Raygun Roads (or, to give it it’s full title: Raygun Roads & The Infinity Loop Death-Trap of Ulysses Pomp) is a book that demands to defy definition. In it’s simplest terms, it’s the story of an unemployed teenager who finds himself kidnapped by a fictional pop culture messiah of his own creation and dragged off on a mission to save both his soul and possibly the souls of all teenagers everywhere. Dig deeper, and it’s a whip-smart, bold-hearted allegory that speaks to the disillusionment that can come hand in hand with unemployment, and the redemptive power of art. Dig deeper still and you’re out the other end, staring back at a riotously entertaining comic and probably the best independent book I’ll read all year.
Written by Owen Michael Johnson and illustrated by INDIO, Raygun Roads is a mass of contradictions. It doesn’t take itself too seriously – the script is littered with pop-culture allusions and pithy soundbites – but it has absolute conviction in the message it wants to convey. Coming on strong like Josie and the Pussycats Vs Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, it’s punk-rock pop-art trash, but it’s also incredibly canny in terms of presentation and execution. INDIO’s lurid day-glo art, while showing echoes of Shaky Kane, Robert Crumb and any number of underground comix luminaries, fits the tone of the book down the ground as it looks like it’s been ripped from the wall of the gig-poster heavy corridors of your favourite fly-postered pub. Sound effects are integrated beautifully into the art in huge, ornate and sometimes nonsensical lettering. It’s brash, colourful, and, combined with a story that doesn’t let up, on occasion completely overwhelming. All you can do is cling on and hope it all makes sense in the end, and for the most part, it does.
That said, even if you weren’t to fully grasp what you’d witnessed, the likelihood would be that you’ll be thoroughly charmed. Embracing the musical nature of the book, the comic even comes as a flipbook complete with a Side A and Side B. Because it’s dictated by the story, this detail transcends gimmickry and in fact encourages you to re-read the book at least once, and don’t be surprised if – like the best pop singles – you find yourself flipping from Side B back to Side A once it’s finished to go through it all over again.
Raygun Roads launches at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, UK this weekend. And if there’s a better comic that uses B-movie actor Rondo Hatton’s name as a sound effect this year, I’ll eat my hat.
We were lucky enough to catch writer Owen Michael Johnson for a chat that spans his influences, self-promotion, the art of the physical comic and which comic creator would play synth in his own personal fantasy band.
From the outset – one of the very first panels – Raygun Roads wears its influences (Bradbury, Kirby et al) on its sleeves. Is there anyone in the mix that you didn’t namecheck in the book?
Owen Michael Johnson: If you mean I plagiarized Flex Mentallo, then absolutely this book wears the influences on its sleeve. Without giving too much away (although it’s in the synopsis) this is a book about a fictional pop icon, and remains self-aware to that fact. Raygun is pure imagination and constructed from Vincent’s mind.
I spotted Flex Mentallo as one of the pop-culture artifacts thrown into the open coffin that the titular Raygun finds herself in at the start of the story…
OMJ: INDIO threw Naked Lunch and Howl into the casket, but for me Kerouac was a bigger not-so-subtle name-check. I explained to INDIO that I wanted to know what happened if On The Road was a science fiction comic set in the north of England. I’m lucky that he’s an artist who likes to pack information into his artwork. The whole thing is super-dense with references discussed and undiscussed from both of us. I only found out last week that he shoved a Bananarama reference in there.
It’s not name-checked as such but I adore Casanova. Andrew Tunney (creator of Girl & Boy) and myself always talk admiringly about comics that are striving to be modern. To blend ones inspirations, both within and without the comics discipline, to create something wholly fresh – that’s Casanova to me. Something influenced but ultimately modern.Continued below
And as much as there is a heady fusion of influences running riot through the book- and it’s fun to pick them out – it’s clear that underneath it all there’s quite a personal story being told, thematically if not literally. How much of yourself do you see in the protagonist Vince?
OMJ: Oh, this book absolutely happened. All of it is genuine. I firmly believe that you can tell more of a truth (emotionally if not logically) by using a metaphor, rather than presenting the facts. Everything went into this. I can’t speak for Indio or the other guys working on the book, but for me this comic turned everything around. I had just staggered away from a creative writing course feeling completely drained by the proscriptive attitudes and methods of a few of its staff. I must stress this doesn’t encompass my feelings on creative writing degrees in general. I feel like I can comment because I have been gifted with superior, supportive writing teaching and subjected to the anti-matter equivalent. Any purity and spontaneity in my writing was sapped and I couldn’t create anything.
I struggled to find any work at all – then any regular work. This was a situation that seems to have been echoed by many others my age. Forever politic-neutral, I felt utterly compelled to pay more attention to the news and the downward spiral of youth unemployment that I felt was a wide-spread problem. I understand it’s incredibly easy for me to point the finger and sound superior coming from a middle-class family of teachers. I have never tasted the kind of long-term unemployment and poverty that many have. I’m still relatively young, naïve and ignorant. However, in that time period I had a taste and it was more than enough of an impetus to write about it. Playing in bands, writing, drawing and making comics genuinely saved my life on a couple of occasions – especially when I was a teenager. So in that way, I suppose I identify strongly with Vincent, but there are pieces of me in the Kittelbach Pirates. They’re also simplified, cartoon versions of my friends. Hanging with them feels like an adventure with a cosmic punk band. These individuals will remain anonymous to spare them crippling embarrassment and humiliation. One of these characters is an intergalactic sex goddess so I’d like to think that I’m doing them a kindness.
And what about the leader of the Kittelbach Pirates – would you say that there’s much of yourself in Raygun Roads herself?
OMJ: Raygun not so much. She’s the small part of us that is totally driven by a desire to live on our own terms – to identify bullshit and neutralise threat. I’d like to think I’d act like Raygun in a crisis, but I think I’d be more like (brainwashed character) Prawn Alan.
Given the musical nature of the book, INDIO’s work is an incredible fit as it often perfectly echoes the kind of art you’d see on gig posters. Where on Earth did you find him?
OMJ: I cannot talk highly enough of him. We were totally in synch with this project. We shared Accent UK anthologies back in the day and I just made a note to contact him. I roped him into spot illustration work for Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist? when Zelda is having her migraine visions. I knew he would be the perfect collaborator on a comic like this. It was a conscious effort to echo that riffy, song lyric slogan vibe with hand-drawn sound effects into the way the dialogue sounded. INDIO is constantly bringing ideas to the table. He’s a gift. I very much hope this book puts his name on the radar of more influential and like-minded souls.
There’s a multimedia promotional effort behind the book (Website! Soundtrack! T-shirts! Chewing gum!) that’s rarely seen in small press comics – can you talk about where you get your ideas for this, and how hard was it to coordinate alongside actually producing the comic?
OMJ: It doesn’t cost a lot financially. Most of it is shoe-string guerilla marketing. The Raygum Roads (free at cons with a purchase of the comic) is just Juicy Fruit re-packed by hand with printed labels. It’s cheeky. The key is giving thought to it and letting your project suggest the marketing. I’m lucky in that as a writer I have more time on my hands than the artist. While writing the next thing I think it keeps things fresh to promote the finished product in a fun way. Raygun mutated quickly and independently into something strange and intricate but it always came organically and out of “this would be so cool” daydreams. For me it’s a natural extension or part of the writing process. The content of each project dictates its form and promotion. It seemed right that a story about a cosmic punk band should come complete with a record, merch and stickers. I learnt from punk that you can make something just by doing it; by putting the plans in place.Continued below
More importantly, I work hard to surround myself with immensely talented people who each have a strong specialism and will put up with my demands. This stuff wouldn’t work if I was doing everything myself. Andy Bloor has brilliant instincts about design; Mike Stock experiments and pushes the boundaries with the lettering; the musicians that put the tracks together. They each came with a wealth of ideas I would have been an idiot to ignore.
In terms of the website massive props must go to Inigo Saenz who remains far more than just a web-builder. He’s a true storyteller through the digital medium. My collaboration with him has been a joy and a gift.
The last book you were involved in – Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist? – was launched with a mock wake at last year’s Thought Bubble festival. Will there be any similar events for Raygun Roads at the Lakes festival this weekend?
OMJ: I have a discussion panel with Lizzie Boyle from Disconnected Press, but no Raygun event. Thaddeus lent itself more to a theatrical performance. This is far more artificial in aesthetic. After orchestrating the different parts to the web experience, I thought that one cheap gimmick was enough. I’m considering a live event with Raygun as part of a larger thing with a handful of other comic and multimedia artists. We’re very early in the process of talking about it but if we pull it off it will be spectacular.
Without spoiling any of the surprises of the book, the format lends itself well to being a physical comic. Was this a conscious decision – a reminder to readers that there’s still some things digital comics can’t replicate?
OMJ: Choices are important. I always wanted to have Raygun available on multiple platforms. Jamie Grant gave me the great advice that a wide audience is more valuable than a massive profit margin. That’s why we made the first half available free online (and plan to complete the album there in the future). The music interacts with the narrative and the colours are unhindered by printing limitations. Equally, the physical comic book has been constructed to remain a unique experience. The tricks we’ve employed hopefully add depth to the story via its format.
To think about format – not only in terms of convenience, but innovation and invention – really excites me. What is unique about this format? What can I do here that is not possible on a computer screen? How can I present the story in a different way – one that ties into and enriches its message?
You are the pop svengali behind a manufactured supergroup of comic creators past, present, living and dead. Who do you pick, who plays what?
OMJ: That’s a fucking good question! Will Eisner playing bass with Paul Pope doing his best Jim Morrison. Sean Gordon Murphy lead guitar. Jim Steranko would read his tweets as prose poetry over Moebius synth. That or Kirby doing everything. He was used to it.
Finally, what can we expect next for both yourself and Raygun Roads?
OMJ: I want to get Raygun into as many hands as possible. I believe in the book and want to travel around hoping to gain converts. There’s going to be more mixed-media stuff coming through to support the comic. As mentioned earlier, there may be an event in the works.
Getting Raygun Roads finished meant I had to temporarily bench a personal project I’m writing and drawing called Reel Love, a book about one man’s life-long love affair with cinema. As everyone knows, it’s massively time-consuming to both write and draw, but this relies a lot on memory detail so could only come from me. That’s the next comic I’ll finish.
I’m having tremendous fun collaborating with Mark Penman. It’s a mini-series set in the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system but we’re keeping it under wraps for now – I didn’t pick a drummer for my fantasy band, but it would be Mark Penman on drums for pure POWAAAA. Along with INDIO, it’s the closest collaboration I’ve ever had in terms of understanding one another and a shared vision. We’re having a lot of fun which is the main thing.