Comic Strips in Album Sleeves? What a Concept!

It seems like it’s been awhile since making a post, but I have a good reason for the absence. I’ve had my head buried in comic books. Well, that’s a good reason for me, anyway! Gathering up back issues of The Punisher, G.I. Joe, and Mad magazine at various locations during summer vacationing got me smiling from ear to ear like Alfred E. Neuman, albeit with markedly superior dental work. A record purchase or two may have occurred as well, considering that my thoughts are never far from music. That being the case, my mind naturally began to drift towards a couple of music-themed comics within my own collection. Better stated, these are albums that contain comic strips as supplemental material to the music.

The two samples I’m going to share have a couple of things in common. The protagonist illustrated in each is modelled after the vocalist / primary songwriter in each group, the speech bubbles predominantly feature lyrics from the songs of the featured album, and they come from concept albums, which makes having a cohesive storyline from panel-to-panel easier than it would be for albums with non-connected songs. I also had no idea that either album contained comic art when I bought them. The purchases would have occurred regardless, but that knowledge might have swayed me to acquire each one sooner than I did.

First, here’s the comic that appeared in Jethro Tull’s 1976 album Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! Does anybody complain about spoilers in comic books or concept albums, or is it strictly a movie thing? Nonetheless, I’m only sharing the first half to serve as an introduction.

Jethro Tull were very consistent in terms of creating quality music for the first dozen or so years of studio albums. Close your eyes, randomly grab one of them, and your ears will thank you for it. That being said, TOTRNR never seems to be discussed that often. I’m not totally sure where I would rank it among their discography, but would say it’s definitely worth your money. Which reminds me, for anybody that wants to begin collecting 70s rock on vinyl, start with Jethro Tull. Their records are plentiful, and can be had on the cheap.

As can be gleaned from the comic strip itself, the album’s story is about Ray Lomas, an aging rock star who has fallen out of fashion. It’s quite odd, in a way, that Ian Anderson had yet to turn 30 by the time this was released and yet is portrayed as the washed-up rock star of his story. Jethro Tull is still touring as of this day, and had been doing so relatively consistently in the four decades that past since TOTRNR was released. He doesn’t look like much of a greaser either, but I only look towards the casts of Grease or West Side Story when making that assessment. Even they’d tell him to get a haircut!

The gatefold vinyl edition does this artwork much more justice, seeing as the entire 36-panel comic is crammed onto two pages in my 2002 remastered CD copy. Thankfully, my brother has the vinyl for a quick comparison. Fan open the original, and it seems more like your reading a comic or magazine that the alternative of having to squint at this relatively microscopic version. That feels closer to looking at one of those smutty, pocket-sized Tijiuana bibles that Dragnet made me wise to.

I’m sure you have noticed the occasional use of bold red text in some of the speech bubbles. These words are the song titles from the album, which are useful when trying to follow along with the story. Of interest, “Living In The Past” is the only song name in red print that is not featured on the album. A TV special for TOTRNR was produced as a promotional tool, but it wasn’t performed there either. However, I have seen televised performances from the same year that seemed to coincide with a re-release of the “Living In The Past” single (which was paired with “Requiem” off Minstrel in the Gallery) of the song 7 years after it debuted. Is this some form of cross-promotion going on in the comic, with the intention to help push the single? Was a re-recording of the track a planned addition to the album? Or is this simply a reference to one of their most popular tracks (second, perhaps, only to “Aqualung”), and nothing more? Also, a bonus track titled “Strip Cartoon” is featured on my copy of TOTRNR. Was this where the idea came from to include the comic in the sleeve, or did the comic inspire the penning of the leftover song? A bit of a chicken or the egg quandary there, if you ask me.

Tull had been adventurous in the visual arts department on a few preceding releases. The level of detail going into the newspaper layouts on Thick As A Brick or the playbill in A Passion Play show the importance that was place on giving the public a multimedia experience that goes beyond what is expected with an album. Clearly, TOTRNR is no different. The credited artists in the liner notes are Michael Farrell and Dave Gibbons. Farrell has sleeve design credits with music acts including Fleetwood Mac, Nucleus, and Streetwalkers. Gibbons is the artist with far more notoriety, best known for his work with Alan Moore on Watchmen. If you haven’t at least heard of Watchmen, then I’ll safely assume you haven’t stepped foot in a comic shop. In the realm of music, I’ll refer you to his sleeves for singles from Kill It Kid or Kula Shaker’s K album as highlights.

Now for the second comic. Here’s the first of four pages found in Mercyful Fate frontman King Diamond’s fourth solo studio album, Conspiracy.

 

Storytelling has always been one of King Diamond’s fortes. All but two of his albums are tell complete stories lyrically, and the two that are not (his first album Fatal Portrait, and The Spider’s Lullabye) each contain a smaller portion of thematically-linked songs. Judging by the man’s use of occult-inspired imagery, his tales are not intended to tell children at bedtime. I’ve seen him referred to as “the Stephen King of metal”, and I know I wouldn’t want my hypothetical kids exposed to Maximum Overdrive. They’d already stand a chance of inheriting the worst aspects of my DNA, so I wouldn’t want them to inherit my reoccurring nightmares of possessed, driver-less cars on top of that.

Conspiracy is actually the second half of a story that began with the ‘Them’ album released the previous year. It’s a shame that the preceding album didn’t feature a similar comic to give the complete visual of the story. Considering that I haven’t found evidence that the comic was included in the original release of the album like with the Tull example, this makes me even more curious into why a prequel wasn’t commissioned for the re-release of the same year (the 1997 The King Diamond Remasters series). ‘Them’ features King’s character as a child, so I wonder if they’d have him wearing makeup or not had they made a companion comic. It would look a bit like a kid going trick-or-treating as Gene Simmons. Or that’s how Gene would interpret it, anyway.

These illustrations in this case were drawn by Russ Steffens. Assuming that I’ve tracked down the right fellow, his comic book credits don’t appear to be great in number, limited mostly to a few issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and Earthlore. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t take away from his contributions to this King Diamond album. We are treated to a very good likeness of the vocalist, and the layouts of the panels are very faithful to the horror genre of comics, not terribly different than looking in a typical issue of House of Mystery or Tales From The Crypt. They opted for black and white, which was far from common practice in 1989, and the space restrictions may not allow for as much detail as possible, but you don’t even need to be a King Diamond fan to see the appeal of this piece. It captures the story quite effectively.

While I do enjoy some of the artwork he has featured in his other albums, the only case I can recall off hand where King Diamond includes a bonus feature as cool as this is with The Puppet Master. The Puppet Master included a DVD where he tells the entire story to give deeper insight into the lyrics. It’s not a high-budget affair, and not at all linked to the horror movie franchise or the similarly-titled Robert Heinlein science fiction book or its film adaption. It’s just him and a single camera. Dim the lights, and it makes for great Halloween entertainment that I try to watch once a year. The video portion may available to view online, but I recommend getting the album, which I consider as among the strongest from the later part of his career.

There’s the two unexpected sources for some comic book-style entertainment from my collection. I know others exist, and I may in fact have others that have slipped from my memory. If I find them, I’ll be sure to discuss them.

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