Pop-art on the pop charts, think of it as a bygone time. In the same way you might think of a main street strewn with horse-and-buggy carriages. In an era when album covers do little more than establish the dominance of an artist or a group or a brand, the idea of single-image storytelling gracing the album covers of popular music seems something of a relic. Perhaps the last flash of it could be glimpsed back in ‘98 with Korn’s runaway hit Follow The Leader. You remember the cover, or if you don’t you should google it. A little girl at the very end of her hopscotch squares about to make one last leap. A leap that would take her right across the edge of a cliff. Was she chasing down a bright red balloon just beyond her grasp? I can’t recall. But the heavy brown tones rather than scanning as warm and familiar, put you almost immediately into a state of depression. This was the worst, most terrifying childhood’s end. The brown hues spoke not of a winter to come, but the dread of an endless Fall (the visual pun of the season and the act of falling did not go missed).
But Korn’s album was far from an outlier. It was the very end of a generation of cover design that stretched back to the late 80s, notably with Iron Maiden albums. Like Follow The Leader, these albums were the window to a secret grandeur, a hidden story that needed to be unearthed in the same way that Indy did lost treasures in Temple Of Doom. Reading Misery City, the first release of Blackline Comics based in Las Vegas, you might be tempted to scour the pages for narrative. But this would be a mistake.
Project-runner Vassilis Gogtzilas does not bill himself as “writer” (that’s a billing saved for his collaborator K.I. Zachopoulos who handles scripting duties). Instead, the creator of Misery City who also handles artwork duties on the title bills himself as “plotter”. And with this paradigm shift in the division of labor, the door to another missing legacy is opened.
Throughout the 90s with the debate around mainstream versus indie comics raging, the deeper argument was always centered on the creative process. The deeper question always seemed to be, “Was there a place for writers in comics?”, and in the darker moments, “Should there be one?”.
The debate was really rooted in the (by this time) decades-old schism that had developed at the birth of the Silver Age with the rise to prominence of Marvel from the ashes of Timely. Working primarily with Jack Kirby, Stan Lee passionately held the idea that writers simply should not eclipse artists. Artists, he held should be equal contributors, and that meant writing should be a two-part process. One to produce a workable synopsis for the artist, another to complete the dialogue in the available spacing. The artist would be free to decide the pacing of the story for themselves.
By the early-mid 80s, in the wake of the British Invasion, the opposite position (enshrining the role of the writer and the “full script” which included dialogue and viewing angles upfront) found an equally passionate spokesperson in the form of writer Alan Moore.
But it was the unexpected hit of the late 80s/mid 90s, Justice League International (eventually branching off into the twin books Justice League America and Justice League Europe) that offered a third way. Writing duties were shared by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, responsible for the dialogue and breakdowns respectively. With writers and artist (the magnificently emotive Kevin MacGuire) interacting as a team, and an uncharacteristically stronger storytelling role attributed to series Editor Andy Helfer, Justice League International managed to steer away from the top-down hierarchical storytelling system of the Lee/Kirby model and the factory-style linearity of the full script.
Misery City is that kind of pure comics; a burst of sheer, genius-fueled creativity that breaks through the comics production process that becomes a cage for creativity. It is that harkening back towards a single-image storytelling tradition that once littered the album covers of heavy metal records. Misery City trades in narrative structure for pure plot, stripping bare the storytelling mechanics in much the same way J.K. Rowling did with the Harry Potter series.
And in return, what audiences are treated to is something not glimpsed at in decades; an alternative to mass-produced creativity.