In an office stuffed with boxes of 45s upstairs at Euclid Records in Bywater, comics writer Gabe Soria remembers the seemingly unlikely mashup that inspired his latest graphic novel.
"What if you combined this Alan Lomax person, a person trying to discover obscure blues artists, and mash this together with a Jim Thompson-esque noir thing, some Coen brothers Blood Simple stuff," Soria says. "That rolled around in my brain for a few years. The idea of someone looking for music, and having that ambition to be the first. ... That could just be a tick away from noir territory."
Murder Ballads follows the story of a fictional record — a desperate producer and his disintegrating relationship, an undiscovered genius, a disturbed legend coming out of retirement — and the crime spree and dangerously rising stakes that made it.
Soria's institutional knowledge of behind-the-scenes legends passed around record stores and buried in liner notes inspired Murder Ballads' fictional history of blues musicians Donny and Marvell Fontweathers, upon whom a burned-out one-time record producer is hanging what remains of his life. (In another comic, The Ballad of Franklin Bonisteel, Soria assembles the titular antihero's crew for a rip and run of royalties from a fictional Eagles-esque '70s band — responsible for the perfectly, stupidly titled hit "Comfy Mama.")
Soria plotted out Murder Ballads in 2010, and a finished book finally was published earlier this month by Z2, with art from Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt. An accompanying soundtrack from The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and soul singer Robert Finley brings to life the songs on the pages. Auerbach joins Soria for a book signing at Euclid Records Aug. 22.
"I was trying to figure out how to make it special," Soria says. "Writing a book about music, about fake musicians — I realized I had a friend who could probably do some music for it."
So Soria turned to Auerbach. (Soria also wrote the liner notes to Dr. John's Locked Down, which Auerbach produced.) "He said 'Yeah, sure,' just like that," Soria says. "He knew where I was coming from when I told him the story."
Auerbach transformed Soria's idea for a song inspired by Macbeth's three fate-forecasting witches into "Three Jumpers," which Soria describes as "basically a country, inner-city interpretation of Macbeth where the three witches are three jumpers, the dudes on the corner, from Do the Right Thing, talking to a kid about what's going to happen to him."
"That's what Dan does," Soria says. "I trust Dan with my life, so I trust him with music."
Murder Ballads' grim winter and nighttime color palettes give way to warm orange and red as music spills from the page. Soria envisioned cinematographers like Robby Muller or Roger Deakins for his moody, cinematic panels that capture brutal violence as well as the feeling of hearing and seeing a dynamic piece of music.
"You're guiding [the illustrators]," Soria says. "They have to not only use your direction but their instincts, and their knowledge of how comic book language works to put what you want on the page and also put what they think needs to be there, and be faithful to both the writer's intent and what they're doing as an artist. It's a delicate dance. It helps if you have good collaborators."