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Bin There, Found That: Jazz & Comics Part 2 – Reading Hard Bop

A column article, Bin There Found That by: Chris Wunderlich

Before I clarify my title, I want to share two things. The first is an article I’ve made mention of before, published in 1992 in Wizard Magazine ’s 16th issue. The title of the article was “Brutes and Babes.” It was a how-to article written by Bart Sears about drawing comic book characters, and it specifically focused on the nature of the character being drawn and how each of their actions should reflect that nature. Now, when I think of Bart Sears, brutes and babes are definitely two things that come to mind. When I think of Wizard Magazine and comics in 1992, again, that’s a pretty good description of the scene. If your comic didn’t feature disturbingly inaccurate, over-the-top, muscle bursting gun toting brutes or babes, it just wasn’t cool.

X-Force #1

The amazing thing about Sears’s article isn’t his great advice on where to put the lines and bend the poses, it’s his advice on where to look next. Before ending his piece, Sears insists potential artists go out and buy Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. Sure, this makes perfect sense in retrospect, but given the context (that’s the muscle n’ gun scene of the early 90s comic boom) it’s profound. Kids were buying more comics than they were reading and surely The Spirit wasn’t the target of their infatuation. Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Whilce Portacio drew the pin-ups everybody wanted on their walls, but still Sears has the clarity of mind to suggest a classic.

What does this have to do with jazz? Well, it reminded me of a similar article I’d read, an interview/profile of Michael Bublé from the Liverpool Daily Post in 2004. For those unaware, Bublé is a Canadian pop star who began his career singing crooner favourites. In this interview Bublé professes his love for an old vocal jazz group called the Mills Brothers. When asked if he would be composing his own music, he admits to not being a great writer. Having heard his original material, I agree. As his popularity soared and his career throttled forward, Bublé became less of a modern-day Sinatra and more of a male Celine Dion.

A decent, jazzy cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”? Bublé had potential…

As an artist, Bart Sears was clearly inspired by one of the all-time greats, yet his muscle-bound brutes and scantily clad babes fit in perfectly with the anatomically incorrect pouch-fest of 1992. His art doesn’t necessarily look like Will Eisner’s, but it’s clear he’s learned a thing or two. Sears’s characters are consistently drawn to suit their distinct personalities; not just in costume and size, but in expression and motion. Superman doesn’t fly the same way as Guy Gardner and Captain Atom doesn’t stand the same way Power Girl does. This is the lesson he teaches in “Brutes and Babes” and I think it makes his art look sleek, sexy and animated. While his work has aged better than many of his contemporaries, it is clear Sears was still drawing what the 90s demanded—brutes and babes.

Sears loved to draw those babes!

Bart Sears sure knows how to draw those brutes… and babes!

Bublé also took his cues from the greats of his medium. At a time when pop music was still very “Britney Spears,” Bublé should have caused a stir. Instead, he seemed to fit in. Hearing a Bublé single next to a new Beyoncé hit wasn’t uncommon. His influences were instantly noticeable and it makes his early music really stand out. Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain his original, retrospective approach to pop and fell into providing exactly what the industry demanded. Crap.

Both Sears and Bublé were enthusiasts of the classics. When they suddenly became culturally significant themselves, they made their influences clear but conformed to the status quo (albeit with varying results). Where would they be now if they’d taken their inspiration and ran in different directions, away from the popular concepts of the day? Bublé probably wouldn’t have brought jazz back to the public forefront (remember, he admitted he isn’t the best writer), but Bart Sears? I’d like to see him make some Hard Bop Comics.

That’s Right, I Want My Hard Bop Comics!

So what do I mean by Hard Bop Comics? For that explanation, I’ll need to delve into the term as it’s used in jazz. Also, I understand labeling is basically asking for trouble (especially when dealing with a musical genre), but understand this is my interpretation. I’m using the labels to make a point, not to carefully pigeon-hole artists. You ever tell a metalhead there’s no discernible difference between thrash-core and speed-metal? It spells trouble. That’s not my intention.

Hard bop is a term used to describe a movement in jazz starting around the 1950s. Jazz had taken a number of different forms by this point, with the easy-listening sounds of Percy Faith and Lawrence Welk in stark contrast to the virtuosic styling of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s bebop. When bebop musicians started incorporating different musical styles, hard bop was born.

It was a style that borrowed from just about every corner of the musical spectrum. Some musicians favored soulful grooves, some the blues, some gospel. It was a variable cornucopia of flavours, all played with a bebop attitude. In many ways it sounded as though these musicians still had something to prove. If the point of bebop was to take an instrument to its limit, hard bop proved it could be done in any context. If bebop musicians wanted to prove they could play jazz faster, harder and with more guts, hard bop wanted to prove they could do it to other genres.

This era of jazz gave birth to some of the most fascinating compositions in the standards canon. Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas” gave us an incredibly catchy groove and unforgettable melody. Charles Mingus showed us that jazz could take on the ferocity of a rollicking gospel band. Art Blakey and Horace Silver decided to tackle the newly emerging R&B sound and jazz had never been funkier. Hard bop took popular, accessible styles and added virtuosic solos, complex chord voicings and the unique energy of jazz.

So what is a Hard Bop Comic? We have plenty of Hard Bop Comics right now: Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Men, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, Brandon Graham’s King City, Joe Casey’s Godland and David Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Young Liars. Of course, these are just some of the more obvious examples.

When I think of really great comics, there’s plenty that come to mind. Scalped, for instance, is brilliant but it’s no Hard Bop Comic. It’s a crime drama with amazing characters, art and plot twists, but it never goes off the rails. It doesn’t trick you with an accessible groove and catchy melody only to blow you away with a lip-numbing solo. Hard Bop Comics do.

Young Liars

So it looks like we have a formula: take one or more accessible, culturally significant influences and go mad. Don’t settle for reflecting that influence—elevate it. Use a Japanese influenced neo-metropolis as the backbone for a world where cats are second only to puns. Take some of the most prolific characters in the history of literature and see if you can make worlds collide. Write a seemingly standard crime story and turn it into a balls-to-the-wall fantasy about a prepubescent girl/super-criminal meeting God. Do whatever the heck was going on in The Invisibles.

Bart Sears and Michael Bublé took their timeless inspirations and found themselves conforming to the industry’s standards. Sears would continue to draw awesome comics, bringing Eisner trademarks to the forefront at a time when they were sorely needed while Bublé sold out entirely, only showing the mainstream that jazz could live for mere moments. The point remains, though, that they failed to elevate their influences. They tried playing their virtuosic solos but realized they were only second chairs in a Lawrence Welk big-band, giving up and settling for fluff. Of course, this is all personal preference; some people love fluff.

Shania Twain

Proof. This album sold over 40 million copies.

Want more Hard Bop Comics? Check out Bryan Lee O’Malley’s crazy riff on young adult life in Scott Pilgrim, showing off his chops with one of a kind storytelling influenced by video games, rock n’ roll and film. Dig into the bargain bins for Andrew Helfer’s take on The Shadow. Not only does it screw around with everything you thought you knew about The Shadow, but Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker turn their pulpy artistic cues upside down with delightful results. If you’re in the mood for a Hard Bop Event Comic, don’t be afraid to reread Final Crisis. It’s flawed, but you have to admit Grant Morrison was very serious about his accessible, culturally important influences and taking them farther than we thought they could go. That frequency Superman sang to defeat Darkseid? I like to think it sounded something like this:  

 

 

So, what are your favourite Hard Bop Comics?

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