Tom Morello could have been president. Instead, the Harvard-educated, Kenyan-American guitarist found different venues to participate in America’s political dialogue. He spent most of the ‘90s in firebrand rap-rock group Rage Against the Machine and launched a solo career under the moniker the Nightwatchman in 2003, using the latter project to turn attention to his activist organization Axis of Justice. However, Morello’s latest provocative project is an near-total departure from his previous career.
This week, he’ll be revealing his new comic book, Orchid, at the San Diego Comic-Con. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that was pushed beyond the brink, the monthly comic will follow the epic adventures of a character named Orchid. She starts the series as a teenage prostitute, but soon finds her larger destiny as the leader of a rebel group which battles a privileged upper-class and mutated monsters in fortified cities and the ruins below. In a nod to his other career, Morello isn’t just scripting the comic; he’ll also compose a soundtrack for each issue.
Orchid is published by Dark Horse, the vanguard press with a catalog including Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy, assorted Star Wars titles and the legendary Grendel series. Scott Hepburn (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) will illustrate the book and street-art icon Shepard Fairey (of Obey Giant notoriety) will supply limited-edition cover art. The first issue is due October 12.
Last week, Morello spoke with AP about Orchid, the new Nightwatchman releases, his comic’s connection to My Chemical Romance and the prospects for an album from the reunited RATM.
Aside from the guitar solo, [the Nightwatchman song] “Speak And Make Lightning” is so authentically old-timey, I thought it was a cover song. How did you get into that style of music?
I came to it late. I grew up first on metal. Then it segued into punk and hip-hop. And it wasn’t until deep into Rage Against the Machine that I discovered the early [Bob] Dylan record and the dark [Bruce] Springsteen acoustic records, like Nebraska. And that got me digging further back to the Woody Guthries, the Phil Ochs and the traditional working-class Americana music. I found it to be as heavy and moving as any music that I’ve been exposed to. And I wanted to get involved in that.
The Union Town EP ties in with your work at union rallies. In America, in 2011, with all we have now, it’s hard to appreciate what the country was like before unions. In your words, what does the country owe to them?The next time your readers enjoy a weekend, they can thank unions for that. Union people fought and died for them. If you’re 14, 15 years old and you’re not working in a coal mine, you can thank the unions for that. Some of the most basic, fundamental rights we have—an eight-hour day, time off for weekends, safety in the workplace—those things were not given.
The stewardship of this planet is in the hands of people who want to make a lot of money. And that means that you and I are byproducts of that and completely subject to the whims of capital unless we stand together. And that’s what unions are about: standing together.
You mentioned the profiteers and stewardship of the planet. Does that tie in with the world you’ve created for Orchid?The idea for Orchid came back about three years ago, in 2008. For awhile, I’ve had a story I wanted to tell. I wanted something that was part Star Wars and part The Battle Of Algiers, a big fantasy story that was laced with the politics of terror. The world of Orchid is set in a dystopian future where a defeated people condemned to a life of enslavement and poverty turn to a masked mystic warrior for redemption.
The idea was to [incorporate] my politics. I’m a huge fan of Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Dune and Watership Down, those epic, sprawling fantasies. But the one thing all those seemed to be missing, to me: They… misidentify the villains sometimes. Orchid definitely has a class element that is missing from a lot of the fantasy literature.
Have you always been a comics fan?
As a kid, a teenager, I was an avid fan and collector. I had like 6,000 comic books in my collection. In part, I drifted away from it when I started becoming politically aware, because at that point, Thor didn’t speak to me.
Did you tune out before the arrival of seminal comics such as Watchmen and the influence of Frank Miller in Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns?I grew up reading the Marvel and DC classics. I tuned out before then, so all that was lost on me. I rediscovered it maybe five years ago when I started to have the idea. I had a story to tell, and I needed to find a medium to tell it. I didn’t want to be another jackass in Hollywood with a screenplay. Given my busy life and three bands, I wasn’t going to have time to sit down and write the great American 600-page novel.
Comic books have come a long way since I was 12 years old. I’m a huge fan of V For Vendetta [by Watchmen creator Alan Moore], Waltz With Bashir, comics and graphic novels that are very exciting and very mature, as well. I thought that was something I can get down with.
How did you warm up for the project? Did you buy a “how to write graphic novels” book like Claudio Sanchez from Coheed and Cambria did?
With both my electric guitar playing and my Nightwatchman work, I am blessed with a tremendous sense of self confidence. I just put my head down and trust my creativity is gonna lead the way.
I had the bones of the story for quite some time. I love a new artistic challenge, so [I sat] down and flesh[ed] out the narrative for quite some time, while I was in the back of tour buses and hotels and home by the fireplace. It was important to me that Orchid, the lead character—she’s part Suicide Girl, part Joan of Arc. She’s a teenage prostitute who becomes the Spartacus of whores. And I wanted a real difference in a dynamic lead character.
What led you to write a teenage girl character? When most guy writers are starting a comic, they create an alter-ego who’s like them—but badass.When looking at who is oppressed in this world, who is really downtrodden, being poor and female is about as bad as it gets. I wanted my heroine to come from the last rung of the ladder.
And the teenage aspect, was that a step further down the ladder?
Yeah—how powerless can you be? A teenage sex-trade worker where the distinction between have and have-nots is stratospheric. She becomes an angel of retribution who’s got to confront her own internal demons and become a great leader or face ruin.
Are you a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre?
Not as a genre, but I am a fan of a great story. I tried to keep the epic scope and heroic arc of stories like Lord Of The Rings, but really infuse it with some political street violence, all wrapped up in our unlikely heroine.
I wanted to do a thing where I would be able to have the underpinnings of the story [as] my hardcore politics, but there’s a lot of cool-ass monsters in this. There are desperate escapes and epic battles, and the heroes are caught in the crossfire of revenge and betrayal and the fate of the world hinges on this group of people—whether they’re heroes or terrorists, you’ve got to make up you own mind. But they’re trying to reclaim the world.
How did you choose Dark Horse?
I became introduced to them by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, who’s a friend of mine, who, of course, is the creator of [award-winning comics mini-series] The Umbrella Academy. I sent him my script for the story, and he was very complimentary. And he passed it along to his people at Dark Horse, who were eager to be a part of it.
Was he part of your inspiration to create a comic?
He helped point the way. My friend Adam Jones, the guitar player in Tool, we grew up together—he’s been involved in comics, and there are some other rockers in comics. But Gerard certainly trailblazed the idea of being in an international band and also caring enough about a story and the medium of comics to take it seriously. And I take this deadly seriously.
Did you choose Scott Hepburn yourself, or was he a Dark Horse artist they matched you with?
The search took about a year to find the right illustrator. We went through some really big names who were interested. But the one thing I’ve brought to this project from the world of bands: In order to be creatively successful, you have to have the right chemistry. Scott and I clicked almost immediately. He wanted to make this world come to life, and he had a lot of great ideas to do so. He sent me sketches of the characters, and I was just blown away.
The plan is to produce new music for every issue?Each issue will have a musical score. The first issue, I believe, will have a track that overlaps with the Nightwatchman record [Worldwide Rebel Songs]. It may have two songs. But the musical score will be instrumental. I love scoring. I’ve done some scoring with the Iron Man movies. I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from Peter Gabriel’s score from The Last Temptation Of Christ and Ashes in Snow, a phenomenal art show that has a musical score. The idea of scoring a non-traditional medium appealed to me, as well.
Will the score be guitar-based?
It will be what I do: I will use the guitar, it will sound like guitar, but I will use the guitar to approximate orchestral instruments, Middle Eastern instruments, South American instruments, African instruments, so it becomes like something you haven’t heard before.
Nothing chafes fans more than a monthly comic that starts arriving every three, maybe six months. Will you be able to deliver it every month?
Fortunately, even with my busy schedule, we’re a bit ahead of a game right now. It’s a project I’m very dedicated to, and it’s a brand-new world of creative expression, musically, artistically, and politically.
What are the similarities between music fans and comic fans?
I think there’s a huge overlap. As someone who grew up as a music fan and comic book fan, they were almost indistinguishable to me. Though when I was a comic fan, my taste in music and my taste in comics were similar in that they were escapist. I sort of turned away when I started becoming a fan of the Clash and Public Enemy, more reality-based.
Now, comics have very much caught up. And any of the adult themes of courage, heroism, love, betrayal, who’s a freedom fighter/who’s a terrorist—those are themes you can discuss in comic books now, in an adult way, with a rocking soundtrack.
What are the prospects for a new Rage album?If and when there is one, it will not be kept secret. We’ll let you know. ALT