TUCKED IN THE BACK of Gabe Soria’s new graphic novel is an addendum that skewers the Eagles, Phil Spector, and the cultural morass of 1970s Los Angeles. The book is a short, tragicomic ride flecked with oddball characters tracing the outline of a man falling from the edge of fame back into his own personal dysfunction. As the story closes, Frank Bonisteel white knuckles a stolen Corvette out of Los Angeles, only to be antagonized by the sunniness of a Southland disc jockey who credits a song Bonisteel wrote to the owner of the car he’s fleeing town in. While it’s not the centerpiece of the book, this story underscores Soria’s thematic charisma.
Soria is probably best known for Life Sucks, his teenage angst vampire collaboration with Harvey Award winner Jessica Abel, or for his stint on DC’s Batman ’66. But his portfolio is much more diverse: he got his start in Los Angeles as a music journalist writing for Fiz, before moving on to Arthur, The Oxford American, and the Guardian.
For his new book Murder Ballads, published by Z2 Comics, Soria collaborated with artists Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt as well as blues musician Robert Finley and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (who produced a soundtrack for Soria’s story of a down-on-his-luck record label owner and two African-American musicians). That’s a lot of stewards, and the book could have leapt off the track, especially with the switch in artists midway through. But Soria’s faculty for story makes sure that for all of its lowdown dark heartedness, the graphic novel remains convincing and even mythlike.
Woven into the book’s tapestry of fringe musicians and wannabe music mavens is a nuanced portrait of modern-day racism. Soria’s examination of a hepcat loser looking to cash in on a talented musical duo of outsiders isn’t a purely solemn ride to hell. Yes, it’s a submersion into dysfunction, addiction, and betrayal, but it’s also a dynamic celebration of music. Soria’s characters (the good, the bad, and the ambiguous) embrace songs as much for their restorative abilities as for the chance to strike it rich. Murder Ballads can also be very funny. Soria has a knack for stringing humor through desperation’s noose. His hybrid of noir and scenester parody opens, for instance, with Mary, the label owner’s wife and the conscience of the book, telling her ne’er-do-well husband, “You spent every cent we had and didn’t have on records that no one wanted to buy.”
HENRY CHERRY: I want to talk a little bit about race because there’s a thematic structure of race in your story that you handle with — sometimes it’s really subtle, and sometimes it’s right there in your face. It feels to me like Nate (Theodore, Soria’s label-owning protagonist) was a flashlight shining on a legacy of racism. Sometimes he’s a part of it, sometimes he’s just watching it.
GABE SORIA: I didn’t mean to be a heavy-handed about the relationship between white folks and black folks in the music industry. But Nate does represent somebody, a lot of folks. He’s like a dude who wants to be down but misses the essential nature of being down. [Laughs.] One essential bit is seeing these people you want to be your friends as actual, real, human beings. Does that make any sense?
Absolutely. Was that one of your initial agendas, to incorporate modern racial inequalities into the story?
No, it grew and developed as the story did. I started wanting to put more of that stuff in. At the same time, I didn’t want to make it seem like these white folks suck and these black folks are heroes. I didn’t want that to be the takeaway.
What was the genesis of Murder Ballads? You’ve worked on this book for a long time. When did the first kernel of the idea come to life?
It came to me in Texas, a half-formed “What if?” My idea was to write a story inspired by Alan Lomax, the musicologist who first recorded Lead Belly, Son House, and Muddy Waters. The “What if?” was, “What if I grafted that onto a crime story, a noir tale?” That idea bugged me for years. I started writing a film script. I started writing notes: copious notes; notes, notes, notes. Over the years, I would open up the file on my computer and not look at it, like, “Nah, man.” It sat there and I didn’t really know what to do with it, and like 10 years after I first had the idea, I said, “Hey the ideal thing to do with this would be to have music with it.” That’s where Dan came in. I texted him while I was walking down the street, “Hey, you know, I have this idea for this comic. Would you want to do a soundtrack for it if I ever got it off the ground?” And his one-word response to me was, “Duh.”
Let’s talk about some of the actual music that you seeded into the story. Zappa and Lead Belly and Ike Turner and Royal Trux and Howlin’ Wolf all appear either by name or as the authors of lyrics strung throughout the text. Their music builds a framework around your characters, punctuating moods. Did you include these references for specific literary purposes or simply because you wanted to cite good lyrics?
I chose them for literary and character-building purposes. I’m very surprised and glad — actually, not surprised — that you recognize the Royal Trux lyrics. That song that Nate sings to himself in the bar, “Turn of the Century,” is one of the most beautiful and desolate, majestic, lonely songs I’ve ever heard. It feels to me like driving around on a cold morning, you’ve been up all night, looking for another fix or something like that. It makes sense to me that Nate would be a fan of that band and a fan of that song, in particular. That’s a very important character moment.
In Ulysses, James Joyce would use certain words to allude to the Odyssey. It felt like you were doing something similar with the Zappa reference, the switch at a key moment from Lead Belly to Howlin’ Wolf, and the unidentified lyrics strewn throughout the book — alluding not to a specific epic poem but to the collective epic of American popular song.
Yes. That’s exactly it. All the selections also point toward me. Nate is a part of me. The early panel in which Nate plays a Howlin’ Wolf Real Folk Blues cassette was drawn from a photo reference of my tape. That version of “Killing Floor” is one of the most energetic and most exciting bits of music I’ve ever heard. Nate puts his finger on something important but doesn’t realize the full extent of what he means when he says, “It’s amazing, this black dude from Shreveport knows that Zappa song.”
Yes, it’s that casual racism. You brought up the fact that Nate, in some ways, represents you and probably, in some ways, does not. Did you touch on any personal material?
Yes, I’m a divorced dude. I’ll just say that, yes. There’s a lot of me in Nate and that part of it might point toward me, as well. Yes. A lot of the emotions are real, and in part I used the book to work through some of them. “Exorcise” might not be completely accurate, because when you exorcise something, you get it completely out, right? Catharsis would probably be more fitting. The wounds are still there and the wounds are the things I did to myself.
Let’s stick with the personal for a minute. What was your family life like when you were growing up?
My mom was black from South Central Los Angeles. My dad was Mexican. Even though they were divorced when I was very young, my mom stuck around my dad’s family because they really loved her and she really loved them. We never had any money, but it was a very big and very loving family since all of my aunts and uncles and my grandmother, they were all living within a few blocks. The first 10 years of my life was spent in a small town just riding bikes around. That was interrupted when we moved to Orange County. I spent a few months living in a residential motel across the street from Disneyland. There was actually a documentary made years ago about this phenomenon, they called it Homeless: Motel Kids of Orange County and it was about all these hotels in the Disneyland area that were host to families that were in between homes. That was my life for a few months. Then we moved to South Central LA where my mom was from, and that was the second part of my childhood, young adulthood. I grew up still on the edge and pretty dirt poor down there, riding the bus every day to school, first going far over to 74th Street School and then every day from South Central up to Eagle Rock, did that for six years.
How did you land in New Orleans?
I first came here in 1993, randomly. Accompanied a friend on a drive from USC. He was a year ahead of me and was a member of this really cool punk rock kid clique. I came into their orbit. It was ’93, end of the school year, and Wade asked me if I wanted to ride shotgun back to New Orleans because he didn’t want to drive all the way there by himself. You know how it is. For certain people, it just hits you over the head. I’ve been back for a little over four years now, but I’ve spent multiple years here over the course of the last 24.
Let’s talk about your first published work.
I got into writing through music journalism. When I was 19 years old, I met this dude who worked at a record store near USC. This guy named Graham Gayle. He’s a really cool record store employee, and he was writing for a local Los Angeles music magazine named Fiz. It wasn’t a zine, it was actually a glossy cover magazine, but it had a very zine-like quality, very earnest. I thought it was so cool that you could do something like that. You could go interview bands, talk to them, and have these words published. Through Fiz, I got a job working at a video game magazine published by Larry Flynt. I got to write for Film Threat, I worked for Sci-Fi Universe, and that’s how, basically, my professional writing career started. Over the last 25 years now, I’ve written for a ton of different publications. I can’t even remember. I get surprised sometimes when somebody is like, “I didn’t know you wrote this.” “Oh, shit, did I?”
How did you transition from magazines to comic books?
I moved to New York in 2000, and got a job working at a website called Psycomic. I was an editor there. Through that job, I started meeting a lot of comics professionals in New York. Back then, New York was the center of the comic book universe. A few years after working there, I published my first Batman comic that I did with a gentleman I met through Psycomic, Dean Haspiel. He’s still a good friend of mine to this day. He did the art, I wrote the story. My comics career has been fits and starts for the last 14 years. I’ll get some work, then I won’t get any work for a couple years. I wrote a graphic novel with my friend Jessica Abel called Life Sucks. I did that back in 2008, and since then it’s been a few comics here, a few comics there. And now, finally, in my 44th year, I have seemingly steady comics work, and have some momentum going with Murder Ballads.
What was the comic book that first caught your eye?
In the ’70s, I would read anything. My brother would give them to me, my uncle would give them to me. I was getting an education in them and not even realizing it. A comic book that’s really formative, that taught me that you could tell interesting stories in comic books, I have to look it up right now. It was a run of Detective Comics and it’s from the late ’70s, Batman and the Joker. The Joker used this thing called Joker Fish to murder people. Batman’s Detective Comics, number 475. That stuff is so frightening and so weird and so chilling and so good that it’s something that I think back on all the time. But I don’t want to give you the impression that I only read such serious dark comics, because that’s not me at all.
Did you have influences that were particularly visual, whether they were comic artists or outside the comic realm?
Yes. I could talk about Jim Aparo. I could talk about Jack Kirby. Walt Simonson, P. Craig Russell. There’s this woman, Cynthia Martin, who was an artist on Marvel’s Star Wars comics, toward the end of their run in 1985. She’s so good. Bernie Wrightson, moderns like Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, and Adrian Tomine. I wanted to be an artist when I was younger. There was an exhibit at LACMA that I saw on a field trip with my AP English class. It was a replica of the Degenerate Art exhibit that the Nazis put on after they came to power. That exhibit introduced me to Otto Dix, Egon Schiele. All that stuff to me — it was like a lightning bolt to my head. In college, I happened to read a biography of Jackson Pollock. That was the first time I was exposed to Jackson Pollock’s art. That was another lightning bolt to my head. I saw the paintings and thought, “That fucking makes sense to me.” I understood it on some level. That and Survival Research Laboratories, that art makes sense to me. I look at it and go, “Yes, that’s fucking art.” It’s weird, destructive, bizarre, and I dig it. The Hudson River School Painters as well. I’m serious. The Hudson River School.
Of the five songs recorded for Murder Ballads, do you have a favorite?
That’s a hard one. No, it’s like being a Catholic mom, I can’t pick which of my babies I love the most. Initially, it was going to be a five-issue comic book miniseries. I was going to write each of the issues around a thematic song. Those five scenarios became what I gave to Dan to think about while he was writing and recording. I wrote a two-page document explaining what each of the songs was about and what that song should sound like. I only had a title for one of them, “The Empty Arms.” So I wrote these five little paragraphs to sum up, like Brian Eno. This was Eno’s game with musicians, something he did for a David Bowie recording. He wrote these biographical sketches for each of the musicians, almost like science fiction short stories. He gave one to each musician, and had them think about playing these characters while making a David Bowie record. That’s what this was for me. The song called “Three Jumpers,” comes from me telling Dan I want a song that was influenced by Macbeth. I was kind of obsessed by the idea of three witches, et cetera. Once Dan and I were talking about it, he came back and said, “Oh, how about this?” He wrote this amazing song. I already had a sense of what the end of the book was going to be, but once “Three Jumpers” was written I knew concretely how to do it.
Reading Murder Ballads, I thought of Hustle and Flow and Harry Crews. So I wanted to ask about your non-musical influences.
I enjoyed Hustle and Flow quite of bit. Actually, when that film came out, I was like, “God damn it, somebody got to it before me.” That gave me something to steer away from, even though I really did enjoy the film. Harry Crews as an author, I love, but I didn’t think of his work at all when I was writing this. I love books like that, Scar Lover. What’s the one that’s set here in New Orleans, The Knockout Artist. I thought a lot about Jim Thompson. It would’ve been great to write the book as one of those Vintage paperback editions. If Murder Ballads was a novel, it would be in the Vintage Black Lizard crime library. It would have a cover that looked like one of the Jim Thompson or David Goodis books they publish. And I also thought a lot about a music writer I really love, a gentleman by the name of Peter Guralnick. Guralnick even makes an appearance in Murder Ballads. I believe Nate’s wife, Mary, is reading Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music at some point. He’s one of the most evocative music writers, just a beautiful teller of stories. Nate probably read Peter Guralnick and wanted to be the guy, but lacked the insight to actually do it.
Eventually music takes over the characters, draping them with corruption. There’s not a lot of musical salvation.
I do believe music can heal, but what I was trying to get across was that you have to be open to it. I wanted the music to get darker in the book, because Nate loses his way. But do I believe that music can heal and transcend you and transport you? That’s my life, dude. I think about music constantly and I think about how fucking weird and mystical it is and how I can hear a song and it can take me somewhere. Places I sometimes don’t want to go, also places I want to be — but music itself, it’s grizzly. And you’re ultimately responsible for your own redemption.
Is that the heart of Murder Ballads?
Yes, ultimately, the moral is that you have got to fucking take responsibility for yourself. Nate’s got to take responsibility for what he’s done and I reckon that like 99 percent of fuck-ups come from losing sight of what you’re actually trying to do. That’s what happens to Nate. Nate loses sight. That’s a real fear.