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Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Comic Books

Deep Dive: ‘Birds’, ‘Blues’, and the magic of musical comics

Blue In Green! Chasin’ The Bird! A new Deep Dive! Charlie Parker’s jazz music and artistry and the rhythm of musical comics!

Deep Dive is a closer look at some of the more interesting works in the comics realm, and what it is exactly they’re doing.

Today, Ritesh returns to look at Chasin’ The Bird by Dave Chisholm, with Peter Markowski, published by Z2 comics, alongside Blue In Green by Ram V, Anand RK, Aditya Bidikar, John J. Pearson, Tom Muller, with Ryan Brewer, published by Image Comics. The books both chronicle artistic journeys of musicians who want to not just be good, but great

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you that music has boundaries. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” – Charlie Parker

Music has never really been my calling.

And yet, somehow, I keep endlessly running into comics so deeply entrenched in music, that at this point it’s ridiculous. ‘Comics akin to Music’ seems to be the brand of comic that speaks to me most, above all, especially over the conventional ‘Comics akin to TV/Film’ approach many employ. I first encountered this line of thinking in P. Craig Russell’s landmark adaptation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle- The Ring Of Nibelung.

Russell, a titan of the form, has spent a better part of his time producing adaptations of works from other forms, and that means, in this case: Opera. I still remember, quite vividly, opening up his book, not knowing what lay ahead, and just being blown away.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

That’s the first page of the dang thing, and instantly I was struck.

I hadn’t read anything quite like it. It was just a water drop falling down. Why was this so striking?! Why did it basically punch me in the gut the moment I came to the end of that first tier of panels? And then…I understood. It was because, despite the lack of SFX, despite it just being just simple imagery, I could hear the sound of the drop. It was loud, within my head. The breakdown of panels there, the hand being beyond the panels at the start, the close-ups, the panel widths changing to represent ‘weight’ and ‘impact’ of each panel/beat overall, just…the way that tier builds, there’s a beautiful rhythm there. And it’s this beautiful rhythmic quality, the interlinking of the beats/panels, to make up a melody/story, that makes music and comics so wonderfully fascinating. It’s a quality both forms share, even if one is purely visual, and the other is purely auditory.

To return to the Ring Cycle itself which PCR is adapting- Wagner (while terribly problematic, which the work also reflects) was able to tell a story through his music. It was opera, to be sure, but if you were to close your eyes, sit down, and just listen, taking in the thing, there is a story being told. A story being woven through intense and soft sounds, powerful and gentle patterns making you feel a gamut of emotions. And the act of comparing that (or even combining it, if you read *and* listen!) with the sequential comic provides some really fascinating insight into both the work at large, the sort of holographic idea of The Ring Cycle, as well as the two forms that communicate it. Take, for instance, PCR’s recurring usage of the ‘water drops’ sound that he made the striking opening of his comic. It’s used again across the book in specific scenes, but as a tiny overlayed addition on top of existing panels, so there’s a kind of recurring, underlying ‘sound’ you hear on top of what’s happening.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Certainly, given my endless fascination with the works of Grant Morrison (an ex-Musician who’s in MCR music videos) and Kieron Gillen (an ex-Music Journalist), which are absolutely rooted in a history of ‘Comics akin to Music’ thinking, there’s a pattern here. All of which is a long-winded way of saying, of course, inevitably, two of my favorite comics of the year ended up being about music. Who knew, eh? Who knew?! (Not me, until the realization hit me like a truck! I can be slow that way.)

But in any case, without any further delays, let’s dig into them, or at least, certainly, my experience with them:

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Blue In Green is about Erik Deiter, a fictional Jazz Musician, investigating the mystery of another incredible fictional Jazz Musician- Dalton Blakely.

Chasin’ The Bird is about the very real figure of Charlie ‘The Bird’ Parker, and is, in effect, a comics biography.

Both, however, express potent truths, about art, artists, the culture that surrounds them, and the world that forges them into who they become. Both are about Jazz, a legacy of Black creatives, on a fundamental level, and seek to capture its majestic might on-page. On the whole, while these are works which do very different things, I put them together because I believe they are in a conversation together this year, which has been a hell of a thing for stories on jazz.

And that conversation has a lot to do with obsession. Afterall, all artists are, on some level, obsessives. We sit about chipping away at the imagined, until we’ve honed it to our own imagined sense of a satisfactory ideal. We’re all in the business of art, given we reside in a capitalist society, but nevertheless, few artists set out to just be ‘good’ or ‘competent’. We all want to be great, at whatever it is our art is. We want to do it to our best possible potential, and then some more. Because otherwise, what’s even the point? Why do it otherwise, and not choose some other vocation? (Certainly those others tend to offer greater job security and employee benefits, as opposed to freelancer nightmares.)

And that’s the beating heart of these two stories: one starring a genius and a legend, his struggle, and another starring a man on the edge of genius. And at the end, at the edge of genius, the works ask us to look beyond just the music that shakes our very souls, to see beneath the veneer of the artist, and ask ‘What is the price of all this? Is there a price?‘.

Suffering and pain, tragedy and trauma, are part of life. All artist is, inextricably linked, to experience. ‘Write what you know’ goes the old adage (a poor one, to be sure), often repeated endlessly. The work is, in some way or another, some form or another, an expression and reflection of its makers. And thus, artists, when trying to make great work, not just good work, when trying to produce meaningful, authentic work, wonder: Have I the experience to do it? Have I suffered enough?

The idea of ‘The Suffering Artist’ isn’t a new one. It’s as old as time. We’re fascinated by them. We’re terribly enamored with their rich histories. We study their heights, and their tragedies. But it’s all in the context of The Work. The Work is the great project, the ultimate accomplishment, before which all artists prostrate themselves, which all critics chase, which all audiences are enamored with. The Work looms large, above all, the totality that subsumes all, the black-hole to swallow us all. And that is…understandable, in that The Work is something that, while a clear reflection and expression of its makers, also exists beyond its makers. Once let out into the world, it’s like a child. What it is, what it becomes, the parent cannot truly ever control. To try is futile, for the endeavor of art is not to impose your will on others, but to allow them to engage with the construct of your will in empathy, and see what comes of it. It’s cultural conversation, but without the typical languages used to do so. And the construct part is vital, because it isn’t merely your will. It’s a construction, and so it can morph into anything. It’s a thought-form you cannot stop. It’s why the myth of King Arthur, from its roots as the tale of a dead warlord of Briton (not a King!) fighting off the Saxons, can evolve into a sprawling saga of contradicting medieval romances. The Work is The Work. It evolves, it changes, it belongs to no one person, but many people do belong to it. Which is to say, in a sense, art has a will of its own.

It’s why we value art so much, it’s why so many masterworks are studied after their makers have passed on. The Work is immortal, the artist is not. The people maybe be ash and bone, but The Work endures. The Work is everlasting. The Work is. That is its greatest power. But also, as magical and wondrous as that is, the human capacity to create and feed something larger than them, to help create something that will outlive them, there’s something terrifying there, too, isn’t there? If we accept that the work has a will of its own, if the work consumes numerous artists across generations, there’s a terror that underlies that idea, is there not?

That’s the idea that Blue In Green delves into.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

And to be clear, it’s not an idea that art is monstrous, as much as artist’s relationships to it, their assumptions in relation to it, what they think it costs for them to make ‘great’ work, that’s what’s monstrous, made manifest in the form of a specter. The Muse, if you will, that which compels and drives that artistic spark of creation, the need, the desire, the primal hunger to create and craft, it’s about that. And how our engagement with it, and relationship with it, can affect us, down to our very souls. It’s about the extremity of obsession, the point past which ‘brilliance’ and ‘horrific’ link together. And Blue In Green’s potent warning is that maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe if that is what we think is the price of art, given our cultural obsession and fascination with suffering artists, then that price should never be paid. That monster ought to never be fed.

The real horror, the generational trauma that haunts the work, is that for this beautiful thing to exist, so many were sacrificed. So many that needed our help, but we cared more for their art, borne amidst their suffering, than them. Especially because of the assumption that suffering, tragedy, trauma, these are linked with great art, and are just needed, part of the ingredients to cook up the dish we crave. It’s that coldness that’s interrogated, as the story’s lead character, Erik Deiter, continues to lose himself in his art, becoming seemingly better and better, whilst losing touch with what actually really matters in his life. With the love of his life, who is willing to be with him, the child he may or may not have. A happy life. The choice made to engage with this monstrosity is what stands in his path of all that.

And so you’re left to ponder that choice. The pit of that choice, which keeps sucking you in, as you fall deeper and deeper, fading away. And you wonder ‘Could you not have been great without that? And what is greatness?’. But vitally, at the same time, you see the inexplicably painful situations and scenarios, the traumatic circumstances, that force people into those hellish pits. You do understand and sympathize, as you witness the humanity on display, both glorious and terrible at once. It’s what I could call Musical Noir, which, as you can imagine, is steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty.

That it takes Noir, the realm of primarily white leads, and casts a Black man as its central figure, being explicitly about Jazz, a Black innovation in art, and the culture around it, should also be noted. It’s an entirely fresh perspective on the space, that feels familiar but is also utterly new. It is telling a quintissentially American story, combining two classically American forms (Noir/Jazz) in the third truly American form of comics (put together by Jewish Immigrants). And thus fittingly, it’s a comic steeped in all the uncertain, subjective and moody depictions of reality, it’s improvisational, done page-by-page, with no outline, as the team improv-ed on each other’s work, akin to Jazz, and above all, it’s terribly specific to comics in its execution.

Due to its nature, as stated above, it’s a work about expressing reality as felt by the one individual, the suffering artist. It’s about steeping you in that singular perspective, and making you feel the way he feels. It’s about putting you in his head, and it’s an incredibly singular and subjective perspective that it really wants you to take in. Above all, it wants you to care about the artist, beyond the veneer of the artist, beyond their incredible art. It wants you to see them as people, both in relation to The Work and beyond it.

Meanwhile Chasin’ The Bird is a work that feels like it’s a document of the very artistic history Blue In Green and its lead character are dealing with.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

After all, how can the topic of Jazz and The Suffering Artist even be broached without discussing Charlie Parker? The man was a legend and a foundational figure who continued the artistic lineage he was a part of, seamlessly integrating a lot of what came before, to forge the path ahead to what could come next. You can’t step into the realm of Jazz and not run into his teachings or ideas derived from the work he did. Even work done in opposition to Parker and his legacy is deliberate, as it’s responding to his towering artistic presence and achievements.

The man was a genius, to be sure, a true master of his form. But he was also suffering, due to a number of circumstances. Whether it be the drug-addiction and abuse or the difficult place he was in- being a rising force in the ’40’s whose art was making an impact whilst also being a black man in a world that aggressively loathed black people. His music was what they wanted. That’s what they largely cared about. The music mattered more than the man. And the thing about being loved for not who you are, as much as what you can do, what you can produce? It can be dehumanizing. It can be painful and cold and heartbreaking. Certainly, a great many cared about Parker the man, and loved him as well, but it never truly proved enough, and he never truly got the help he needed at the right times, when it was most necessary.

And that’s what Chasin’ The Bird explores, with a bold formalist approach towards the history of the legend. If Blue In Green was this singularly subjective perspective of a Jazz Musician, entirely about putting you in his personal head and experience, keeping you there with him in every moment, Chasin’ The Bird almost opts for the opposite approach. It becomes about the perspective of everyone surrounding the Jazz Musician. As its creator, Dave Chisholm reasons within the text itself, sometimes to understand the true nature of a thing, its immensity, you need to look at it from a myriad of perspectives. The whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Thus you get a work split into 6 distinct narrative units or ‘tracks’, if you will, in this album (to use a French comics term that feels appropriate here), between 6 individuals who had wildly different experiences on the legendary musician:

1 ) Dizzy Gillespie- A peer and a fellow musician
2) Jirayr Zorthian- An artist and a fan of Bird
3) William Claxton- A photographer entrenched in Jazz, due to Bird
4) Julie MacDonald- An artist/sculptor and a former lover of Bird
5) Johnny Coltrane- A younger musician who Bird inspired
6) Ross Russell- A former-pulp novelist turned Jazz producer

Each track, like a wholly different song, uses an entirely different art style, set of storytelling rules/guidelines, and lettering, to reflect the very different realities and subjective perspectives of the individuals. For instance, a pulp novelist such as Ross Russell has his perspective framed entirely through a pulpy noir lens, akin to Darwyn Cooke’s work, particularly on Parker, as the muted palette and fewer lines, the contrast of colors, all make a point. Whereas Julie MacDonald’s chapter is almost entirely in these super artistic, flowing, panel-less splashes, akin to something you might find in a classic Vertigo title, wherein everything is huge, unbound, because that’s what love and passion feels like. That’s what that experience with Bird felt like- massive, and there was no way she would shape it into a rigid structure of a grid. Her experience is more messy, more fluid and hard to sum up, and it’s also why the lettering for her chapter is this sharp, diaristic thing, akin to being scribbled with a quill.

Meanwhile, Claxton, a vital Jazz photographer, seems almost everything through the lens of a Pop Art sensibility, wherein everything is captured in a singular image, and the images are put into a neat grid. The classical 6-panel grid is used for the photographer, as each image comes with that underlying dotted reality you expect from such a style, and even the lettering shifts to a delightfully retro-sensibility (observe the Os! And those Rs!) to capture a very particular lens.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

And thus you have this multifaceted, kaleidoscopic view of one musician, a legend, who meant different things to different people. Each came to him with a different set of assumptions and needs, and they all walked away with something different. And what this multiplicity of styles, the formal experimentation, affords Dave Chisholm and Peter Markowski’s work is a chance to depict music in a number of different ways, visually speaking.

Blue In Green‘s visual approach, as defined by Ram V, Anand RK, John J. Pearson, and Aditya Bidikar, is very much drawn from the school of classic Vertigo comics. It goes to Dave McKean, Jon J. Muth and also vitally, the work of Bill Sienkiewicz. And to operate in that singularly subjective, constructive reality means absolute immersion, meaning it depicts music in one singularly potent way, tied to the almost spiritual experience that the lead character is having. And thus every time music is playing, the notes of the song being played underlay the page, as the pages explode out to give you the pure sensation of it all.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

It’s how the musician themselves, our lead Erik Deiter here, is experiencing it and what it’s like for them.

Given Chasin’ The Bird‘s very nature, it can’t quite do that. It’s following a different rule book and set of principles. Thus, its depictions of music, from the lens of photographers, experienced Jazz legends, artists of other forms, record producers, have to vary. There’s gotta be a variance, a multiplicity, to how that sequence of sounds, those lovely melodies, are conveyed visually on the page.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Julie MacDonald hears the music, as it explodes across the page in waves, and it’s a mixture of the musical notation and the actual lyrics of the music, whereas, say, Jirayr Zorthian (whose chapter feels closest to a European comics style), a different kind of artist entirely, only has the notation come through.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Now, compare that to Johnny Coltrain, another musician, a legend himself, who in the context of the narrative is the young man inspired by Bird. And him? When he plays, or when he hears Bird play, he doesn’t see any musical notation or even the lyrics. What sees instead is just this:

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Music in his perspective is almost a primordial force and power, and it’s entirely about the individual. He’s astonished by the individual, more than anything, as that’s central to the art emerging from them. And music is almost this impossible force elevated to magical stature. A language perfectly understandable, to be to sure, not ‘mysterious’ or ‘indecipherable’ as some treat it, but it enchants Coltrain with the sheer force of the most fantastical thing imaginable. This is his love. This is his life. You never think otherwise. The music is an explosive energy to convey something.

Now, again, compare that to Dizzy Gillespie’s perspective, which is drastically different:

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Music here is not in notation at all, and nor do the lyrics for a song ever show up. It’s instead these rectangular boxes that leap out of the instruments, these bars, which may not convey what the music is the way notation does, which may not give you the sound of it in the way a lyric does. But what it does give you is a sense of rhythm. The ever fluctuating size-shifts of the bars, their interlocking and division, the caps and the crossover, the depth or lightness of color and fluidity within these structured boxes, the distinction of Gillespie’s from Parker’s, they’re all giving you a different insight into what music feels like to certain people. And more than that, it’s just a plainly more interesting way of depicting music visually, in that it’s less ‘obvious’, because the moment you see notation, you know it’s music, obviously. And that, in the realm of comics, can be ‘skipped’. By which I mean, due to its obvious, familiar nature, the reader can nod and just move on past it, not thinking much. It can be a blockade. And thus using typical notation to represent music here, especially in the context of Gillespie’s chapter, in the scene above, which is all about reaching to an audience that lacks the appreciation or even interest for the kind of music they’re trying to communicate, wouldn’t work as well.

It’s music as a means to communicate to those who have no concept of this kind of music, so the ‘jazz bars’ is an inspired way of going about it. And it works beautifully in moments like this:

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Wherein you’re clearly seeing the music, quite literally, go above the heads of many, as question marks appear above them to indicate confusion. They just don’t get it. It doesn’t connect with them. There’s a wall between them and the music. And they can’t get over it. But amidst a crowd of people like that, there’s that one dude, upon whom the music lands. The jazz bars surround his head, like a square-bubble helm, and he’s transported. He’s transfixed. He’s in. He’s into Jazz. If nothing else, it’s a great demonstration of the improv-power of Jazz, and runs wild with the idea of comics panel rhythm, as a way to convey rhythmic music, by just doing really cool colored panels overlayed on top of the art.

In the end, by the conclusion of Chasin’ The Bird, this multitude of perspectives, these various tracks, it all unifies, and comes together, as all the disparate individuals gather, to hear Charlie Parker play once more. And all the styles interlock, as the collective visions of the audience merge, and the larger vision of Parker and his music is outlined. If Blue In Green is the internal reality of the artist, given its a fictional construct, due to its very nature and subject of having to grapple with a real figure, Chasin’ The Bird reasons that we cannot know the true internal reality of Bird, we can only seek to understand him through he was, both in his words and actions. And thus we need to account for all that he did, as much as possible. All of which is to say, if BiG is about the lens of the artist, CtB is about the lens of the audience, both critical and otherwise, attempting to document and study said artist, or at least, the construct of the artist, and all that lies beneath.

Both works sketch out different parts of the experiences surrounding art and artists, and ask us to consider the humanity of the individual, because as much as we love art and how much ever it means to us, people matter more than art. The Work is, sure, but it’s people who make it. Art, particularly great art, shouldn’t have to come with such a heavy price. But more than that, beyond any ostensible messaging, both works feel sincere and honest and authentic to the artistic experience.

And you know what? In a realm with works like Whiplash, it’s refreshing.

Deep Dive: 'Birds', 'Blues', and the magic of musical comics

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do adore the absolute bizarre fever dream of J.K Simmons screaming his head off at me that is Whiplash. But I also don’t think, and sincerely doubt, I love it and enjoy it in any way its prime maker, Damian Chazelle, intends. What is certainly intended to be a potent tale of artistic struggle for greatness that is full of depth and meaning, I merely see as The J. K Simmons Scream Show, wherein the man’s performance and presence evokes deep terror and horror in you the likes of which few movie monsters could match. So while I love the film (in a way that is wildly unintentional), it’s not the statement on music and musicians that it’s cooked up to be. It’s about as authentic or true to musicians and music as The Lion King is to Lions, which is to say, not at all. Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher might as well be Timon and Pumba as a live-action horror monster. It’s an absurd cartoon and that’s the kick.

But even beyond that, Whiplash is a modern jazz story and film about jazz that doesn’t even try to broach the subject of race. It is truly, deeply, white as all hell, and is a jazz story made by white people largely for a white audience. And it remains the most revered and successful of musical narratives in recent years, especially as Chazelle is a critical darling. And within that context, I look at books like these, and I am filled with relief. I am filled with greater relief when I learn a work like Chasin’ The Bird, by Chisholm, who is white, was crafted with numerous Black sensitivity readers consulting on the work. It shows that work is being done to tell these stories with sincerity and honesty. It shows that there is forward momentum.

Just this month, as the hellish 2020 comes to a close, we’ll have 3 films within the space, exploring Black artists and jazz, with Sylvia’s Love (starring Tessa Thompson), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (starring Viola Davis, and Chadwick Boseman in his final performance), and Pixar’s Soul (starring Jamie Foxx). There’s a clear renewed interest in telling these stories, telling them with Black leads, and talking about Jazz, which is such an incredibly vital contribution to culture and the world at large by Black voices.

And it’s not lost on me either that all of this is happening, to loop right back, on Charlie Parker’s centennial, which was this year.

In the end, both these books, which arrive at this vital time, ask potent questions of us, as the audience, artistic-peers, culture at large, and ask us to think about what obsessions with The Work at the price of the person can lead to. And while, certainly, one cannot help those who do not wish to be helped, they ask us to examine the contexts that produce those who are put in that situation to begin with. And thus, in so doing, they ask us to dream of a better future, a better world, for both art and its makers.

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