What do you envision when you are listening to or reading the lyrics of a song? Do they conjure up your own personal experiences? Do you think of movies or shows that the content is reminiscent of? If you are on the artistic side, do the words ever inspire you to draw?
With Cryptic Writings of Megadeth, the band let the imaginations of comic book artists and writers run wild with their songs. When I found a copy at a nearby comic book shop as a teenager, I knew I had to leave the store with it. The version of the comic I purchased was rather eye-catching, and not only because it was a) a Megadeth comic book, and b) it features their iconic mascot Vic Rattlehead front and center. Take a look at the “limited” edition of the comic for yourself.
Being bound in leather, I can honestly say I don’t have another comic in my collection quite like it. I don’t think I even have any leather-bound books in my collection at all other than this comic book. While the idea may seem like a gimmick to some, I’ll take it over a cover made with a distracting foil pattern or one that requires 3D glasses to view properly. It is rather amusing that on the first page of the comic, there are even some guidelines on how to maintain the book cover (they advise against leather cleaners and preservatives). Still, of all possible gimmicks, you could do a lot worse. I find the most laughable aspect that something that had 9,999 copies printed was considered to be limited, but this was also a time where bands were still able to move hundreds of thousands of physical albums in the States alone, so it does sound like a small run in comparison. If you wanted something more scarce, you could always order a copy autographed by Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine that they capped at 999.
The good news is that if you don’t really go for the leather cover, two other versions exist. I think I prefer the one I have, but the others are also easily worthy of the Megadeth brand.
So how did Chaos! Comics and Megadeth hook up? To paraphrase what was written about the collaboration in the comic, their office manager Cheryl Monti happened to know Bud Prager, who was Megadeth’s manager at the time. She helped arrange a meeting between Chaos! President (and a mega-Megadeth fan) Brian Pulido, Prager and Mustaine. Pulido got permission to base a comic off of Mustaine’s lyrics, and Mustaine granted the artists enough freedom to express their own interpretations of the songs.
It’s important to state that the content of this issue has nothing to do with their Cryptic Writings album in spite of also being released in 1997 and sharing a title, but I will say as an aside that this particular album is deserving of a bit more love. It rarely gets discussed these days, but I think it’s a better mix of material than the album that preceded it, Youthanasia. Radio-friendly rock songs like “Trust” and “Use the Man” are mixed with heavier material like “The Disintegrators” and “FFF”, and the combination has a more organic feel than you might expect. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as the first Megadeth album you’d want to own, but it was in my case, and I did grow to become a fan of theirs.
This premier issue features three of their songs in illustrated form, “Skull Beneath The Skin”, “Rattlehead”, and “Looking Down The Cross”, all from their debut album Killing Is My Business (and Business Is Good). Some fans might have hoped they included more variety or began with a more popular album like Rust In Peace or Countdown to Extinction, but starting from the beginning of it all was a pretty logical choice as well. The fierce title track off their debut album was largely inspired by one of my favourite comic book characters, The Punisher. They may not have touched on that song (at least not right away), but there are thousands of comics out there that do that already.
So how accurate are the comic’s depictions of the three selections? The best point of comparison is to take the meaning of the lyrics as described by Dave Mustaine, and contrast them to how the stories play out across the comic book panels. I’ll go with my most convenient source for the lyric backgrounds, as Mustaine states himself in my 2002 Loud Records re-issue of Killing Is My Business. With “Skull Beneath the Skin”, Mustaine states “I saw a cover of a book in a store once and the title was The Skull Beneath The Skin. I designed our mascot around a few religious and pagan symbols, and the lyrics describe someone being sacrificed in a ritual. This is how our mascot became Vic Rattlehead.” The key to most successful comic book characters (superheroes in particular) is a compelling origin story, so what better place to start than here?
The “Skull Beneath the Skin” adaption was written by Brian Pulido and illustrated by Justiniano. The idea of a writer may seem unusual since all stories are credited as “based on the song and lyrics by Dave Mustaine”, but creative liberties still need to be taken. Pulido, in addition to being president of Chaos! Comics, is possibly best known for creations like Lady Death and Evil Ernie (which was heavily Megadeth-inspired) through the company, and has done other work based on TV, movie, and music branding with the likes of Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. Outside of Chaos! Comics, Justiniano (Josue Rivera) has numerous credits for such Marvel/DC Comics characters as the Incredible Hulk, Flash, and Spirit among others. I’d say that they’ve pretty much nailed the basic narrative of the song. The illustrated story begins with a gathering of men in hooded cloaks confronting an alleged sinner in the forest. They lead him towards a place of worship (which looks to be Satanic), and proceed to stick venomous pins into his flesh before placing him on a crucifix. They are then instructed on how to torture the prisoner by an intimidating, demonic-looking old man who had emerged from a stormy sky, and emits an electric energy. Poor onlookers are shocked to see the sadistic delight this man/god/devil takes in making this unfortunate man take on such a crude form. Nothing is revealed as to why this man was captured in the first place, but we’ll take Mustaine’s lyrics to imply he was an innocent man that was sacrificed for some reason. One of the final pages shows Vic asking for forgiveness, so he seems to have bought into their cult and thinks he is at fault. The reader is left to imagine if that is, in fact, the case.
The meaning behind “Rattlehead”, according to Mustaine, is that it’s “about Vic, our mascot, our “Megadethbangers”, and the kind of people that would come to our shows either before, during or after their conversion”. Putting aside the second reference to the mascot, this song sounds like (literally!) a thrash anthem, so I’m usually picturing mosh pits aplenty like I would when listening to Metallica’s “Whiplash” or Testament’s “Into The Pit”.
This second part of the book was written by Mike Flippin with illustrations by Robert E. Brown. Flippin’s work largely seems to have been with the Chaos! Comics company from what I can tell, and Brown’s art can be seen in issues of Over The Edge and various Spiderman works among other places. For music’s sake, it’s also worth noting that Mike Flippin’s guitar and vocal skills were put to use through thrash metal outfit Doomsday as a Chaos! promotional album. This duo’s take on “Rattlehead” goes a step beyond what I envisioned. They take a music venue and transform it into a gruesome environment by showing us a glimpse of one particularly-aggressive teenager as he engages in the act of moshing. He acts possessed as his mind drifts further and further from reality, violently throwing his weight around as if it’s a matter of life and death. The kid is then escorted out of the venue by police, having left the building in much worse condition than it was when he entered to put it mildly. It’s a great take on the lyrics, makes a few more creative twists that I have withheld mentioning, and all in all, I’m quite thankful I’ve never been to a metal show like it.
Regarding “Looking Down The Cross”, Mustaine had stated “This song was what I imagined might possibly have been the last words of Christ. Similar to the movie, The Last Temptation Of Christ, I have my own interpretation of what it may have been like to have been Jesus and what he may have been thinking at the time of his death. I know this could be interpreted as very self-righteous, but like I said, it is my own interpretation, not my experience.”
This final part was written by Roy Young (who was the colorer for all three stories), penciled by David Brewer, and inked by Livesay. Outside of the Chaos! umbrella, you may have seen Young’s coloring talents grace the pages of Spawn, seen David Brewer apply his trade to 2099: World of Tomorrow, or flipped through one of Livesay’s 500-plus comic credits. A second story with heavy use of crucifixion in a three-story comic book may seem kind of exhausting, but rather than the focus being on what Jesus is experiencing upon the cross, this is more of a reflection on how humanity was acting around him. He sees people that claim to act in the name of God not acting in a manner that reflects well on the message he was spreading, be it through murder, engaging in war, mob mentality, or sexual violence. As is the case with the other stories, you even get a little cross-over by seeing some quotes and phrases found in other Megadeth songs. An astute fan should be able to spot one in the preview page I’ve provided below.
In spite of the advertised promise of future issues, I had often assumed this was a standalone issue since I haven’t encountered any more of these out in the wild. To my delight, three more issues were published.
Without doing much reading into it, I figure it would be fun to guess some of the featured songs within the issue based off the cover alone. I already know what’s covered in Issue #2 based on a preview inside of Issue #1, so I’ll leave it to you to put forth some guesses. I’ll say that even knowing what I know, which of the three songs that particular image represents is still a bit of a mystery. My best guesses are that Issue #3 is “She-Wolf” and Issue #4 might be “Peace Sells” (basing that one off the American flag and flames that also appear in the music video). Assuming that the quality of the art work is consistent from issue to issue, then I certainly wouldn’t mind having these three to complete the collection.
This venture wouldn’t be the band’s last foray into comics either. In 2019, Megadeth released Death by Design, a massive 350-page hardcover tome bundled with the compilation album Warheads on Foreheads. Similar idea to what was explored in the Chaos! comics, but all songs covered in the book are also included in the audio component of the box set. I believe their official website sold out of these, but they still feature several preview images from the book so you can determine if you’d like to track down a copy through other avenues.