“It is really a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”
—Oliver Sacks in “Musicophilia”
Describing the minds of musicians, the neuologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote, “Professional musicians, in general, possess what most of us would regard as remarkable powers of musical imagery.”
In the case of Claudio Sanchez, the concept of musical imagery opens to include a literal interpretation, in the form of comic books. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sanchez’ recent collection, Kill Audio.
Written by Sanchez with his fiancée Chandra Echert, with art by “Mr. Sheldon” (Sheldon Vella), Kill Audio is a wildly imaginative tale that can be read as a surreal action-adventure, a metaphor-riddled meditation on the nature of art and creativity, and possibly an in-joke to music and pop culture nerds. Boom Studios recently published Kill Audio in a hardcover edition that collects all six issues of the series.
Sanchez may be known best as the singer and writer for Coheed and Cambria, whose eclectic, “fusion of progressive rock, emocore, and highly conceptual” (as allmusic.com aptly describes them) albums have been telling an epic sci-fi story called The Armory Wars, which has also been turned into a comic book series written by Sanchez and published by Boom Studios.
Where Armory Wars presents a sprawling and massive mythology, spread across at least five albums and over a dozen comics, Kill Audio is concise by comparison. At around 200 pages, the story is fast, fun and weird, and possibly offers some unusual insights into Sanchez’ mindset and thoughts on the creative life.
Like the Wizard of Oz on angel dust, Kill Audio begins with Kill Audio (the character) deciding to discover his purpose in life. Described in the opening “Cast of Characters” as “a smart-ass midget,” Kill Audio is immortal and practically indestructible. His quest leads him to gather a misfit collection of friends, and together they journey to the Watchtower (as in “All Along the”) to find Clockwork, the godlike creature who created their world and everyone in it.
“Quirky” doesn’t begin to describe the characters who inhabit the city/world known as “Sight and Sound.” Rather, words like “demented” and “twisted” come to mind. For example, Bone Beaver is a skeleton in a beaver suit who also happens to know an immense about various genres of music. His best pal is a “sleepy hip-hop pillow with a heart of gold” named DJ Bedroom. Then there’s Chicken Coke Daddy, “a sex-starved, oversized chicken with delusions of grandeur and a sweet tooth for cocaine and women, but a lover deep down.”
There are also Lovecraftian elder gods known as Rock, Jazz, Folk, Classical and Electronic, the “fathers” described as “the only logical creators of the ever-growing population of sub-genres.”
“Kill Audio offers us a world that’s part Chuck Jones Porn, part Black Flag Guitar Hero and part Jazz-flavored Pringles,” writes Richard Starkings (creator of Elephantmen and Hip Flask, and letterer of The Killing Joke) in his introduction.
As strange as the story is, Mr. Sheldon’s visuals manage to equal and even surpass the writing throughout Kill Audio. His unhinged-id style brings to mind everything from Tank Girl to Paul Pope, Duckman to Gerald Scarfe’s animation for The Wall, The Maxx to RanXerox. In short, it’s a trip.
Musical and pop cultural allusions abound. References to Bitches Brew stand alongside jokes about “prog” music and its variations. Song lyrics float in the background behind panels and turn up as bits of dialogue.
The point where Kill Audio and the real-world meet seems to be embodied in the title character. The name “Kill Audio” sounds like “Claudio,” and the character even resembles Sanchez, notably sporting a similarly awesome ‘do. Kill Audio looks like a badass-chibi-troll version of Sanchez. He brings to mind a cuter version of Lobo—Lil’ Lobo, you could call him. In an interview with ComicsOnline at Comic-Con, Sanchez reveals that the comic grew out of his design for a vinyl toy.
At times, the story veers close to in-joke territory, where it begins to feel as if it’s presenting a closed and private set of metaphors. According to Rick Marshall, writing for MTV News, Kill Audio “also serves as an ode to the friends and family [Sanchez has] often been kept away from while touring.” To its credit, Kill Audio never goes so far in that direction as to alienate unfamiliar readers.
However, there are interesting contradictions beneath the surface of Kill Audio. Despite being to a large extent about music, not much music is actually made during the story, and when it is, it tends to be stale and mechanical, created by a character who shouldn’t be able to appreciate art.
“The act of creation, in all its forms, is a very potent and beautiful force. But it can easily spiral out of simple ingenuity and into a dark place,” Clockwork explains. It’s a suggestive statement that might echo the tumult within Coheed and Cambria that saw two members leave in recent years.
In “Every End Has a Beginning,” a documentary that accompanies their recent album, Year of the Black Rainbow, Sanchez reveals doubts in his future as a musician after “losing half of the band.”
“There was a moment where, musically, I felt like I had hit a wall,” he says in the film. “I thought, maybe that part of my creativity just wasn’t exciting enough.”
Throughout Kill Audio, there are elements of the story that suggest a crisis of some sort in the minds of the comic’s creators. For example, described as having “no musical creativity,” Kill Audio (the character) was made by Clockwork to control the production of music. To balance the creative forces in the world, Clockwork created a family known as the Voids (similar to Neil Gaiman’s Endless in The Sandman) to control and corall creativity. Elsewhere in the story, music is created to destroy the world of Sight and Sound.
In this light, Kill Audio seems to fall within the category of art about art, and having among its themes that of “art for art’s sake.” The Dictionary of the History of Ideas describes the topic:
“The phrase “art for art’s sake” expresses both a battle cry and a creed; it is an appeal to emotion as well as to mind. Time after time, when artists have felt themselves threatened from one direction or another, and have had to justify themselves and their activities, they have done this by insisting that art serves no ulterior purposes but is purely an end in itself. When asked what art is good for, in the sense of what utility it has, they have replied that art is not something to be used as a means to something else, but simply to be accepted and enjoyed on its own terms.”
The idea of a “battle cry and a creed” resonates strongly with Kill Audio, but this isn’t meant to imply that the comic is in any way heady and pretentious. While fascinating and thoughtful, above all it’s absolutely wild, unpredictable, strange and funny. Following a particularly violent act performed on Kill Audio, he offers his attacker a deadpan response: “You are such an ass.”
In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes the mysterious appeal of music, and his words also ring true for Kill Audio: “One may recall music, give it the life of imagination (or even hallucination) simply because one likes it—this is reason enough.”