Gabe Soria: “Murder Ballads”

I enjoyed Hustle and Flow quite of bit. He’s a really cool record store employee, and he was writing for a local Los Angeles music magazine named Fiz. It was ’93, end of the school year, and Wade asked me if I wanted to ride shotgun back to New Orleans because he didn’t want to drive all the way there by himself. “Exorcise” might not be completely accurate, because when you exorcise something, you get it completely out, right? Soria’s examination of a hepcat loser looking to cash in on a talented musical duo of outsiders isn’t a purely solemn ride to hell. I could talk about Jack Kirby. Guralnick even makes an appearance in Murder Ballads. I was kind of obsessed by the idea of three witches, et cetera. Does that make any sense? Those five scenarios became what I gave to Dan to think about while he was writing and recording. What was the comic book that first caught your eye? Catharsis would probably be more fitting. There’s not a lot of musical salvation. I look at it and go, “Yes, that’s fucking art.” It’s weird, destructive, bizarre, and I dig it. I started writing notes: copious notes; notes, notes, notes. While it’s not the centerpiece of the book, this story underscores Soria’s thematic charisma. The Hudson River School Painters as well. I saw the paintings and thought, “That fucking makes sense to me.” I understood it on some level. That’s what this was for me. That was the first time I was exposed to Jackson Pollock’s art. Back then, New York was the center of the comic book universe. The “What if?” was, “What if I grafted that onto a crime story, a noir tale?” That idea bugged me for years. For his new book Murder Ballads, published by Z2 Comics, Soria collaborated with artists Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt as well as blues musician Robert Finley and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (who produced a soundtrack for Soria’s story of a down-on-his-luck record label owner and two African-American musicians). My brother would give them to me, my uncle would give them to me. Through that job, I started meeting a lot of comics professionals in New York. Was that one of your initial agendas, to incorporate modern racial inequalities into the story? Yes. There’s this woman, Cynthia Martin, who was an artist on Marvel’s Star Wars comics, toward the end of their run in 1985. Initially, it was going to be a five-issue comic book miniseries. He was a year ahead of me and was a member of this really cool punk rock kid clique. I texted him while I was walking down the street, “Hey, you know, I have this idea for this comic. I moved to New York in 2000, and got a job working at a website called Psycomic. And now, finally, in my 44th year, I have seemingly steady comics work, and have some momentum going with Murder Ballads. That’s a real fear. That version of “Killing Floor” is one of the most energetic and most exciting bits of music I’ve ever heard. I did that back in 2008, and since then it’s been a few comics here, a few comics there. How did you land in New Orleans? That was my life for a few months. What was the genesis of Murder Ballads? Nate puts his finger on something important but doesn’t realize the full extent of what he means when he says, “It’s amazing, this black dude from Shreveport knows that Zappa song.”
Yes, it’s that casual racism. It was a replica of the Degenerate Art exhibit that the Nazis put on after they came to power. Walt Simonson, P. And I also thought a lot about a music writer I really love, a gentleman by the name of Peter Guralnick. If Murder Ballads was a novel, it would be in the Vintage Black Lizard crime library. What was your family life like when you were growing up? I wrote a two-page document explaining what each of the songs was about and what that song should sound like. And you’re ultimately responsible for your own redemption. That was interrupted when we moved to Orange County. Harry Crews as an author, I love, but I didn’t think of his work at all when I was writing this. It would’ve been great to write the book as one of those Vintage paperback editions. Nate’s got to take responsibility for what he’s done and I reckon that like 99 percent of fuck-ups come from losing sight of what you’re actually trying to do. GABE SORIA: I didn’t mean to be a heavy-handed about the relationship between white folks and black folks in the music industry. I could talk about Jim Aparo. Even though they were divorced when I was very young, my mom stuck around my dad’s family because they really loved her and she really loved them. I thought a lot about Jim Thompson. I’m very surprised and glad — actually, not surprised — that you recognize the Royal Trux lyrics. For certain people, it just hits you over the head. He did the art, I wrote the story. No, it grew and developed as the story did. There’s a lot of me in Nate and that part of it might point toward me, as well. It feels to me like Nate (Theodore, Soria’s label-owning protagonist) was a flashlight shining on a legacy of racism. Soria has a knack for stringing humor through desperation’s noose. All that stuff to me it was like a lightning bolt to my head. Accompanied a friend on a drive from USC. I didn’t want that to be the takeaway. Absolutely. Over the years, I would open up the file on my computer and not look at it, like, “Nah, man.” It sat there and I didn’t really know what to do with it, and like 10 years after I first had the idea, I said, “Hey the ideal thing to do with this would be to have music with it.” That’s where Dan came in. Did you include these references for specific literary purposes or simply because you wanted to cite good lyrics? I got to write for Film Threat, I worked for Sci-Fi Universe, and that’s how, basically, my professional writing career started. Woven into the book’s tapestry of fringe musicians and wannabe music mavens is a nuanced portrait of modern-day racism. The song called “Three Jumpers,” comes from me telling Dan I want a song that was influenced by Macbeth. A lot of the emotions are real, and in part I used the book to work through some of them. That’s my life, dude. We never had any money, but it was a very big and very loving family since all of my aunts and uncles and my grandmother, they were all living within a few blocks. I wanted to be an artist when I was younger. He’s one of the most evocative music writers, just a beautiful teller of stories. No, it’s like being a Catholic mom, I can’t pick which of my babies I love the most. I do believe music can heal but what I was trying to get across was that you have to be open to it. The wounds are still there and the wounds are the things I did to myself. But do I believe that music can heal and transcend you and transport you? In the ’70s, I would read anything. In Ulysses, James Joyce would use certain words to allude to the Odyssey. A few years after working there, I published my first Batman comic that I did with a gentleman I met through Psycomic, Dean Haspiel. I was going to write each of the issues around a thematic song. Eventually music takes over the characters, draping them with corruption. Reading Murder Ballads, I thought of Hustle and Flow and Harry Crews. The Hudson River School. Zappa and Lead Belly and Ike Turner and Royal Trux and Howlin’ Wolf all appear either by name or as the authors of lyrics strung throughout the text. But his portfolio is much more diverse: he got his start in Los Angeles as a music journalist writing for Fiz, before moving on to Arthur, The Oxford American, and the Guardian. A comic book that’s really formative, that taught me that you could tell interesting stories in comic books, I have to look it up right now. I chose them for literary and character-building purposes. When I was 19 years old, I met this dude who worked at a record store near USC. The first 10 years of my life was spent in a small town just riding bikes around. Would you want to do a soundtrack for it if I ever got it off the ground?” And his one-word response to me was, “Duh.”
Let’s talk about some of the actual music that you seeded into the story. My mom was black from South Central Los Angeles. I grew up still on the edge and pretty dirt poor down there, riding the bus every day to school, first going far over to 44th Street School and then every day from South Central up to Eagle Rock, did that for six years. That’s a hard one. Yes. You brought up the fact that Nate, in some ways, represents you and probably, in some ways, not. It wasn’t a zine, it was actually a glossy cover magazine, but it had a very zine-like quality, very earnest. You could go interview bands, talk to them, and have these words published. Soria is probably best known for Life Sucks, his teenage angst vampire collaboration with Harvey Award winner Jessica Abel, or for his stint on DC’s Batman ’66. That and Survival Research Laboratories, that art makes sense to me. Nate is a part of me. Soria’s characters (the good, the bad, and the ambiguous) embrace songs as much for their restorative abilities as for the chance to strike it rich. This was Eno’s game with musicians, something he did for a David Bowie recording. Let’s talk about your first published work. Yes, it’s a submersion into dysfunction, addiction, and betrayal, but it’s also a dynamic celebration of music. But Nate does represent somebody, a lot of folks. I started wanting to put more of that stuff in. I’ll just say that, yes. I love books like that, Scar Lover. He’s still a good friend of mine to this day. It feels to me like driving around on a cold morning, you’ve been up all night, looking for another fix or something like that. So I wanted to ask about your non-musical influences. [Laughs.] One essential bit is seeing these people you want to be your friends as actual, real, human beings. ¤
Henry Cherry is a Los Angeles based journalist and documentary filmmaker. Sometimes he’s a part of it, sometimes he’s just watching it. I was getting an education in them and not even realizing it. Nate loses sight. It felt like you were doing something similar with the Zappa reference, the switch at a key moment from Lead Belly to Howlin’ Wolf, and the unidentified lyrics strewn throughout the book — alluding not to a specific epic poem but to the collective epic of American popular song. That’s a lot of stewards, and the book could have leapt off the track, especially with the switch in artists midway through. It came to me in Texas, a half-formed “What if?” My idea was to write a story inspired by Alan Lomax, the musicologist who first recorded Lead Belly, Son House, and Muddy Waters. It was a run of Detective Comics and it’s from the late ’70s, Batman and the Joker. Nate probably read Peter Guralnick and wanted to be the guy, but lacked the insight to actually do it. That was another lightning bolt to my head. When did the first kernel of the idea come to life? I spent a few months living in a residential motel across the street from Disneyland. She’s so good. What’s the one that’s set here in New Orleans, The Knockout Artist. Bernie Wrightson, moderns like Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, and Adrian Tomine. Did you touch on any personal material? That stuff is so frightening and so weird and so chilling and so good that it’s something that I think back on all the time. Actually, when that film came out, I was like, “God damn it, somebody got to it before me.” That gave me something to steer away from, even though I really did enjoy the film. This guy named Graham Gayle. As the story closes, Frank Bonisteel white knuckles a stolen Corvette out of Los Angeles, only to be antagonized by the sunniness of a Southland disc jockey who credits a song Bonisteel wrote to the owner of the car he’s fleeing town in. I started writing a film script. I first came here in 1993, randomly. Then we moved to South Central LA where my mom was from, and that was the second part of my childhood, young adulthood. I get surprised sometimes when somebody is like, “I didn’t know you wrote this.” “Oh, shit, did I?”
How did you transition from magazines into comic books? Their music builds a framework around your characters, punctuating moods. He’s like a dude who wants to be down but misses the essential nature of being down. DECEMBER 3, 2017

TUCKED IN THE BACK of Gabe Soria’s new graphic novel is an addendum that skewers the Eagles, Phil Spector, and the cultural morass of 1970s Los Angeles. My comics career has been fits and starts for the last 14 years. I thought it was so cool that you could do something like that. That song that Nate sings to himself in the bar, “Turn of the Century,” is one of the most beautiful and desolate, majestic, lonely songs I’ve ever heard. You’ve worked on this book for a long time. I believe Nate’s wife, Mary, is reading Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music at some point. He gave one to each musician, and had them think about playing these characters while making a David Bowie record. That’s what happens to Nate. Batman’s Detective Comics, number 475. Let’s stick with the personal for a minute. At the same time, I didn’t want to make it seem like these white folks suck and these black folks are heroes. I’m serious. I’ll get some work, then I won’t get any work for a couple years. It makes sense to me that Nate would be a fan of that band and a fan of that song, in particular. That exhibit introduced me to Otto Dix, Egon Schiele. I wrote a graphic novel with my friend Jessica Abel called Life Sucks. I was an editor there. I think about music constantly and I think about how fucking weird and mystical it is and how I can hear a song and it can take me somewhere. I can’t even remember. Yes, I’m a divorced dude. Detective Comics 475
Did you have influences that were particularly visual, whether they were comic artists or outside the comic realm? Of the five songs recorded for Murder Ballads, do you have a favorite? All the selections also point toward me. Is that the heart of Murder Ballads? There was actually a documentary made years ago about this phenomenon, they called it Homeless: Motel Kids of Orange County and it was about all these hotels in the Disneyland area that were host to families that were in between homes. I’ve been back for a little over four years now, but I’ve spent multiple years here over the course of the last 24. That’s exactly it. My dad was Mexican. But I don’t want to give you the impression that I only read such serious dark comics, because that’s not me at all. I got into writing through music journalism. I came into their orbit. Places I sometimes don’t want to go, also places I want to be — but music itself, it’s grizzly. Through Fiz, I got a job working at a video games magazine published by Larry Flynt. It would have a cover that looked like one of the Jim Thompson or David Goodis books they publish. Over the last 25 years now, I’ve written for a ton of different publications. Yes. I only had a title for one of them, “The Empty Arms.” So I wrote these five little paragraphs to sum up, like Brian Eno. Yes, ultimately, the moral is that you have got to fucking take responsibility for yourself. I wanted the music to get darker in the book, because Nate loses his way. He wrote these biographical sketches for each of the musicians, almost like science fiction short stories. There was an exhibit at LACMA that I saw on a field trip with my AP English class. I already had a sense of what the end of the book was going to be, but once “Three Jumpers” was written I knew concretely how to do it. Murder Ballads can also be very funny. The book is a short, tragicomic ride flecked with oddball characters tracing the outline of a man falling from the edge of fame back into his own personal dysfunction. The Joker used this thing called Joker Fish to murder people. Once Dan and I were talking about it, he came back and said, “Oh, how about this?” He wrote this amazing song. His hybrid of noir and scenester parody opens, for instance, with Mary, the label owner’s wife and the conscience of the book, telling her ne’er-do-well husband, “You spent every cent we had and didn’t have on records that no one wanted to buy.”
HENRY CHERRY: I want to talk a little bit about race because there’s a thematic structure of race in your story that you handle with — sometimes it’s really subtle, and sometimes it’s right there in your face. The early panel in which Nate plays a Howlin’ Wolf Real Folk Blues cassette was drawn from a photo reference of my tape. That’s a very important character moment. In college, I happened to read a biography of Jackson Pollock. But Soria’s faculty for story makes sure that for all of its lowdown dark heartedness, the graphic novel remains convincing and even mythlike. Craig Russell. You know how it is.