Justin Melkmann's Punk-Rock Comics: Life Irritates Art
This is a story about the sometimes roundabout ways we encounter new music. It's also about expectations: why we make them and how we adapt, often for the better, when they aren't fully realized. I'll start there.
TMI alert: I like to read in the restroom. I planned to spend a few minutes "reading" one morning, so I grabbed a 'zine one of the kids brought home from a show and was flipping through the pages when I came across some well-drawn, music-related and genuinely funny cartoon art. The artist's name was Justin Melkmann.
Because I'm all about bringing independent artists a little more notoriety through this blog, if I can, I figured I'd run this kid down and see if he wanted some free publicity. I imagined he was some fella toiling away in anonymity in Kansas or Nebraska and giving him some face time in Houston's alternative press might be the coolest moment of his budding artistic career.
"I don't do music and comic art as a full-time job. Luckily, my 'day job' isn't dreaded in the least," says Melkmann, who was relatively easy to track down and actually lives in New York City. "I'm a supervising producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It's a very creative group at the show, and we're all very supportive of each other's extracurricular activities."
Melkmann's "extracurricular activities" include his cartoon art, which has run in NYC periodicals, has been self-published in volumes and is available by way of his Tumblr. He's also guitarist for World War IX, an established NYC punk band. His trials and triumphs with the band are chronicled in Earaches and Eyesores, his comic series.
That old adage "it's funny because it's true," applies to Melkmann's comics work. Anyone in a working band, especially an unheralded working band, will appreciate its unflinching honesty.
"The comics are absolutely an outlet for the 'downside' of playing music," he says. "If, God forbid, we play a lousy show, the shitty experience becomes fodder for a hilarious comic. Instead of panicking about the bad times, I turn it into art.
"Sometimes that's easier said than done, of course," Melkmann continues. "If you can find the right group of people who can roll with the mountains of manure you have to put up with just to play your 40 minutes a month, than you are very, very lucky. It takes time, patience, a sense of humor and a willingness to fall on your face over and over to make a band work."
Melkmann says his band has "been around for an embarrassingly long time" and has toured the States twice, sharing bills with acts like Sloppy Seconds, Blackout Shoppers, Citizen Blast Kane, The Sheckies and All Torn Up. The band recently released a single, "The Highest of Fives," which Melkmann quips "celebrates the greatness of being great." Its B-side is "The King of the King of Beers," which is the all-too-familiar "tale of a delusional drunk stumbling through life, six Bud Lights at a time." Those songs followed up the release of 2013's Off the Wagon.
Melkmann lists his musical influences as GWAR, Black Sabbath, the Ramones, underground Oregon punks The Jimmies and GG Allin. He told Allin's story by way of monthly cartoons in The New York Waste, an art and music paper, until Allin's brother sent him "an unpleasant, personalized cease and desist order." He was so obsessed, though, he decided to chronicle his own obsession and that subject became its own comic book, Slap In the Face: My Obsession with GG Allin.
"I started drawing when I was five, superheroes mostly," Melkmann recalls. "By the time I reached the seventh grade I thought I was a regular Joe Kubert, but this gifted 'friend' of mine took one look at my work and laughed. "[He said], 'You have no perspective. Look how big this guy's head is.'
"Compare and despair, as they say," he adds. "For some reason though, I just fucking kept at it. Eventually I shifted from drawing superheroes to drawing rock stars. I must have drawn Keith Richards a thousand times."
Story continues on the next page.
Melkmann indicates the work of a comic-book artist is similar to a musician's. You create something you hope others enjoy. You do shows -- comic cons. You have influences. His are R. Crumb, Ivan Brunetti and peers like Sergio Zuniga, Steve Vincent and Charles Fetherolf.
With subjects like the infamous, practically cartoonish GG Allin and lyrics like, "When I got home, I thought you'd thrown me a party/ All of my friends were there, even my old shrink Marty" from the band's song "Intervention," it may seem Melkmann doesn't take this all too seriously. But, he says, it is serious business.
"When I listen to this junk I believe I can die happy, and I'm not kidding," Melkmann says. "And for the record, I do listen to my own records. They rule, and quite frankly I'm still amazed sometimes that it's me playing," he said.
I shared with Melkmann the tale of how I found him, which is, of course, why anyone puts a work of art in a 'zine, or hands out a free CD at a show. It's the beauty of the DIY scene, that serendipitous stumbling-upon of something that's new to us and worth our time. It's great when that happens, we agreed.
"DIY is kinda all there is, no?" offers Melkmann. "I mean if you wait around for a label or a publisher to find you, you're dead in the water. There are thousands of bands and artists that litter this great land of ours, so if you're going to play or draw, and you want other people to hear or see your work, you better like what you're doing."
"There's always someone who can whip out tastier solos than you, or some art-school wunderkind that has a better command of the human form than you might, but hey, if what you do makes you happy, then stick with it and eventually you will find someone who gives a shit," he adds. "All the technology around today makes doing it yourself easier than ever, so fucking do it...yourself."
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