“You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours with adamantium claws.”
Hip-Hop, more so than any other genre of music, has been littered with comic book references since the very beginning. The two art forms have played back and forth for years, whether it’s rappers dropping lines about rampaging like the Punisher, to comics artists doing covers for albums, and recently, coming full circle with artists using album art as an influence for book covers.
The comics industry nearly suffered a deathblow in the 90s, but as we all know, nothing in comics ever stays dead. Thanks to a slew of massively successful movies and a transition to digital, the medium has regained traction, with pre-orders for eagerly anticipated issues reaching sales numbers not seen for over 20 years. This is great news for those of us who never gave up on comics, and writers, artists and editors haven’t forgotten that even at it’s lowest, the world of comic books had dedicated fans in the music industry, especially Hip-Hop, and now that the industry is experiencing a revival, the chance to team back up with their former partner in crime seems like a no-brainer.
Last week, Marvel released images of upcoming alternate covers for Deadpool and Howard the Duck as direct homages to El-P and Killer Mike’s critically acclaimed album, Run the Jewels. Marvel Comics’ head honcho Axel Alonso got in touch with artists Mahmud Asrar and Skottie Young and pitched the idea, secure in the knowledge that El-P and Killer Mike are both self-admitted “lifelong fans” of comics. While the two mediums have been symbiotic in their use of references in the past, Alonso said that this current blend of rap and comics is "very much something that's of the moment." Still together, after all these years, the music and the art remain linked and will continue to influence each other as long as they both exist.
From the underground to the mainstream, and hardcore to nerdcore, there are far too many shout outs, references and alter-egos in Hip-Hop to possibly catalogue them all, but there are certainly a few stand outs that deserve mention in any story dealing with the relationship between the two industries.
The kings of comic book lines are the MC’s from heralded super group The Wu-Tang Clan. No allusions to be found here, from the opening lines of “Protect Ya Neck” where Inspectah Deck mentions swinging around like Spider-Man, to the alter-ego of Ghostface, Tony Starks, the clan makes no bones about which characters they’re rapping about. There was even a deleted scene in the original Iron Man movie that featured the “real” Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr. meeting Tony Starks, AKA the Ghostface Killah at a cocktail party. His track “"Slept On Tony With Dirt" is also playing during the plane scene featuring the dancing flight attendants. Method Man often refers to himself as Johnny Blaze (aka the Ghostrider) and the Wu even had a limited run series from Image called The Nine Rings of Wu-Tang. On top of this, the cover art for the album Wu-Massacre featured portraits of Ghost, Rae and Meth drawn by Marvel Comics artist Christ Bachalo.
At one point, the madness hit a peak when the Abbot himself, Wu-Tang head honcho and metaphysical mastermind the RZA took some of his earnings from the rap game and put them toward a bulletproof car, suit and various gadgets that he was going to use to fight REAL crime as the masked hero Bobby Digital.
Some artists can be subtle about their influence, and others straight up don the style and moniker of the hero or villain they’re inspired by.
One only has to look at acclaimed underground rapper and man of mystery MF-Doom. Donning both name and appearance, and rocking a metal mask (MF=Metal Face) just like the Latverian Dictator himself, Victor Von Doom, the rapper also uses samples from the old (and terrible) Fantastic Four cartoon from the 60s. His mimicry extends so far as to even include the idea of “Doombots”. In the comics, Dr. Doom keeps his motivations and actions mysterious by employing the use of robotic copies of himself to fool his rivals. In the real world, The Madvillain is notorious for doing something similar; staging shows that occasionally feature someone else under the mask. A tactic that both entices and enrages fans that never really know whether or not it’s the real deal spitting bars on stage
Sometimes, the mash-up evolves past a simple verse, or piece of cover art, and ends up being an entire project. From top to bottom, the 2013 album Czarface, a collaboration between Wu-Tang MC Inspectah Deck, and the Boston originated producer/MC duo 7L & Esoteric, is the ultimate blend of comics and Hip-Hop. The album is littered with references to various characters, with one track actually titled “Marvel Team-Up.” It features samples and cuts from various old cartoons like The Super Friends, and cover art from artist Lamour Supreme. In an interview with HipHopDX, Esoteric discussed the aesthetic he was going for and why Lamour Supreme was the right man for the job.
“I wanted it to be very Jack Kirby influenced. I just love Jack Kirby’s art. Lamour Supreme, who works for Mishka, had done stuff for Jack Kirby’s museum, and it made a lot of sense for him to do the art and he killed it. He developed CZARFACE based on the ideas I gave him, in terms of what I wanted it to look like and what he represented. I would reference Ultron and Major Blood and all these different metal-clad villains or heroes, and he just went with it.” Deck also chimed in, saying, “A lot of the real Hip Hop heads, the true school Hip Hop generation, they know what that cover’s all about. We grew up with those comic books, some of us are still die-hard fans of that.”
As cool as it is to use the art from comics, or borrow names and themes from the stories, it’s pretty rare in Hip-Hop for an entire, two-part track to be based entirely on the merging of both media. Rare, but not unheard of, and anyone who has an interest in the amalgamation of music and books can tell you about Secret Wars 1& 2 by The Last Emperor. In this daunting endeavor, The Last Emperor pits the best MC’s in the game against their fictional, comic book rivals in a piece that is half rap battle, half annual “nothing will be the same” big summer event. Ras Kass combats Magneto, Busta Rhymes trades blows with Dr. Octopus, and Professor X attempts to unleash carnage on the one man in Hip-Hop that you just don’t battle, KRS-ONE. The song is an awesome, incredibly creative idea that works so well, and with the nature of Hip-Hop and comics both strongly based in the idea of competition or combat, it’s a match made in heaven.
So country music can keep its outlaws, and metal can keep its Vikings. Hip-Hop will always be home to wall crawling New Yorkers and super powered outcasts.