The Devil Rocks Out
There are dark forces at work in This Damned Band, Dark Horse’s new horror comedy. Will Salmon talks to Paul Cornell about music, magick and the mythic appeal of comics
This Damned Band writer Paul Cornell talks magic, music and the violent ’70s.
Something strange was afoot in the 1970s. As the previous decade’s dreams of peace and love crumbled beneath a wave of political turmoil, a strange new trend took hold – something that cultural historian Matthew Sweet calls the “age of Black Aquarius”. Suddenly magick, Satanism and the occult were in vogue and everywhere, from books to fashion and even children’s TV (what other decade could spawn the seriously strange Sky or Children
Of The Stones?). But nowhere were they more prevalent than in the heady, cash-bloated world of rock.
There was poor old David Bowie, lost to drugs and paranoia, immersing himself in the kabbalah and trying to ward off witches. Led Zeppelin declaring their allegiance to Lucifer and carving Aleister Crowley quotations into their vinyl. And, as the decade went on, the seriously sinister sounds of self-confessed industrial occultists, Throbbing Gristle.
To this list, add Motherfather, the fictional protagonists of This
Damned Band, the six-part series from Paul Cornell, Tony Parker and Lovern Kindzierski. The biggest rock band of 1974, they are self-proclaimed Satanists – and complete frauds. What they don’t expect is for Lucifer to then actually show up at one of their gigs… It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a soul.
“I just wanted to look at people who suddenly find out that something they’d taken to be a fiction is horribly true,” Paul told us. It’s the day after Titan’s Doctor Who Day (see page 87), the first issue of This Damned Band has been on sale for a few weeks, and it’s already drawn an enthusiastic response. “We’ve had brilliant reviews. I think people have really cottoned on to what we’re doing.
“My model for this was the way that, for a brief period in the mid ’70s, loads of people in rock
bands were supposedly gay. Mick Jagger used to insist he was gay and having an affair with David Bowie! And Bowie himself – whether or not he was even vaguely bisexual is open to question. But what if one of their other pretensions turned out to actually be true?”
Motherfather don’t seem like committed devotees of the dark arts. There’s space cadet frontman Justin, domesticated guitarist Kev, sex pest bassist Alex, archetypal drummer Bob and sidelined original member Clive. “The sheer amount of money slopping around in rock in the 1970s meant that every small gesture became exaggerated. Band members’ personalities were exaggerated too.”
In hindsight, the occult fad feels like a blip in history. “You could buy a black mass as a two volume LP set! It was extraordinary. And Dennis Wheatley, who was this 1920s potboiler author, suddenly becomes an international bestseller. You just cannot imagine Marvel doing a comic called Son of Satan now, can you?”
But why did the culture turn inwards to the esoteric? “I think it was a reaction to the violence of the decade – everything from Vietnam to Baader-Meinhof. People were seeing in their living rooms, for the first time, scenes of extreme violence. And judging by the levels of lead in the air back then, a lot of people have said that there might even be a chemical basis for that violence.
“I remember that feeling. I remember sitting in my dad’s insurance office in a tiny town in Wiltshire and being surrounded by threatening skinheads – who’d presumably come in to check their life policy! The generation that came along after World War II, the hippie generation, thought utopia was on the way, and that went sour so fast and those ideas just hit the ground. With that and the economic collapse and the violence, you can sort of see why a lot of people started looking into the darker corners of the occult.”
Dabblers and devotees
Was there anything more to it than just a bit of spooky glamour? Were any of these bands sincere in their beliefs? “I find the occultism of those times quite charmingly naive and romantic, actually,” Paul laughs. “They’re certainly worshipping a Lucifer who is misunderstood. They’re basically worshipping a good god, a god of light who they have clothed in a Luciferian dress to allow themselves to feel slightly cooler. But then there were also people like Crowley, whose work I’m fascinated by and who I think is a genuinely interesting student of the human psyche. A conman, to a certain extent, but a good one, and those
two things are not incompatible with each other.
“Do you know about the Oath of the Abyss?” Paul asks, suddenly. “It’s an oath that Crowley made certain people take, which he said was guaranteed to send anyone insane. It’s very simple: you swear to find meaning in everything that happens. I don’t think I would last a day! But isn’t it interesting that he conceived and formulated and codified something so seditious and dangerous in the human psyche as a question? That sums him up, really. He’s a genuinely interesting figure.”
Comics themselves have a long history with the occult. There’s Grant Morrison, perhaps the most outspoken writer of his generation on the subject and Alan Moore who, on the eve of his 50th birthday, declared himself a practising magician. And as a subject matter it’s everywhere. You’ll rarely find an issue of 2000
AD these days with no occult themed strip; Kieron Gillen’s
Phonogram mixes music with magic, and Marvel’s Dr Strange is soon to conquer cinema screens with Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, fulfilling the role of the sorceror supreme.
The power of archetypes
What’s the link? “I think it’s the business of archetypes. So many of us have had encounters or contact experiences with what we think of as otherworldly powers, myself in an Anglican context. I was also a Wiccan practitioner and I never fell out of love with that. They are very much about using the power of archetypes to heal oneself. It’s not as simple as ‘I wish I was Superman and could beat the bullies’. It’s reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men when I was in particularly bad places as a kid. That healed something inside of me using the power of archetypes. Superhero comic writing and magick are not very far divorced from each other. I think that explains a lot about Grant, Alan and maybe me too.” Is the devil in This Damned
Band the Christian devil? Has Cornell worked out the cosmology to this universe? “To some degree. I asked for something scary and not horns and a tail and all that from Tony. And I mentioned multiple faces, because I was thinking of one of the angels from Revelation who has a sword for a tongue. He’s provided the visual of that devil very well. I don’t myself believe in a sentient form of evil. I think
there are people who are shit. But in fictional terms I wanted to present the band with something that was much more than they were expecting and actually disconnected enough from fictional versions they would have seen.”
So this isn’t a Hammer horror evil? “He communicates with the band, but he’s obviously a step up from what they can deal with. And he remains very much in the background until the awful things play out, so they’re never quite sure of the reality of the situation they’re in until too late.”
Hell is (not) other people
Aside from the cosmic weirdness,
This Damned Band is a very character-led comic. There’s the band, of course, and also the women who surround them – wives and groupies, mostly, but well developed, and dealing with this situation very differently from the band. “They’re hugely ignored by most of the band members. Summerflower, the groupie who is into the mystic, she knows what’s going on way before the band do, but they continually ignore and don’t even register what she’s saying to them. This is all about men missing their better judgement and missing the better judgement of other people. Summerflower’s magic comes to be really important, especially in the haunted chateau scenes...”
And how about the camera crew who are filming all of the craziness as it goes down? To what extent will we get to know them? “We’re going to see them when things get really fraught. We always remember that they’re there and that they might be affected by what’s in front of them.” Cornell has spoken in the past of sitcom Parks and Recreation as a direct influence on the series. “In Parks and Rec they let themselves do impossible things from time to time, like having scenes with people alone in the middle of the forest, but we don’t do that. We remember that people are there holding the cameras. Tony is very good at remembering how many cameras they’ve got and how many different angles they can take and things like that.”
How did their collaboration come about? “Dark Horse gave me a selection of three or four artists and I loved what they showed
SUPERHERO COMIC WRITING AND MAGICK ARE NOT FAR DIVORCED FROM EACH OTHER. I THINK THAT EXPLAINS A LOT
me of his. He looked incredibly versatile and that’s turned out to be the case. You should hear Tony talk about his fashion research and the way people looked then. He’s gone for ’70s beauty as well. Aesthetic standards have changed in people as well as fashion. Not only have these guys been clothed correctly, they are also the sort of people who would have risen to fame on the basis of their looks at the time. And Lovern, the colourist, the way that he can add to a scene with a very ’70s palette...”
Will Motherfather end up in heaven or hell? Paul’s not saying. But he’s excited about what’s next for him: a new graphic novel set in the World Of Warcraft movie universe. Bonds Of Brotherhood comes out in mid 2016, drawn by Mat Broome and published by Legendary Pictures’ own imprint, Legendary Comics. “I really enjoyed doing that. It’s the prologue to the movie and features characters who are in it. I can’t say who they are!”
The big question about that film, of course, is: will it be any good? After all, video games adaptations haven’t exactly had a stellar hit rate so far. “I’ve seen the movie in an early version and it’s incredible,” Paul
I LOVE SEEING HOW AN ARTIST HAS BUILT ON WHAT I DESCRIBED AND BROUGHT NEW THINGS TO THE TABLE
reveals. “It’s got a Star Wars- y vibe to it. It’s a really accessible, highly emotional, highly character-based fantasy movie – and how often do you get that? It feels ready. It’s got that wholeness, that satisfyingness of something like Lord Of The
Rings. It’s Duncan Jones, who I met and talked to briefly about this. Mat’s had wonderful access to draw the various characters and monsters involved.” This itself could be seen as a tenuous link back to This
Damned Band – well, if you squint a bit. Duncan Jones is, of course, the son of David Bowie.
Taking comics seriously
Cornell’s career has been long been diverse. There’s Doctor Who, of course, of which he remains a passionate fan. After a couple of early false starts, his novels have broken through with the Shadow
Police series, London Falling and its sequel, The Severed Streets, winning a new fanbase. But he keep coming back to comics.
“I like working with a small team,” he explains. “You can
make tiny adjustments at the last moment – changing a little bit of dialogue to suit an expression. It’s you, the artist, the colourist and the editor, and that’s a really good feeling. I love getting pages of art in my inbox and seeing how an artist has built on what I have described.”
But what is it about the medium that’s so special? What keeps him excited about comics? “If television and film are pareddown life, are taking a selection of scenes out of what might be seen as the stream of reality and cutting in the right places to create an effect, then comics are even more precise. You have to choose single images and cut between them at the right points. I think that with every movement down to a finer grain, something is gained. So, from streaming reality to long cuts in cinema and television to single images in comics, I think our brain is engaged in a different way. You can feel the beat of the number of panels per page in a comic, as Alan Moore proved so famously, and you can influence the reader in many unconscious ways, such as setting up in the last panel [on a page] an expectation of what’s going to be the first thing on the page turn.
“I really enjoy artists who will break the unconscious visual grammar of a page setup in order to disturb the reader. One of the easiest ways to do that is to have characters run off into the distance on the right-hand page, in the bottom left-hand corner. It feels disturbing, there’s a sense of wrongness about it! I think there’s a level of control that’s possible in comics that you get in very few places. The more we unearth of what comics artists in particular are doing instinctively and unconsciously and the more we bring into open skill sets, the better. There may be a lot more to discover and a lot more ways of doing things.”
Above: This Damned
Band is told as if we’re seeing a film crew making a documentary about the band. Dark Horse is promoting it as “Spinal Tap meets
Ghostbusters”. It’s rude and funny and definitely not for kids.
This page: Paul Cornell says this black comedy takes swipes at specific targets, “with our band as avatars of many different rock legends.” Any resemblance to persons living or dead... is purely satirical.
This page: Paul is full of praise for artist Tony Parker’s skill at depicting characters who fit the place and time. “Tony’s wry, expressive character work, sense of comic timing and ability to change styles contribute hugely to the effect.”
Above: The series is “a depiction of how extreme the life of a touring band was back then, with some big emotions at its heart,” Paul says. “It’s also often very
silly. As well as sometimes disturbing, and sometimes quite tender. I hope it rocks.”