Alan Robert, bassist and songwriter for metal act Life of Agony and frontman of punk's Spoiler NYC, embarks on a career in comics this April that's been twenty years in the making. “Wire Hangers” is a four-issue miniseries written and illustrated by Robert and published by IDW. While a number of musicians have entered the graphic storytelling ring in recent years, following the wave of Hollywood personalities that preceded them, Robert's credentials mirror those of the other-media artists who have managed to excel in comics in their own right—namely, a history and training as an artist and an intimate knowledge of storytelling. "Wire Hangers" also looks poised to appeal to Robert's existing fanbase, telling a tale of gritty horror set in New York City against a backdrop of serial murder, questionable sanity, and the intrepid reporter and detective charged with unraveling the greatest government conspiracy in history.
CBR News spoke with Robert about the genesis and story of "Wire Hangers," pitching it via Twitter, and studying with Walt Simonson at New York's School of Visual Arts before taking another path to fame.
CBR News: Beyond what's listed in the solicitation, what can you tell us about the story we'll be seeing in "Wire Hangers?"
Alan Robert: There are a lot of big reveals in the story, so I don’t want to give away too much. But, to give you an idea of what you can expect, the story takes place in New York City and is narrated by a homeless man, named Cypra. We can tell from the very first dream sequence that kicks off issue #1 that this guy is not quite right in the head. And though he’s horribly disfigured, he doesn’t quite remember how he became that way. So, he spends his time lurking around in the shadows, observing the abductions over the course of several months. Newspaper headlines tell us that a mysterious "Suicide King Killer" is on the loose and the people of NY live in fear. Witnessing the kidnappings begins to weigh heavy on Cypra’s conscience, so, in an emotional state, he steps out of the darkness to rescue a woman. During the attack, Cypra loses control and things turn violent. His actions throw him into the media spotlight and he becomes the scapegoat for the wave of disappearances. The events that follow keep the reader guessing who the killer is and why innocent victims are still being abducted night after night.
Other main characters include Detective Barillo, a one-time hero-cop with a bad attitude and an even worse drug problem. He’s been assigned to the Suicide King Killer case but can’t seem to catch a break. He desperately wants to reclaim his hero-cop status, which has been tarnished by his abusive behavior, but he knows that if he doesn’t solve the case, he’ll surely complete his downward spiral.
Sam Bakersfield is a TV News Producer with a big bark and an ulcer to prove it. When his lead investigative reporter Anna Davis goes undercover to try and snag the big exclusive, he’s left to pick up the pieces when things go awry. There are also a number of Federal agents introduced throughout the series, who give us more insight into a possible government conspiracy that may be tied to the abductions.
Along the way, the reader experiences Cypra’s dreams and violent flashbacks first hand. We learn more about how he became disfigured and how many of the characters are inter-connected and linked to the ongoing crisis. It gets pretty interesting when we start seeing these pieces fall into place, as it builds to an unexpected climax in issue #4.
I remember experimenting with art, during my time at the School of Visual Arts. One of the pieces I worked on turned out to be a six foot tall illustration of a hand, painted red and filled with a collage of wire hangers. It was a really disturbing image that stuck with me. There was something really scary about it. That was the birth of the Cypra character and the "Wire Hangers" story evolved from there.
The overall concept was there from the beginning, but the supporting characters changed a number of times over the years because I kept adding more and more layers to the story. Finally, last year, I felt like it was in a really solid place and I was ready to present the idea to editors. So, I created 15 pages of sequential art and broke the story down into a four-issue story arc.
The end of the series will leave the story open for a possible continuation, so it’s my hope that the comic is well-received so I can continue to build on these characters.
You're both writing and illustrating this book. What can you tell us about your background as a writer/storyteller, and your studies under classic "Thor" artist Walt Simonson at SVA?
I’ve always wanted to be a comic book artist. I remember drawing black and white comics back in high school that I would photocopy and sell at a local Brooklyn comic shop. Yes, the content was pretty graphic back then, too! But, when I got really serious about it in the early ‘90s, I received a scholarship to study cartooning under Walt Simonson at SVA. I learned a hell of a lot about page layout and storytelling from him. Walt would bring in guest speakers all the time, including his wife Louise, who would share their knowledge about the comic industry and give us useful, practical tips about surviving in the field as freelance artists. It was a real eye opening experience, hearing stories from the mouths of these great comic book legends.
Some of the projects involved dissecting actual comic book scripts and drawing them the way we interpreted them. Believe it or not, I remember drawing some "Robocop" pages back then, as homework! Walt was always brutally honest with his criticism, which was hard for some students to take, but I personally appreciated it. He’s an extremely talented guy who knows his stuff, and I learned a lot from him.
Towards graduation, he helped prep our portfolios and gave us pointers on what to and what not to show to editors. I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, but got sidetracked from art when my band Life of Agony got picked up by Roadrunner Records. We recorded our first album, "River Runs Red," and I began a full-time career as a professional musician.
I kept up with my artwork along the way, designing merchandise, album art and websites for my band and other popular bands, but I basically put the comic dreams aside until much later. I did, however, put Walt’s storytelling tips to use while drawing storyboards for some of our music videos. Having that storytelling background really helped me convey my ideas to video directors, over the years.
The "Wire Hangers" art I've seen shows some Ben Templesmith influences, as well. After SVA and throughout the course of your music career, have there been other artists/illustrators who have influenced you work?
I grew up on Mike Zeck’s work as a kid, mostly, because I was blown away by his "Punisher" limited series. I was the kid at the comic con that would hound him for sketches of Kraven the Hunter and hog up all his time, talkin’ his ear off while he autographed my "Web of Spiderman" comics. But, as I got older, I was more drawn to the non-traditional style of Dave McKean’s artwork. His "Sandman" covers were fantastic and I especially loved his "Batman: Arkham Asylum" book.
"Arkham Asylum" completely inspired me to do my own thing. He was using paint and mixed media and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was chaotic, fresh and terrifying all at once. I loved his stuff so much that I hired him to design the album packaging for Life of Agony’s third album, "Soul Searching Sun," which he did a brilliant job for. Along the way, I got into other artists that shared this non-traditional approach, like Bill Sienkiewicz, Ash Wood, Ralph Steadman (the artist behind "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") and most recently, Ben Templesmith.
I really enjoy when a comic’s cover art style continues throughout the interior pages. I get disappointed when I pick up a comic and the cover is full of cool textures and grittiness and then you open it up and it feels completely disconnected from the rest of the book. It’s just a pet peeve of mine, I guess. That’s what I really dig about Templesmith’s stuff. It’s really consistent the whole way through. I’ve been hooked on his art since "30 Days of Night" came out, and I also dig his writing style a whole lot. That’s where his dark, comedic side shines through. Some of my favorite books are penned by him, such as "Wormwood: Gentleman’s Corpse" and "Welcome to Hoxford."
As much as I’m a fan and admire Templesmith’s work, I think we also share a lot of the same influences. I know he happens to be a big fan of Dave McKean and Ralph Steadman, for instance. So, I’d say, the inspirations generally come from similar places.
I’ve definitely learned something about myself by being a professional musician all these years (LOA celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009). I’ve learned that I need to write songs for myself, regardless if anyone will ever hear them. You see, I hear these tunes in my head and I’ve got to get them out, otherwise they just nag at me until I do. Once I record the idea, I can forget about it. It’s weird. I go through the same thing when it comes to writing stories or coming up with characters. I get these ideas, sometimes at three in the morning and I’ve got to get up and document it. I just happen to be fortunate enough to have these outlets to release these ideas to the public. Thankfully, I’ve been given these opportunities and people around the world actually enjoy my music and now, hopefully, my comics, too.
What about this series will appeal to fans of your music in Life of Agony and Spoiler NYC?
I’ve already received a ton of emails from LOA and Spoiler NYC fans asking me when the books are coming out. They’ve been really supportive so far and it feels great. I work on the comic on tour and fans come up to me looking to buy the original art even before it’s been sent to the publisher! In general, I think there’s a substantial overlap of heavy music fans and comic book fans. I also think it’s easy to imagine an LOA fan going out there and buying "Wire Hangers" because it was written/illustrated by a band member they like, even though they’ve never ever set foot in a comic shop. That being said, the comic fan that buys "Wire Hangers" and likes it, just may be interested in checking out Life of Agony or Spoiler NYC’s music. You just never know. There’s a lot of crossover potential.
At the end of the day, regardless of my history as a musician, the book needs to stand on its own two feet. And, I’ve put a whole lot of energy into making this the best comic series it can possibly be. So I hope that die-hard comic book fans give it a shot and pick it up. I realize that there’s other musicians/celebrities out there, involved in comics these days, but I can assure the skeptical comic fans out there, that this one is the real deal.
I understand that you managed to set up this project largely through your Twitter account. How exactly did that work?
I started using Twitter at the beginning of last year. It was around the same time that I was finishing up my "Wire Hangers" proposal and pitch pages. I started following some of my band-mates at first and then started following some of my favorite comic artists and writers. Templesmith was one of those people. I saw that he had a new book coming out with writer Chris Ryall, called "Groom Lake." So, I started following Ryall, too. Little did I know that Ryall happened to be the Editor-In-Chief of IDW Publishing! Anyway, long story short, Ryall and I traded some music and comics and ended up hitting it off right away. A few months later he saw the animated trailer I put together for "Wire Hangers." He asked what my plans were for the series and pretty soon after, we had a contract in place.
IDW was always my first choice for a publisher, but I really thought it was a long shot because they weren’t accepting unsolicited material. I had totally intended on self-publishing my book before the Twitter incident, so it really was just a matter of chance, that it worked out this way. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. There you have it folks, a Twitter success story!
Incidentally, I just picked up the February issue of Previews and saw that IDW placed a sweet lookin’ ad in there for "Wire Hangers" #1. I still can’t believe its happening, it just blows my mind.
"Wire Hanger" issue #1 goes on sale in April from IDW Publishing.