Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Soundtrack to Cerebus (Restoration)

Mara Sedlins:

This week we’re excited to be wrapping up restoration work on the C & S I Trauma pages. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to spend the time necessary to bring these pages as close as possible to the original intention. It’s very satisfying to look back at a page after spending hours absorbed in its details, toggle the visibility of my “adjustments” layer(s), and watch the time-damaged image heal itself and come into focus.

Not to say that the absorbed-in-details work isn’t sometimes tedious. For these time-intensive pages in particular, the thing that’s saved my sanity (I think!) is listening to an almost-constant stream of music while working. There’s evidence that listening to music while doing the kinds of immersive, repetitive tasks involved in restoration work actually improves productivity too, by improving your mood and facilitating a state of “relaxed focus.”

The choice of music is crucial, though. Some types of music that work better for these purposes than others - like, Motörhead wouldn’t be ideal. The best music to work to should be ambient, mellow, without too many highs or lows in the sound, repetitive, familiar, and obviously something that you like. Lyrics can be distracting, although this isn’t as important for non-verbal tasks. The presence of music has been such an integral part of my work experience that I’ve come to think of my choice of what to listen to as almost part of the restoration process, to think of myself as a curator of Mara-optimizing sounds.

I wonder how common it is to listen to music while creating comics? What did Dave and Gerhard listen to while working on Cerebus? Or are there songs that aficionados of the series associate with particular issues, that you were listening to while you read?

I didn’t see the article I linked to above until just now, so I’ve been making my choices through trial and error, mostly just listening to stuff I like and then changing it if it gets too distracting. Putting the same album on repeat works really well. If the music’s too slow, though, it’s easy to get bogged down in details that won’t show up on the page - so as we approach our target deadline for finishing cleanup, I’ve been opting for music with a faster beat.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that last week I noticed a particularly beautiful confluence of music choice with the page I was working on. Since I was looking for faster music, a friend introduced me to footwork - specifically, this album. The music (and art) that I like best is emotionally complex, and these songs definitely meet that requirement. They’re fast and energetic, rhythmically fascinating, while having a depth and melodic flow that create a state of intense focus without being intrusive.

I listened to that EP over and over while working on Issue 75, page 20 (phonebook page 492), a Trauma One page with shrunk tone in every panel. It was only as I finished cleaning the last panel that I zoomed out and took in what was being depicted, the sampled and deconstructed lyrics still running through my head:
"I’m rollin’ down a lonely highway
Asking god to please forgive me
I’m rollin’ down a lonely highway
She’ll come back and she’ll forgive me"
(And, inexplicably: “We got tamales”)

(The last track on the EP, “Broken Heart” runs in obvious parallel too.)

This page, in isolation, may be my favorite yet. In focusing on the restoration work I’ve been enjoying my imaginations about the plot nearly as much as reading the book itself (if you’re interested in my half-made-up plot summary of Church & State I, see the response to Reginald’s comment on my last blog post).

Thinking about sample-based music more broadly, I realized that there are not only emotional and thematic parallels between what I’ve been listening to and the work I’m restoring, but structural and creative parallels as well. One of the principal features of Cerebus (from what I’ve read) is the way Dave creatively parodied ("sampled"?) characters from literature, history, and other comics. By situating these references within a new context, he created a work that became more than the sum of its parts, just as sampling in music - or, in visual art, collage - recycles existing elements to create something new and valuable in its own right (despite legal controversies over copyright infringement). Much of the artwork in Cerebus could literally be considered mixed-media collage as well, if you consider the combination of line drawing with cut-out pieces of tone and xeroxes.

To me, one of the appeals of collage-based work is that the creation process appears transparent to the casual observer. You can see what the thing is made out of and imaging putting it together yourself. You can see the "mistakes," the edges of things. This is especially true looking at the original art pages for Cerebus, even being a step removed working with black and white scans. In the restoration and printing processes, this textural quality gets smoothed and refined. After all, the intended final product was always a two-dimensional black and white image. The edges of the tone are supposed to disappear into the surrounding black ink. The blue pencil lines were never meant to be visible.

One of the ongoing decisions we have to make in restoring the work is how much process ends up being visible. Ultimately, what adds to a viewer’s experience of the page, and what distracts? In any case, it’s been a privilege to work with these unrefined, imperfect, process-transparent, and now time-distorted pages. I’m sure this in large part explains the pleasure of owning original art in the first place, too.


Paul Slade said...

Choice of music while writing prose is a slightly different matter, because avoiding lyrics there is even more important and any music with too strong a beat will "fight" the rhythm of the sentence you're trying to write.

For me, Brian Eno's ambient albums are always a good choice, as are Kenji Kawai's Ghost in the Shell soundtrack work. World music's often useful too - although again there's that proviso about strong beats - because having the lyrics in a language I don't understand avoids the interference problem. At one point, I was even playing an album of Gregorian chants softly in the background as I worked. Oddly, I find silence can be even more obstructive than the wrong music.

Will Collier said...

Dave recommended songs for reading particular issues with a few times. Notable was the Cars' "Why Can't I Have You" for (I believe) the very issue you pulled the samples from for this post.

Jason Winter said...

Wonderful work on the restoration. Always great to see the pages taking shape.

When I'm drawing my pages, I'll go on youtube and play rain and thunder sounds, then in another tab I'll play some ambient techno. Aes Dana, Solar Fields, H.U.V.A Network. During the inking/coloring phase, I'll usually listen to pop music. Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Belle and Sebastion, that sort of thing.

iestyn said...

Whilst I'm doing my mindless work or when I'm doing something creative I generally want something with some serious bang to it - a driving drum and guitar sound, with some anger or darkness.

At the moment I've been listening to some doom and stoner rock bands - Jex Thoth, Ruby the Hatchet, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Tweak Bird and Black Mountain have been doing it for me.

Cerebus Restoration said...

It's so interesting to read about other people's music/work habits - I'll definitely give some of these bands a listen :)


Tony Dunlop said...

Years ago in graduate school if I had something really intense to work on, that required considerable insight and ingenuity, there was only one thing for it: a Mozart string quartet. Like a shot of...well, something...straight into the brain.
It didn't always lead to said insight, but I definitely recall a smoother thought process when one of those was playing.

David Kilroy said...

Post Jaka's Story, Dave remarked in Aardvark Comment that he worked in silence and considered Cerebus' own world-- as well as comix in general --to be free of music. "My idea of paradise."

(Note that there's no band in Pud's Tavern.)

Tony Dunlop said...

No music, yet arguably the second-most important character is a dancer...?

Sean R said...


There are multiple references to music through the series. Off the top of my head-- the bar character at the end of 111/112 complaining about the newly-imposed Cirinist rule. "No music. No dancing." Multiple references to Toby the Magician ("They're ALL drummers.")

Also, while Dave worked in silence later, that's not necessarily true for Church and State I and II which have several chapters named after songs. "Sane As it Ever Was" coming to mind immediately.

Joshua Leto said...

This page is the single Cerebus page that is most locked in my memory.

It is from my favorite issue, and the flow of the page is, to me, the ultimate example of Dave Sim, storyteller.

Tony again said...

And "So" (with Astoria the prisoner) was named after a then-recent Peter Gabriel album.

Jason Winter also said...

And Let's not forget "Mind Games". Taken from the John Lennon tune.

Eddie said...

There are a lot of music references around the Church and State era, both in the book and in the Notes and Letters sections. Canadian band "Rough Trade" with lead singer "Carole Pope" was used for the title of "Rough Pope" in C&S vol 1 (as well as Henry Wotton using "Rough Trade" in his speech in Reads). "Another Thing Coming was a title for one of the C&S issues and a song from the 80's by Judas Priest (get it?), which I always thought meant that symbolically, "Thrunk" was on his way to confront Most Holy. "Walking on the Moon" by the Police for the last book of C&S, "Mystery Achievement," the title of the last book in Jaka's Story was a Pretenders' song. Somebody wrote a letter in saying Dave looked like George Thorogood, Dave discussed going to a Eric Clapton show where Keith Richards showed up (#92? #93?). The part in Minds referencing the line from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." despite all this, I don't think Dave was ever a music person, which has only increased more so over the ensuing years (except for Hip Hop in the clubs, which I think he discussed in the back of... Latter Days? ).

Sometime around "Fall and The River," I sent him a package containing a collection of songs and music videos that I listened to while reading Cerebus over the years, along with an explanation of how they interwove and connected and resonated with each other and my interpretation of the storyline, and how inspirational I found it all (I may have even included the video for Talk Talk's "It's My Life" and explained how it seemed like the perfect complement to the Puma Blues, especially since when I was reading it, the video "just happened" to start playing on the tv).

He replied that while he appreciated all the trouble I went to, he wasn't interested in music or music lyrics at all, and didn't find anything of note in what I had sent him, but that he was interested in my analysis and commentary. In hindsight, explaining how Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore" connects with Cerebus #5 and the parts of "Flight" with the Pigts is probably much more ineteresting than actually listening to the song itself.

Funnily enough, a couple of times I've had to try and get some hard to find songs/lyrics as part of the research for "The Strange Death of Alex Raymond."

Sean R said...

Hey Eddie,

Well, I'D be interested in your song selection and analysis :) Any chance of you sending it to Tim to possibly post here?

JLH said...

And to add to the list of titles taken from songs, issue 64 was titled "Never Pray for Change", which, according to the Biweekly edition of the issue, was a misheard lyric of Fleetwood Mac's "Never Break the Chain".

Eddie said...

Hey Sean! Fortunately, it's gone to the Great Apple Mac Classic II in the Sky (imagine trying to do digital restoration with one of those!). I say fortunately because I would probably find it pretty embarrassing now (I just remembered that I also sent him panels from "V for Vendetta" juxtaposed to the lyrics for "I am the Walrus." Gotta love youthful exuberance. Still have a copy of that one lying around somewhere though).

I think you're probably in the minority about wanting to read something so idiosyncratic like that (as in being the ONLY one who would be interested), but a variation might make good Twitter poll; "What music do you listen to when reading Cerebus" or "What pieces of music do you find to go really well with Cerebus," and then having the results posted here, since there are probably a lot of comic book fans who are also big music fans.

I think many of us came across Cerebus and similar quality of comics around the same time we began to seek out and find better kinds of music than the top 10 stuff that being pumped to us over the radio ("All Corey Hart! All Bryan Adams! All Loverboy! All Canadian! And now, for our American Content...Madonna!"), so it makes sense that listening to music would be part of our formative comic book reading experience, probably with music that meant as much to us as the comics we were reading did (and do). I've found that the piece of music one finds to go well with a favourite comic can be pretty idiosyncratic and highly personal, since a lot of times the music and comic have merged into the same experience (self-induced ideasthesia for fun!) and thereby linking the two together, but at the same time it can be interesting to learn what other people "perceive." Even though it's probably akin to asking someone what they hear when they look at a Rorschach Blot.

I mean, it wasn't just with Cerebus; Watchmen is forever linked in my head with the album "Dead Cities" by The Future Sound of London. "The Kindly Ones" trade of Sandman is Faith No More's "King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime," but issue #74 of Sandman with the beautiful J. Muth Japanese-esq brush strokes is the remix version of the Cure's song "The Walk."

The band "theThe" was always a major part of Cerebus for me, especially the album "Soul Mining" (with a name like "theThe" is it any wonder Dave became a monoTHEist?) with it's themes and lyrics and types of music, although songs from other albums also seems to highly resonate with Cerebus to me ("Gravitate to Me" with the Jupiter sequence in Minds, and also with the cover of "The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul" by Douglas Adams, which also reminds me of the tea tray set on the back of the issue with the Look A Likes), "Kingdom of Rain," a duet with Sinead O'Conner and Jaka's story (I have yet to meet a female who isn't captivated by that song). The song and lyrics to "Voidy Numbness" that came out around the same time as "Form and Void" symbolizes Earnest Hemingway for me and the part in Cerebus just before he bites the gunpowder dust. Parts of the album "Beaucoup Fish" by the band Underworld with "Fall and the River" which came out around the same time, although the video for "Jumbo" from the same album (which I found afterwards) seems like an allegory for all of Going Home and Form and Void to me.

See? You shouldn't have gotten me started :)

Travis Pelkie said...

And "The Night Before" is from a Beatles song, too, I believe.

JLH said...

And for the record, an instance of music existing in Cerebus' world can be found in issue 35, where drunk Cerebus sings a round of "The Barmaid and the Watchdog".

Eddie said...

And in the beginning of the Secret Sacred Wars (issue 80) where he and the Drew Bros. drunkenly sing together (I'm noticing a pattern here). Can't recall if there were ever and musical instruments depicted ( other than in BWS's Cerebus story).

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