad talented, but she just gets the tone and feel for the page. Her colors fit the time periods, and gives them that great psychedelic vibe. She's also just a really cool lady.

HARRIS: Kelly's the best. Fantastic talent and energy. We love Kelly...Kelly, please never leave us...

IC: We've talked about the music, but there are demons in this, too. What role does the supernatural play in ROCKSTARS?

HUTCHISON: I'll let Joe field this one.

HARRIS: Long story short, ROCKSTARS posits that much of the quirky, strange, apocryphal, unresolved, and just plain weird anecdotes, stories, and mythologized accounts that make up the fabric of rock'n'roll are connected by this sort of supernatural wavelength...this higher (or lower) level to what we're hearing that some of our characters can discern, if not influence. Jackie, our rock detective guy, uncovers this emerging pattern related to unsolved groupie murders dating back to the 1970s that somehow involve this legendary band we've created, Blue Rider, and their sorcerous and brilliant mercurial rogue of a guitar god leader and architect, Jimmy James. As Jackie's investigation leads him down some really strange turns, illuminating much about his own family history and introducing him to some pretty dark, powerful, and scary folks, this larger landscape will emerge.

Jackie and Dorothy will discover that so much about rock's myth and mystery is connected to this odd game played by demonic "Gamesmen" who actually possess rockstars and other talented personalities, imbue them with what they have to offer...augmenting their talent, sharpening their voices and visions, and locking arms in a mutual quest to reach the pinnacle of rock superstardom. I don't want to give too much away, but I'd like to think we're exploring some territory that goes beyond the well-worn "Sold My Soul For Rock'n'Roll" paradigm that's been a kind of stock in trade rock story since forever.

Joe's Picks:

  • Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti for its swirling, artistic peaks
  • Pink Floyd's Animals for its ambition
  • The Doors' Soft Parade, for how it speaks to the darker undercurrents we're exploring

Megan's Picks:

  • David Bowie's Low, thanks to his energy and sexuality providing a lot of inspiration for both Sable and Jimmy James in the book
  • Swans' To Be Kind. The weird repeating and somewhat discordant rhythms really build up into this sweeping soundscape, like a modern spin on psychedelic ballads
  • Bauhaus' In The Flat Field, a great mix of driving beats and dark rock melodies with a touch of silliness

ROCKSTARS #1 is available now.