“It’s about how important music is to keeping your soul and head together” we talk music and comics in Hitsville UK with writer Dan Cox
After it’s triumphant final issue last year, the fantastic world of Dan Cox and John Riordan’s Hitsville UK is now being collected into one glorious collector’s volume. To find out more about this brilliantly weird look at the world of music, we caught up writer Dan to find out more!
For those new to the world of Hitsville UK, how would you sum it up and describe the various eclectic character who appear in the story?
Dan Cox: The pitch is it’s a “surreal love-letter to the weirder corners of pop music, following the misadventures of a motley assortment of bands as they try to make it big. It’s the best, though possibly the only, musical-pop-art-soap-opera in comic book form.”
It’s a real carnival of a book, we still struggle to describe it. We’ve got this collection of angel-voiced grotesques, monster-hunters, imaginary robots, hip-hop agitators, faded 80s starlets, 60s throwbacks, drug-addled producers and demonic accountants and we bounce them off each other. There’s horror, there’s political satire, there’s kitchen sink drama, there’s grand psychedelic action sequences. And it’s funny!
At its core it’s about that desperate urge to make something and change your world. And about how important music is to keeping your soul and head together. How when you’re poor and lonely and living in a bedsit and the world has gone mad there’s 2 minutes and 30 seconds of pop that can transform your reality.
You don’t have to be a massive music fan to enjoy it though. We’re not snobby, there’s no gatekeeping, there’s references for people to spot but they don’t interfere with the story. Actually, we had to take most if the references out to avoid being sued! If anyone does spot a reference that escaped please don’t mention it.
You are collecting all second issues together into one collected volume, what can we look forward to in this edition? Any sneaky extras for long time fans? And how do you think the story and characters as a whole sit together now that they are all together?
DC: Enough time has passed that we can look at it a bit clearer. John and I had the same whispered conversation after laying the book up ‘…it’s… it’s really good…’ ‘cos you’re not supposed to praise your own work. But I’m really proud of it. One thing I’m very happy with is how it rewards multiple re-readings, something that hurt us in the single issues, but in book form really shines. People’s reactions to it and the support we’ve had so far has been really special.
Backers will get the whole 200 plus page story wrapped up with a foreword from music journalist and, importantly, former drummer from Menswear, Matt Everitt. There’s a cute mini-strip we did for Gosh Comics’ Record Store Day fanzine and…other things. We’re deciding final extra content at the moment. I’m a process junkie I love seeing how other people work so there will be some idea to page, designs, lost scenes etc. We’re just trying to decide what content is the most value to the reader, we don’t want to be self-indulgent. Backers can also get an exclusive print by the brilliant Jules Scheele – we should have some other guest artists to announce for special prints soon as well…
You have a very eclectic and odd bunch of character in Hitsville UK, who was your favourite to write and were there any whose journey took you by surprised and changed and developed as you wrote the story?
DC: I pretty much loved them all. The concept was, each one had to be strong enough to hold their own strip. The original idea is that it would be like an anthology of different bands/strips that would then break in to each other’s stories. There are ghosts of this concept in the first issue. But everyone gets a story, everyone gets an arc.
Greg Pastis the hopped-up super-producer based on Joe Meek, Phil Spector, and a DJ I used to work with on local radio was always fun to write. But all the characters took on their own lives very quickly. I always enjoyed Mrs M, who for space reasons remained a background character, whenever we see her she’s describing some hideous ailment an acquaintance is suffering with. Coming up with those was always fun. She’s based on a real person but I’m not saying who.
The most surprising were The Sisters, they were created as a foil for another band, a one-off joke, that we kept repeating, till we wove them into the storyline and we discovered this dark tragedy hidden in the centre of all the wild and wacky shenanigans. Their story wasn’t planned and unfolded for John and I as we were working on it so I have a lot of affection for it. They’re characters I’d like to revisit.
The story is built around the London indie music scene, with lots of gigging and recording woes.
DC: Oh no, the story is very much set as far away from London as possible. Somewhere they closed the train station in the 60s and the factories in the 80s. We wanted somewhere hermetically sealed. There are two venues that play music, Villa Rosie and the pub, getting in there is really important. When we do the revue they have to play in the old Abattoir and a kids soft play because there’s nowhere else. I grew up in Wallasey, (not Liverpool) and Wimborne and Poole in Dorset, and Leamington rather than Coventry. The closest I got to a big city was a decade in Brighton. Small Town England is writ through me like a stick of rock.
It has an almost nostalgic feel to it with the way music has moved on these days? Do you think you could tell your story in a similar way if you set it today or has the music scene shifted now that is all about getting online and streaming etc?
DC: I don’t think we’re nostalgic either. Well, there might be an element because I’m drawing on incidents from my 20s. And we do have some characters who are nostalgic but they’re generally shown up as myopic. That’s one of Gerry’s problems when he starts Hitsville, he’s trying to run a label like the ones that messed him about in the 80s and 90s but that world’s gone and he can’t see it.
I clearly remember being 16,17,18 and having lots of old drunk men from the 60s tell me how crap all my music was and how easy and worthless my exams were. It annoyed me then and it annoys me that it continues to happen to the kids today. If there is a nostalgia it’s more a nostalgia of anger, kids today are being shafted, venues being closed down, they’re being priced out of internships and housing and then being mocked for it in the papers. We’re definitely not nostalgic for an olde days music we’re not rattling our walking sticks ‘The Longpigs… that was a proper band…’ I think the kids are alright, making great music. One of the beating hearts of Hitsville is Haunted by Robots, our Peter Parker, 15 years old, bullied at school, trapped with his awful father stuck in his rave glory days burning the crispy pancakes because he’s stoned every day. He finds his peace by making fierce doom techno in his bedroom for his imaginary robot friend. And every time he plays out something explodes and burns.
What bands and types of music inspire you and informed the creation of Hitsville UK?
DC: Far too many to list! John and I have very broad tastes, often complimentary, sometimes not. We didn’t go for any direct parodies of bands but we tried to create original group that fit into multiple vibes. Actually, over on our Twitter feed @hitsvillecomic I’m posting about some of the influence with videos! The Carries for instance were a reaction to how the band in Beyond Valley of the Dolls get horribly treated, and the tendency to destroy female characters in fiction in general. So, we created this band of monster hunters to fight back. We only ever see the tail end of their adventures ‘That’s the last of them… and there’s just time to make the gig’. Sonically they were based on feminist punk disco queens Le Tigre and the rockabilly girl groups like the Delmonas, and a bit of a super cool band on the Brighton circuit called Electrelane. Cool art punk. The Dreadnoughts are hip-hop agit-prop, very strong influence from Asian Dub Foundation and The Specials/Special AKA and the Young Fathers. Spiv-Hop pioneer Jack Spatz is Del Boy Trotter meets The Streets. Men Behind Guitars are every band that won’t let the 60s die. We threw as much into the mix as we could.
Why do you think the mediums of music and comics go so well together? Is it reliant on larger than life characters or is it something more than that?
DC: In some ways you could say they don’t, as comics are a silent medium. John and I talked a lot about how to represent the different sounds using colour, shape, pacing, we didn’t want to just put the lyrics in italics with a couple of quaver symbols.
I don’t know… something about them coming from the same low cultural space. You’ve got write ups in the Guardian now and can go into bookshops and buy lovely bound editions of Sweeny Toddler (!) but comics and pop music used to be low art. My brain’s starting to fizz now with incoherent ideas… American comics being shipped over as ballast in the same ships bringing soul and blues records to the north of England… superhero imagery in Hip Hop, aliens and hobbits in the UK rave scene… Steve Marriott of the Small Faces painting panels from Kirby’s Thor all over his flat, a young Miles Hunt years before the Wonder Stuff sending pictures of monsters to Leo Baxendale, David Bowie buying 2000 AD for a young Duncan Jones and Madness, Motorhead, the Stray Cats and a young Geoff Barrow all reading the same issue…
No, I can’t answer this question. It’s a pitch for a book… or a podcast series. I’ll suggest it to Bobsy from Diane Podcast and Mindless ones once he’s finished dissecting Grant Morrison’s Invisibles.
The story has some really strong visuals from John, did you work in conjunction on these to create these outrageous concepts, or did you just come up with some loose concepts and encourage him to go crazy with the artwork?!
DC: The whole book was an extremely collaborative process. We’d only done one 10-page story together before we started on Hitsville, so we both wrote our own version of issue one and then mashed them together. This is an insane way to do things and we dropped it like a stone but really it was important in us learning how to play together and what our conceptions of the characters were. After that we’d talk through the story, just trying to make each other laugh and spin things off in new directions. Then I’d script it up and John would draw… and colour… and letter. His work is phenomenal, he can do anything. Not just the big psychedelic freak-outs but also the quieter scenes, walking down a rubbish strewn street alone in the dark after the gig, with the sweat drying on you and the energy leeching out. You could buy the book for the art alone and have a really good time.
People should also check out his book Sound and Vision which is one of those 100 bands to listen to before you die things, normally these are just cheap and nasty cash-ins but he put so much dedication into illustrating each act with a different visual style, totally embodying them. It’s an incredible piece of work.
For those who enjoyed the world of Hitsville UK, will you be returning to it at any point or are you working on something completely new?
DC: We have developed a pitch for a second series which we’ll be sending to publishers, hopefully the collection will do well enough to generate a bit of interest. It’s a fun world to play around in and there’s so much you can do with the characters. I think we’re going to do some solo stuff for a bit. John has a biography of William Blake planned which I think will be an incredible thing to see. And he’s freelancing so if anyone wants to work with one of the best artists in the UK now is your chance. I’m at the stage of writing lots of notes and hoping they might start to coalesce into something. But I’d like to think we’ll do something together again, we work well together and I had the best time doing Hitsville. I think that enjoyment comes out in the book.