Comics That Rock -- It's Not The New Music Video - Yet - But The Comic Book Has Become A Hot Marketing Tool For Top Names In Rock

"Neil Gaiman had a good point," says Alice Cooper of the writer who helped him create "The Last Temptation," Cooper's new album and rock comic. "His opening line, when we did the first press interview, was `My motto is: Who says rock comics have to be bad?' "

Who, indeed?

If anything, the two would seem to be natural allies. Both have long, deep ties to youth culture, from the days when rock singles and comic books were blamed for rising juvenile delinquency in the '50s, to the recent boom in alternative rock and underground comics in Seattle. But for the most part, rock and comics artists never got closer to working together than the occasional album cover, like Robert Crumb's legendary illustration for "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother & the Holding Company.

That may change, though, thanks to a small but steadily increasing number of rock-oriented comics. Two weeks ago, Cooper and Gaiman's "The Last Temptation" marked the launch of Marvel Music, a new rock-oriented imprint from the folks who brought us Spiderman, Wolverine and various generations of X-Men.

This month, D.C. Comics - the home of Batman and Superman - offers "Three Chains of Gold," the third in an occasional series of comics featuring the recording artist formerly known as Prince. Meanwhile, Malibu, the nation's third-largest comics publisher, has its Rock-It Comix line, which so far has released more than a half-dozen titles, while the smaller Kitchen Sink Press has its

"Grateful Dead Comix" series.

Nobody is calling rock-oriented comics the new music video - yet. But as Todd Scott, special events coordinator at the mammoth Diamond Comic Distributors, points out, almost everyone in the industry will be watching to see just how well these rock comics sell.

"All the publishers are looking for new markets that they can develop," Scott says. "Essentially, the two main genres that sell comics are superheroes and horror, because that's what people expect. For Marvel to do this (with Marvel Music), they probably looked at the numbers and thought, `Hey, this is a large niche. We can step in there.'

"Basically what they're hoping is that the people into Alice Cooper will hear about the comic, and that will get them in the comics store, while the record company is hoping comic fans will think, `Hey, I wonder what the album sounds like?' "

The art of the deal

With rock musicians becoming increasingly aware of the merchandising potential a successful name and image carries, it has become crucial for comic companies to strike deals directly with the bands. But that's not quite as simple as saying, "Hey, kid - wanna be in comics?"

"One of the problems that they've had at Marvel is that they're used to dealing with fictional characters that they wholly own," says Larry Reid, director of marketing at the Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books. "Moving into the rock line has been difficult for them, because a substantial portion of the income of these rock bands is the merchandising, and they're hesitant about giving up any portion of that, while Marvel is used to owning everything.

"Mort Todd, the head of Marvel Music, was in Seattle just about a year ago, talking to some of the hotter Seattle bands. He ran up a few bar tabs, but nothing ever came of it, because there's a big difference between the Incredible Hulk and Mudhoney. And a lot of these bands are smarter than most people give them credit for." As a result, the most successful grunge comic to date deals not with a real band but an imaginary one: Leonard and the Love Gods. Created by Peter Bagge for his underground comic "Hate," the Love Gods saga - which recently has been anthologized in the "Hate" collection, "Buddy the Dreamer" - follows would-be band manager Buddy Bradley as he is first sucked in, then spat out by the club-level local grunge scene.

"My association with Seattle grunge was that the musicians and the people who owned labels liked my comics, and asked me to do the covers," Bagge says. "But most of the people I know who are connected with it are label owners, managers, club owners, things like that. These guys, to the musicians, are the bogey men - the rip-off artists. But to hear their side of the story is not only more interesting but also funnier, because they're so jaundiced and cynical."

Bagge's grunge story wound up earning great reviews in the music press, including raves in Spin and the Village Voice . But it's worth noting that what excited the critics wasn't simply the accuracy of Bagge's acid-edged observations, but the artistry of the comic itself.

"As long as they're well-produced, rock comics will be well-received," says Diamond's Scott. "Alice Cooper fans may pick up `The Last Temptation' because it's got Alice Cooper. But comics fans won't buy it unless it's a good comic."

There have been attempts to bridge the gap between rock and comics before this. But those titles were mainly short-lived exploitation items, like Harvey's "New Kids on the Block" series or the '70s Kiss comic for which the band allegedly mixed its own blood in the ink. Little thought was given to concepts like plot or artistic integrity.

That's hardly the case these days. Not only are the bands actively involved in the creation of these comics, but the subject matter ranges from straight-up biography to superhero fantasy stories, and from illustrated song lyrics to album-oriented mini-dramas.

Lita Ford, for instance, got involved with Rock-It Comix because, as she puts it, "You get to play out the superheroine, and do things you wouldn't normally do in real life. Like, I wouldn't run around and beat up people in real life. But in the comic I get to do that. I get to be Little Miss Tough Guy. And it's fun."

She was allowed a measure of control over the process, helping to develop the story line and dialogue with writer Roland Mann. She even had a say in Jim Balent's artwork for the comic. Some of that was to ensure accuracy in the comics.

"You know, these are rock comic books, and they're also going to be sold at music stores," she says. "We just wanted to make sure that all the musical instruments were drawn correctly and made sense."

Guitars weren't the only thing Ford wanted drawn correctly.

"For instance, he would draw me holding a guitar, and I didn't like the way my hair looked. So I would ask him if he could, you know, just change the hair. Or make me look slimmer. Just things like that."

As for Ford, she fell in love with the costume her comic book counterpart wore.

"Some of the costumes that these comic book characters wear are amazing," she says. "When I looked at what I was wearing, I thought, `Wow! I'd like to have that made, so I could really wear it."' She laughs, and adds, "Of course, I don't know how it would hold together . . . ."