By Captain Comannokers
J.T. Dockery and Brine Manley have been making some kind of noise together for almost 15 years, in their band the Smacks!, over the airwaves of WRFL as DJs, and in print pieces. Really, however, they could get words and sounds heard to anyone who will listen.
In North of Center the two have combined to deliver the comic “Creekwater,” which features Dockery’s illustrations and (mostly) Manley’s words, takes much inspiration from the music they enjoy, and like all their work, features countless references to their musical influences. Recently they sat down to discuss those influences and how they translate to the printed page.
Dockery: The start of this was really going to SPX (Small Press Expo, a comics convention that focuses on independent artists/publishers). That was the start of the process in 2009. With Brine traveling with me and splitting costs, it made sense to do something together, to make and publish a short comic that Brine would write and I would illustrate to take with us and have something new to sell.
I told him realistically the amount of pages I could draw in the time allotted, and then a discussion of, oddly, of our love for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and our love for fishing/the Muppet character who would throw fish, gave Brine the framework that resulted in the first chapter, and we knew we wanted it set in Kentucky. I had no idea of where the story was going after that. We were thinking of calling the work “Once Upon a Time in Kentucky” but then we both saw the movie “Inglorious Basterds” that starts with the line “Once Upon a Time in Germany” so we felt screwed that readers would react that we’d just seen that…so we called it “Fishtowne.”
We get to SPX and these folks from PA kept asking us if it anything to do with Fishtown, PA, which neither of us had heard of. Then, I find out that at that SPX there was a brand new graphic novel called “Fishtown,” so we decided we had to change the title. The bottle of whiskey we brought with us we were referring to as “creekwater,” as in, “Brine, we got any of that creekwater left? Pour me another glass of that creekwater, etc.” And there you have the title.
Manley: The first chapter was a lot of influences and discussions colliding. The man at the stream was definitely based completely, in my head, on Charles Bronson’s Harmonica Man character from “Once Upon a Time in the West.” I wanted something set near a stream, and Todd’s right, referencing fishing and Kentucky, with a noir-ish feeling to it. (Lew Zealand was the fish-thrower on the Muppets, just to give him some credit.)
I also have to credit a good amount of heartbreak I was going through at the time for some heavy inspiration. We weren’t sure how or when we would continue it, but once we decided to march forward with it, I realized a thicker storyline needed to be developed. It wasn’t long before I developed a link to Hector Berlioz’s “Le Damnation de Faust,” which has been a source of inspiration since, and inspires me in a lot of other fiction I write. But then, there aren’t too many stories in Western fiction that aren’t influenced, at some point, by Goethe’s “Faust.” Temptation, desire, ideas of love and evil, jealousy, etc. “Faust” has it all, plus the devil.
I started running with that and feel like, at this point, I have enough material with these characters to go for years. The story got real big real fast for me and represents a lot of aspects of life I want and like to explore. As far as the music references: I never expected anyone to pick up on them. I listen to a lot of different music when I write fiction sometimes, and that seeps through into the dialogue and the plot. As much as I’m addicted to literature, I’m addicted to music, also. I think the first one you picked up on was Queensryche’s “I Remember Now” from “Operation: Mindcrime,” a reference I never expected anyone reading a comic in NoC to notice.
From there, songs that I felt were connected to the story, or even random songs I was listening to that day were starting to show up, planned or not – from Kris Kristofferson, to Steelheart, to Wings, to Albert Ammons, to Archers of Loaf, with Berlioz smeared over top of it. This doesn’t mean all of the dialogue is from lyrics, but if I’m thoroughly inspired by something and feel like it fits, I’ll paint it in.The collaborative process has been worked out so that basically I write it like a screenplay, and have learned how much direction to give Todd as far as what I see in my head. He translates that and it works. I know his style and he knows where I’m coming from, so it’s worked out in the end every time.
We’ve compared our roles to me being the screenwriter and him the director, or I’m the director and he’s the cinematographer, or maybe I’m the plumber and he’s the horticulturalist, or he’s the balloonist and I’m the elephant trainer…I don’t know. I lost track.
Captain: Talk about the musical soundtrack that goes along with “Spud Crazy” – how it differs (working with other folks?) or any other way? Or is music ever any different really anyway? It comes from within and goes outward…or something like that…?
Dockery: First of all, it’s worth a mention that when the “Creekwater” yarn is fully spun, and we’re ready to collect it into a single volume, it will have a music soundtrack as well. Well, I asked Brine, Robert Beatty, and Justin Eslinger to collaborate with me on making the soundtrack, so everyone involved participated in it.
Both with the collaboration with Nick Tosches and Brine on the page with comics – there is a parallel to collaborating in music, whether it’s free form or more structured. For me, personally, working together with others on music, is still using the same parts of my brain, in a different but equal way, as illustrating the stories of other people. But the difference between, say, working on the Smacks! with Brine, it’s a rock and roll thing where we’re using music more towards the performance, with a theatrical element, whereas working on a soundtrack gets to be more about internalizing the source material and then invoking a sound structure to compliment it. In that way, soundtrack work is a bit more “quiet” of a process, like writing/drawing, whereas rock n roll has theatrics/performance element. But all of these elements are related to each other, kissing cousins so to speak.
Manley: For me, I’m a fan of soundtracks and scores, and have always wanted to work in an instrumental format that references that, so just as a musician to make instrumental music based on a visual medium is exciting. I knew a lot of the art Todd had created for Spud Crazy and tried to approach it with an Ennio Morricone meets Tom Waits’ score for “Night on Earth” frame of mind.
I enjoy taking that loose idea for myself and then slamming it into whatever the other musicians bring with them and seeing what happens at the end. Todd and I have that timing connection since we’ve played together for so long. I’ve played with Justin for years now, as well, but never in this style or context, and I always like to see where he’ll go with things. I had never played with Robert and had no idea what he would bring, but respected and knew him enough to know it would be interesting and, well, awesome. I have fantasies about playing in a jazz ensemble someday; this might be the closest experience I’ve ever had to that, where everyone gets their chance to deconstruct the melody of whatever piece is being performed. I’ve played in several loose groups before, but this was one of the most fun. Different leads, different directions, different faces, diversity: these are good things.