The Iconic Life Of The Jean Genie
Bowie is a new graphic novel published by Insight Editions, by Steve Horton, Michael Allred and Laura Allred and Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman spoke to Allred about bringing aspects of The Thin White Duke’s musical career to life in a graphic novel…
TRIPWIRE: Obviously this work was a labour of love. What was the hardest thing artistically about drawing the countless iterations of Bowie and the rest of the ensemble?
MICHAEL ALLRED: Funny, but in retrospect, this feels like it may have been the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Of course making sure getting all the details correct and maintaining authenticity was a challenge, but it was energized with pure fandom joy.
TW: In your research do you think you gained a feel for early 60s – mid 70s London and its cadences? Were any contemporary movies of that era helpful in that regard, apart from the obvious (the 1973 Ziggy movie)?
MA: Oh yeah! Pop culture of that era and Britain in general is a regular man item in our household.
My all-time favourite movie is The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, and everything that followed is endlessly intoxicating for me.
TW: The book focuses more on Bowie the icon rather than Bowie the man – was that a conscious decision, or did you feel that the work was more about Ziggy?
MA: He notoriously kept his personal thoughts and feelings mysterious and private, always letting his art communicate for him. His interviews are rarely revealing in any substantial way, so my approach was to embrace the ambiguity.
TW: Your use of dreamscapes to illustrate Bowie’s state of mind was key yet intermittent – would you liked to have used this trope more often in the story?
MA: Absolutely! I could draw several pages interpreting every single song, And maybe I’ll get to if folks line about to pay for thousands of pages of illustrated Bowie dreamscapes. I’m in!
TW: Were you aware of how important Bowie was in England when you were first getting into his work? He practically was the 70s for rock fans (like me) here.
MA: As aware as a kid from Oregon could be. A massive percentage of my pop culture obsessions come from the UK. My wife Laura and I have made several excursions there. Last time we stayed in the “Riff Raff Suite” in the Rocky Horror Picture Show Castle, which is now a hotel, and stayed in Portmeirion’s “Village” where The Prisoner was filmed. We also sought out Bowie locations from his childhood home in Brixton, to The Marquee, Trident Studios, The alley where the Ziggy album cover was shot…it’s all very important and exciting for us.
TW: Were you aware of how his influence dominated British post-punk and indie (along with Lou Reed) later on? He was responsible for entire movements (the New Romantics) that didn’t make it across the pond.
MA: I experienced it in real time. I had a newspaper route when I was a kid, and spent all my money on albums and rock magazines. The Beatles were ever present from birth, but after I discovered Bowie on my own, all the magazines and album liner notes started connecting the dots as artists and producers cross pollinated, and again, I was always drawn to what was coming from the UK.
So, as an example, Bowie would lead me to Mott The Hoople and then later lead me to The Clash because they were massive Mott fans.
TW: Your book plays down the politics somewhat, noticeably between Bowie and Angie, Bowie and Reed, Bowie and Pitt, and Bowie and his soon to be former bandmates. Was this part of the need to idealize Bowie’s life at that time, or was there not enough room for this element in the story?
MA: It was a question of balance given the page count we were given. If I had more room I would have squeezed absolutely everything in that I possibly could.
But when given the choice between using the space given to either celebrate Bowie or tap into less celebratory circumstances that required even more context, I opted for the celebration. If nothing else, I want this to be a definitive primer. Anyone that wants to dig deeper into other perspectives will surely do so. I certainly didn’t set out to idealize him. I believe what’s there is accurate and is honest about him and his fluctuating relationships. Using Bolan from the beginning was the best example of using their relationship to illustrate those spins.
TW: A lot of the panels and illustrations are taken from or riffing on classic photos and images of the Dame. Were you concerned about being as comprehensive as possible regarding this and not leaving anything out? To your credit I can’t recall anything missing!
MA: This was the fanboy in me just blissing out. This is my chance to run wild and do, as a professional, what I did as a kid drawing super cool pictures that I found in my favorite rock magazines or album covers. This as much as comics keeps me drawing every bit as much as my art classes or making my own comic books.
TW: Did you feel that YouTube was of major importance in terms of research? There were programs like the 1980 Floorshow that may have been filmed in England but were never screened here, and were only discovered by fans like myself when they were uploaded to that site (British television never screened the SNL appearance with Klaus Nomi either, not even on OGWT).
MA: Priceless! Amazing what has come to light! The 1980 Floorshow/Midnight Special was the great white whale. Now I have over eight hours of footage of all the different takes and rehearsals.
Who could have imagined getting access to that kind of stuff?
By the way, that Bowie SNL appearance is easily in my top ten of all time.
TW: As a fan who got into Bowie after he had relinquished the Ziggy persona do you feel that this book was a means of making up for missing out on that? Do you feel that his career was never quite as vital after that period?
MA: Oh no. When I discovered Bowie, as far as I knew that was who he was still. That’s how I fully experienced him from getting everything from Diamond Dogs backwards, even with reissues of Space Oddity and Man Who Sold The World with the new “Ziggy”-style album cover photos.
It would be like a pre-teen discovering Star Wars today and experiencing all nine films in one giant wave. BAM!
It wasn’t until the promotional wave that came with the Young Americans album and “Fame” hitting #1 that I saw he was morphing into a new persona, but then soon after my cousin took me to my first sexy R-Rated movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and here he was in 1976 showing me he was in fact from outer space. So I never lost the thread from there until his death. No mater what new style or image he tried on, that alien-like enigma remained his one constant.
Choosing to focus largely on the “Ziggy Era” for this first book, calling it that since I would love to do more was just an obvious choice. I may have experienced it all retroactively, But I couldn’t imagine a better more blissful way than to get everything up to 1974 in one mass chunk that echoes out to this day. It affected me in creative ways I couldn’t possibly measure.
TW: For Brits, Starman on TOTP (as you detailed in the book) was the moment he finally became a star. Was there a similar moment for Americans?
MA: Not at all. The “Fame” single seems to be the big breakthrough, and with collaborating with John Lennon almost vindicated my obsession. Until then I had no guy friends to share my fandom. In fact, I had to literally fight for the right to dig Bowie. It made me an easy target for bullies. It’s weird to think how scary it was at times back then. It seems so innocuous now. At least the girls dug Bowie and helped in them digging me. But again making the target bigger on my back for the jerks at school.
Then finally, with LET’S DANCE, he finally got the commercial success, and less challenging persona that put him into “household name status”.
TW: In your afterword you mention how much Bowie influenced you artistically. Would you say that this was a direct or more subtle influence on your work in general?
MA: Very direct. Not just the imagery which I would constantly draw from copying photos and album cover art, but illustrating imagery that the songs pumped into my head. To this day his music sparks my creativity.
TW: Do you have a favourite Bowie album from that era, and after? If you had to pick just one, which would it be, and why?
MA: It always changes. Like today my enthusiasm might be mostly directed at Low or Black Star, but if I had to pick one right now, I’d probably go with Hunky Dory. It’s a masterpiece! And it includes “Life on Mars” which would probably be my pick for all time favourite song. It also happens to be the first gist I ever gave to Laura, and it’s her favourite.
TW: Do you consider Bowie to be underrated in terms of his cultural importance (say compared to Sinatra, Elvis, Beatles, Stones) and this work is your effort to redress this?
MA: In some ways, yes. Looking around, and the reaction we’ve received since this book was announced, would lead me to believe that he is easily in that upper echelon of pop culture recognition. But as a rabid fan, I would say he is no where near the level of mass appreciation that he should be.
TW: Would you agree that his 70s output is the most timeless of his canon?
MA: Hmmm. Yes. Ultimately, “Heroes” is probably the most timeless of all his tracks. Scary Monsters ending the decade and Let’s Dance is his most commercial and arguably recognisable, taking him through the 80s. With more pop culture credentials with Labyrinth. But then the music less adventurous until Earthling which felt like a refuelling, and then everything after ending on Black Star, another masterpiece. But, push come to shove, yes.
TW: Having presumably exhaustively researched Bowie on the net, what was your favourite site devoted to him? (I myself would choose Pushing Ahead of The Dame).
MA: Cool! But no fave. It all blends together for me, finding treasures big and small everywhere.
TW: What is it about Bowie that has maintained your keen interest after all these years?
MA: Maybe doing this book was an exercise in trying to find the answer to that question. I’m still not sure.
It could go back to how enigmatic he was. A mystery where you’re still finding clues.
TW: If there is one contribution above all else that writer / collaborator / catalyst Steve Horton brought to the project, what would it be?
MA: The project itself, obviously. Putting this on the road to reality. And the fresh perspective he provided. It made me less selfish, looking for and appreciating what others might love or find interesting about Bowie.
Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns and Moonage Daydreams is out in January from Insight Editions