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Marvel Music’s Strange, Brief, and Totally Doomed Rock-Comics Revolution

In 1991, in the midst of his run on Sandman — now considered one of the most innovative comic-book series of all time — Neil Gaiman got a phone call from Bob Pfeifer, an executive at Epic Records in Los Angeles. “We have an artist who wants to make a concept record,” Pfeiffer said. “And the artist was wondering if you had a concept.”

The artist: Alice Cooper. Which piqued Gaiman’s interest because, as he now recalls, “Alice Cooper was a comics character. When I was a kid 15 years earlier than that, I had read Marvel Premiere #50, Alice Cooper: Tales From the Inside, and I also loved [1975 album] Welcome to My Nightmare. My cousins were the Alice Cooper fans; I was the David Bowie, Lou Reed fan. But they had made me watch “Teenage Lament ’74” on Top of the Pops.”

Gaiman let Epic book him a flight out to Phoenix, and a room at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel; Cooper showed up, and the two quickly started tossing around ideas for what became The Last Temptation, Cooper’s 1994 album. “We talked about Ray Bradbury, Dario Argento, zombie movies, how to make a thing,” Gaiman remembers; the comics superstar found himself in the unusual position of ghostwriting lyrics and punching up some of Cooper’s songs, including the album’s lead single, “Lost in America,” a heavily sarcastic take on “Summertime Blues” — ain’t got no job, ain’t got no girl, ain’t got no gun. The two kept in touch, and in 1993, when the project was nearing completion, Cooper’s people started asking Gaiman if he would turn the album into a comic, a request he initially denied: “For me, the fun of it was creating a concept for a concept album. And then Marvel Music came to us.”

Marvel Music, officially launched in 1994 and shuttered the following year, stands out in history as the point where comics and pop music finally attempted to merge on a massive, mainstream scale. Of course, comics about musicians dated back to the ’60s: In 1961, you could read the thrilling tale of Ricky Nelson in The Hong Kong Adventure, and by the end of the decade, master alt-comix misanthrope R. Crumb was handling the cover of the Big Brother and the Holding Company classic Cheap Thrills. But that alliance soon faded away, kept alive only by particularly entrepreneurial rockers like Kiss, who appeared in Marvel’s Howard the Duck.

Gaiman’s Sandman, of course, was a DC Comics enterprise. Known collectively as the Big Two, DC and Marvel have been engaged in an eternal battle for mainstream comic dominance since the ’30s; combined, they accounted for more than 65 percent of the 2013 market. They’ve also poached each other for decades: In 1970, DC lured Marvel legend Jack Kirby away by promising him the creative freedom to create a line of comics that would come to be known as Fourth World, and decades later, Marvel Music would attempt a similar move by offering Gaiman a place to work out his Alice Cooper fantasies.

the cover art to Snoop’s Doggystyle; also, Todd recalls, “We had an idea for one with Ice Cube set in the year 2000, where President Hillary Clinton declared war on North Korea.”

Oh, well. “Maybe it was doomed at the beginning,” says Stewart. “There just wasn’t enough of a market. Was it because we couldn’t get into the record stores? I don’t know.” Marvel was still decades away from being the masters of synergy they are today, with a TV show and an easy-to-digest backstory lying behind every corner. In 2009, at the New York Comic Con, the company resurrected Marvel Music, but in name only, as an outlet to release the scores and soundtracks to the company’s various films and TV shows. Which, in a sense, is a more boring version of the original concept: find boardroom-grade synergy in the midst of genuine creativity. “The renewal of Marvel was based not on leaping to new hot markets… but the reapplication of the strongest assets in the company’s historic core”, according to the Harvard Business Review. But releasing a soundtrack to the new Thor movie is Snooze City compared to sending Billy Ray Cyrus back in time, or recruiting Onyx to fight aliens.

In the end, Marvel Music mostly served as a vehicle for the higher-ups at a newly rich company to hang out with rock stars. “Even if we had gotten the comic books stores” to distribute, Stewart remembers, “would it have worked? I don’t know.” But some really weird and funny art emerged from the morass anyway. No Marvel Music titles — not even Gaiman’s — can stand next to, say, Scott Pilgrim or Ghost World. But at least a few proved themselves worthy of Alice Cooper.