The rock club CBGB is a legend, an ideal, a hallowed foundational stone. But it wasn’t always like this. Back in its heyday, CBGB was just a claustrophobic, graffiti-covered, beer-soaked downtown New York City dive bar. But it had two things going for it: 1) a great sound system, and 2) a stage where any up-and-coming band could have a shot at greatness. This lead to the creation of an authentic, once-in-a-lifetime scene, a place where “street rock” became punk rock, new wave, and everything since. A place where the Ramones, Talking Heads, Televsion, Blondie and Patti Smith transcended the Bowery. A place where people found love and salvation in music.
“CBGB: The Comic Book” is a four-issue anthology series from BOOM! Studios that attempts to take that lightning and capture it on the page. The book features stories of the people in and around the club; the die-hards and the dilettantes, the believers and the bartenders, the guitarists and the gutter-dwellers. The passion, the music, and even the screw ups.
I’m Sam Humphries, a contributing writer to “CGBG: The Comic Book,” and I’ll be interviewing my colleagues as part of a regular feature exclusively here at CBR. We begin with Kieron Gillen, writer of “Phonogram,” “Thor,” “S.W.O.R.D.,” and others. His story, drawn by Marc Ellerby, shares space in “CBGB: The Comic Book” #1 with a story by myself and artist Rob G. All of it wrapped inside a cover by comics superstar Jaime Hernandez. To get a free limited edition art print along with your copy of issue one, come visit the BOOM! Booth at Comic-Con International or visit one of these fifteen retail outlets.
SAM HUMPHRIES: Your “CBGB” piece has a bibliography of sorts embedded into the story itself. Had you researched this era before you got the assignment? Why?
KIERON GILLEN: A little, though not seriously. Bar the one-of-the-five-most-influential-books-on-me-ever “England's Dreaming,” the other books I explicitly reference were things I read after I decided to do the story. The explicitly referenced “Please Kill Me” and “From the Velvets to the Voidoids” are the backbone of the research, though not the whole thing. I hit up photography books of the period and a few other things.
So, yes, quite a lot of research for a 14-page story. Lucky it's a period I'm interested in, eh?
Do you think there's a risk of over-mythologizing CBGB, of pouring more gasoline onto an already bloated fire? Or is CBGB not appreciated enough? Or is the real risk seeing the forest and not the trees?
Oh, that's like asking whether Heaven or Hell are over-mythologized. Of course they are. They're places of pure mythology, at least as in how people think about it. It's over thirty years since CBGB's flowering and the reason people talk about it is primarily the myths, because they're addictive infective little meme-clusters.
It's also interesting to see how the myth of CBGB has actually grown. It's one of the things picked up in the afterword of the newer edition of “Velvets to the Voidoids.” When Clinton Heylin first wrote the book, he didn't think that people took that period seriously. In the twenty years since then, it's been beatified.
I think my story, while being a fantasy, is about picking apart those myths and that argument. We've got all the mythology – both literal and figuratively – you could ask for, but we pick at the edges a little.
What would be your dream CBGB gig? Pick three bands, and the year, and your date.
Well, there were Patti Smith/Television/Stillettos (i.e. Proto-Blondie) triple bills, if I recall my research from the story. Well – there were Smith/Television and Television/Stillettos ones, but I may be conflating the two. But I'm damned if I'm going to go back into those books again.
Anyway – one of those, in ‘75 or so. Patti Smith red-raw in Horses period, Television still with Richard Hell and the trashy roots of that most cooly-trashy of pop bands.
Is there a "CBGB band" that you never really "got?"
Of all the actual big bands associated with the scene, Pere Ubu are the one with the biggest critical reputation who never quite clicked with me. I suspect they would if I went and really looked at them. Bar that there's people like The Dead Boys and The Dictators who just never seemed very interesting to me. Oh – and the Heartbreakers, who I do get, but have never quite been my core thing.
That said, there's usually at least something in someone's discography I'd like. I'm slutty, me.
One of the most controversial topics in music history is who went punk first, the Brits or the Americans. You address this head-on in your story and propose a theory, sort of a middle ground that says they're both first. How can similar music movements evolve independently? And/or is the "who's first" debate silly and pointless?
Yeah, It's a bit pointless – or really, missing the point. I think by any sort of independent definition of punk, you have to say America was first. But that doesn't necessarily mean they were either most important or most influential. The only direct influence on British Punk from American Punk was McClaren biting Richard Hell's style. Musically, there is no influence whatsoever – any vague similarities there are more to both being influenced by the same bunch of pre-punk stuff.
I mean, look at Cleveland vs New York on the American side. They developed independently and then crossed over due to relative geographical closeness. You may as well ask how two compatible music scenes could have developed in isolation there? Because the way the world was then demanded people of a certain character to make music of a certain character.
Do you think any other club in the world could justify an anthology? Or is there something special about CBGB?
There's something special about the CBGB, but I think there's other clubs could justify an anthology. The Hacienda springs to mind as a similarly mythic place. I think you can get a good anthology out of almost any club or pub that ties in with history. Or even one without ties to history. I mean, what was “Phonogram: The Singles Club” other than an anthology about a club?
If you could summon a comic series based on any location into being (realities of the direct market be damned) what would you generate?
Interesting question. I find myself thinking about what Moore did with “Voice of the Fire,” in terms of summoning a series of stories from a single location. I think I'd rip him off and do something about the 2000-odd years of History involving Bath. Anywhere you've lived for a while starts looming in your imagination and I'm sure I can put some of that to work.
More seriously, I've been thinking a little about the idea of using a rigidly defined location (say, a village or hamlet or something) and focusing on it solely, in a period where the world at large is having momentous events. Thinking about how Jane Austen books never mention the Napoleonic Wars – which has an obvious explanation, but could be an interesting stylistic choice anyway. Perhaps even a genre equivalent. I dunno.
“Phonogram” and your “CBGB” story come from similar places, writing about life through the lens of music, something we don't see much in comics. Is that something (markets be damned) you could pursue forever? Or does it have its limits?
Forever is a long time and you never know the limits until you get there. But I'd like the chance to discover where they are.
What kind of thinking, or method, or ritualism in your creative process do your music comics have in common with say, your “Thor” or “Warhammer” work?
Well, ritualistically speaking, I'm only very rarely not writing to music. I'm keying characters to songs which I think embody their emotional state. I'm thinking about mood. And, much like writing, occasionally I'm just getting as close as I can with the tools I have within arms reach. I included my listening-list at the back of each “Phonogram.” “CBGB” was written to a soundtrack of anything and everything from that period. The current “Thor” arc is written to the Knife and Fever Ray, though the Disir are keyed specifically to PJ Harvey's “To Bring You My Love.” A new thing I'm doing has its lead character keyed to Hitten by Those Dancing Days. That kind of stuff. As Jamie put it, I have a tendency to process music as narrative, and so finding the right music allows me to more easily access the narrative feeling. Oh – and if there's a big fight, I almost always turn to “Vision Thing” by the Sisters of Mercy.
There are also more Skaven in my “Warhammer” work.
You write comics, often about music, and come from a background of video game and music journalism. Comics, music, video games... which journalists do you fear most, and why?
Music Journalists, I suspect, though generally speaking all three categories are pussycats. I love critics and criticism, so like to see what any of them are doing. In some cases, I suspect I care about criticism as a thing more than many of the writers themselves – I mean, “Phonogram's” totally criticism-turned-delirious.
The only reason why music journalists intimidate me is that in their number there are people I generally consider kinda-legendary kinda-hero-figures. And when one them actually even looks in the direction of "Phonogram," I worry. Games Journalists? I'm – damn me for knowing this and then saying it – aware that I'm one of the people who (some) other journalists are a little scared of, for exactly those reasons. And Comic Journalists I've always more engaged with as a creator than a critic, which changes the actual interaction somewhat. Also, coming to comics as an older human means that there's less of the starry-eyed stuff to get past. As much as I love – say – Jog, I wouldn't blink if I met him. If you put me in front of – say – Simon Reynolds, I'd shit myself.
You wrote a manifesto called "New Games Journalism," which is influential enough to merit a writeup in Wikipedia. Ever been tempted to write a comics manifesto? Is manifesto-ing the provence of the young?
Worth stressing, it wasn't me who called it a Manifesto.
I think there's a very brief period between being old enough to know enough about something for your opinion and ideas to be worth a damn (i.e. You are aware of what the form/industry/medium/whatever is actually like, have been able to pick it apart and so diagnose a cure) and being old enough to get over yourself, where a manifesto can be a useful thing for culture at large.
Otherwise, it's masturbatory cock or cunt waving, and mainly about the person writing it. And that also serves a purpose which I wouldn't dismiss. If you're the sort who needs to write a manifesto, you'll write it. It's a creative urge, the same as anything else.
You and I initially met through the Warren Ellis Forum, the same place I met Rob. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chuck BB from “CBGB” # 3 are also WEF alumni. You can't swing a dead cat inside “Previews” without hitting a few more. What was it about the WEF? You're as qualified as anyone else to sum up its legacy, care to give it a shot?
Okay. An idea occurred to me, sort of tying into my “CBGB” story. There I basically make a case for “scenes.” The idea that in any given state of world geopolitics there will be people who respond to it in a certain way. And given a venue, these people will get together, interact and then go forth and make art.
So, yeah, the WEF was 00s comics' CBGB.
Sam Humphries is a comic book writer of “Fraggle Rock” from Archaia and “CBGB: The Comic Book” for BOOM! Studios. He is also photographer and lives in Los Angeles. He can be found at: www.samhumphries.com.