Published Apr 01, 2006Music never happens in a vacuum. Whether it's falling in step with the legacy of one's heroes or consciously straying away from an established path, any musician has to define an identity in relation to a larger music context. One way that this "conversation" has taken place over the years is through cover versions taking another artist's work and defining yourself by bringing your own unique interpretation to it.
Scottish pop band Belle and Sebastian have taken that process a step further, inviting a whole host of comic artists and writers to "cover" their songs; the result is a new compilation of illustrated stories that are either direct "covers" taking the lyrics and fusing them with interesting visual imagery or interpretations, where whole new tales spring forth, sometimes with only a hint of the original song left standing. The result, Put the Book Back On the Shelf (Image), is beautiful, compelling and diverse, a work that will appeal to both fans of the band and comic readers who couldn't care less.
Of course, in certain cases, some knowledge of Belle and Sebastian adds a rich layer of meaning that isn't immediately obvious, such as "The State I'm In," written for the book by Rick Spears and illustrated by Rob G. Spears takes a casual reference from the song the fact that the singer's brother took the occasion of his sister's wedding to come out to the family and creates a chronicle of the events that led up to that fateful moment. As a story, it's sparse and beautifully illustrated; to Belle and Sebastian fans, it's a treasured prequel to the song's events.
One might argue that it's more difficult to adapt a song into a graphic medium than to simply go with what the band have already written. While both examples are prevalent, there is a very clear distinction, besides the obvious, between the two. When you try to reinterpret someone else's art, something interesting happens. The audience who are already familiar with the work see it in a different way, and are able to connect to it at a different level. Seeing how someone else views the same thing is part of the whole experience, with people sharing and comparing their own thoughts and views on the same topics.
The collaborations in the book appear to have been carefully thought out and selected for each contributor's strengths. Known for his graffiti art style, as seen in his comic Puffed, artist Dave Crosland's take on "Beautiful" (with a conceptual assist from Charles Brownstein) is a perfect blend of art and music. Using the lyrics, their take on the song is a mind-bending journey through one woman's struggle to find her place in the midst of chaos. Wonderfully laid out and explosively coloured, the transition from song into comic is effortless and thought-provoking.
More than half the pieces simply interpret B&S's lyrical forays to a more or less literal degree: the painterly full-page splashes of "Dog On Wheels" by Kato for example, or the cartoonishly simple interpretation of "Me and the Major" by Tom Hart. In contrast, "Nice Day For a Sulk" (words by Rick Remender, pictures by John Heebink) and "Marx and Engels" (adapted by Jamie S. Rich and Marc Ellerby) turn them into fully fleshed-out narratives.
By publishing this anthology, Image Comics has embarked upon previously unexplored territory. While there have been comics based on various bands, this kind of full-scale adaptation of specific songs has not been done on this level. While some might say that Put The Book Back On The Shelf is a vanity project, it simply contains too much good storytelling to dismiss it. For fans of graphic storytelling, there's some beautiful work; for fans of the band, it's a fascinating reinterpretation. For those who dwell in both worlds, it's simply a dream.
Lord of the Ring
First performed in 1876, Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, (or The Ring of the Nibelung) is such an epic that many producers tear their hair out trying to be faithful to his vision. Characters ride dragons, gods and goddesses clash in war, and transportation includes being driven around in chariots pulled by rams. Basically, it's nigh impossible to mount for the stage. Apparently it's not so simple to adapt as a comic book either it's taken award-winning artist P. Craig Russell nearly 20 years to complete his two-volume interpretation.
Russell has remained faithful to Wagner's original vision. Telling the epic story of obsession, betrayal, vengeance and redemption has been the highlight of Russell's career. Although he worked with translator Patrick Mason, much of the work is open to the artist's imagination: after all, there's no photographic evidence of what Valhalla should look like, or what its inhabitants might wear.
The music from Wagner's Ring operas is more famous than its story (think Apocalypse Now), but its themes have retained their cultural tread for more than a century. But the final product of Russell's lifelong dedication stands as an interpretation all his own.