Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #6 by Drew Barth
Influence is a two-way street. While comics have always worn many of their influences proudly, it gets a little more complicated with music. Musicians will always be fans, but at times it’s a bit more tricky to add that to their work. Legal issues over using characters and being labeled as a novelty act for writing songs about comics typically makes a lot of artists shy away from immersing themselves fully into what they love the most. But with the occasional nod, wink, and reference, many musicians were able to let their fan flag fly.
As always, things start around the 60s. We’ve all heard bits and piece of “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan with its references to Green Lantern and Superman. It’s become such a popular song that DC themselves went and created an actual Sunshine Superman to exist in same universe as Prez and some of their other hippie influenced comics at the time. Couple that with his mention of power rings in “Museum” cements Donovan as one of the first popular acts to really start bringing in silver age comic influences to his music.
But a lot of those are kind of superficial references. Even a band like XTC and their own music referencing Sgt. Rock and Supergirl takes influence from comics, but only as a reference here or there. Other artists are much more intentional when it comes to showing their comic influences. Let’s talk about MF DOOM and Ghostface Killah.
It’s not all that difficult to see where a musician like DOOM receives some of his influences. From the metal mask to the name itself—and the name Viktor Vaughn that he’s used to release music under—we can see Reed Richard’s eternal adversary Doctor Doom integrating itself into DOOM’s musical DNA. Many of his songs include references to the metal-faced villain, lines about himself being that same villain, and copious usage of audio from the old Fantastic Four television show.
Likewise, Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah goes in the same direction with his first solo album titled Ironman and frequently referring to himself as Tony Stark. But they go a step beyond in their love for these characters. It isn’t just using names and audio clips, they want to try to personify these characters in the real world by becoming the villain or hero themselves. Ghostface himself is actually present in the 2008 Iron Man film in a couple deleted scenes.
Another artist was able to take their love and influence and turn it into something more in comics as well. When we look at My Chemical Romance’s song “”It’s Not a Fashion Statement, It’s a Deathwish” and their reference to a line from Neil Gaiman’s character, Death,we’re not just seeing a one-off thing. The band’s singer, Gerard Way, had been training to work in comics for years before that song took him further into rock fame. Sandman, Doom Patrol, and others were fundamental parts of his life and those are the things that would eventually carry him into both The Umbrella Academy as well as his own imprint at DC, Young Animals.
All of these influences, from music to comics and comics to music, finally blend together into this synthesis of what makes each medium completely unique in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s not just that Gwen Stacy is a drummer in a band or that Miles Morales is frequently seen with his headphones singing along to whatever is playing, but rather how the music better informs the comic storytelling. A moment like the juxtaposing of Miles taking his leap of faith whilst “What’s Up Danger” plays around us isn’t just a good match for the moment, it is the moment.
Like much of the soundtrack to the film, “What’s Up Danger” was written specifically with the Spiderverse in mind. Without the abiding influence of Spider-Man in any permutation, the song simply wouldn’t exist. And that’s one of the ways the song is so interesting in both this moment and in terms of how music and comics intersect.
Fans can create works and personas inspired by these characters, but it isn’t often that they’re embraced by the companies that own those characters. Fox, Marvel, and Disney protect their copyrights thoroughly—it’s one of the reasons why Ghostface Killah had to drop his Tony Stark persona. This is why Spider-Verse feels like something new and significant in terms of its treatment of music throughout. A lot of these artists are fans, they grew up either with the comics, the cartoons, or the early 2000s films, and so to see that love on display is incredibly heartening. A moment like the one mentioned above feels like a weird kind of culmination. It is the love of comics, the love of music, and the love of seeing all of them together that made this synthesis of comics and music come together in such a brilliant way.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.