Interview: Alan Robert on Comic Books, Horror Movies, and Life After Life of Agony
There are crossroads in every person's life, and many years ago, former Life of Agony bassist-songwriter Alan Robert faced a major one. The very year he graduated from The School of Visual Arts, having gone there on scholarship with every intention of becoming a comic-book artist, Robert's band was offered a record deal with Roadrunner and he forced to make a choice. He opted for music--to the relief of metal and hardcore fans everywhere. However, he never lost his passion for comics and continued to develop an idea called Wire Hangers, which was published in 2010 to critical acclaim. This past January, his graphic novel Crawl To Me sold out in the first week of its release. A deluxe hardcover rendition, titled Crawl To Me: Evil Edgar Edition, is due out in July. Crawl To Me is also being scripted for a live-action adaptation to be directed by David A. Armstrong, cinematographer of the SAW franchise.
This October, Robert will release of his latest comic-book series, Killogy, about three murderers whose characters are based on the likenesses of actor Frank Vincent (Goodfellas, The Sopranos), Ramones drummer Marky Ramone, and actress Brea Grant (Heroes, Dexter). Robert recently sat down with Revolver to look both back and ahead at his life in music and comics.
REVOLVER When and how did you first get into comic books?
ALAN ROBERT When I was about 10 years old, my dad shared with me boxes of the Silver Age comic books that he had collected growing up. The ones my Grandmother didn’t throw out, that is. Lord only knows the valuable books she tossed thinking they were junk! Anyway, he had everything from the very first issues of The Amazing Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk to Batman/Detective Comics and rare monster books. It was a really great collection and I was hooked from that point. I had always been drawing, even early on, but once I saw those books I was inspired to make my own characters and to start writing my own stories.
In the '80s, I’d head out to the local New York Comic Cons--nothing close to what they are now--and would meet my favorite artists like Mike Zeck, who drew The Punisher, and to get my books signed. By that time, I was drawing my own comic books, photocopying them and selling them in the local comic shop. It was a lot fun and kept me out of trouble.
As I got older, I became more and more focused on my art and eventually received a scholarship to The School of Visual Arts in NYC. I had every intention on becoming a professional comic book artist and received a Bachelors degree in fine art. That was the very same year that Life of Agony got signed to Roadrunner Records, which postponed my artistic plans by about, I dunno… uh, 20 years or so? The last few years, I’ve been cranking out my own comics professionally through IDW Publishing and it really feels great.
At The School of Visual Arts, you were taught by “Thor” artist Walt Simonson. What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
Walt is an amazing artist and a great teacher. He’s straight up with his students and really brought up everyone’s game. He prepared us for portfolio reviews, which was very important. Eventually, the ultimate goal was to land a job at Marvel or DC drawing the characters we all grew up on. Building a powerful portfolio to show around to the various comic book companies in search of work was the main focus.
Walt had a very down to earth approach and I appreciated that. I guess the biggest takeaway for me was learning to translate comic book scripts into effective page layouts. I learned a lot about pacing tricks and storytelling by doing his exercises. In school, I remember having homework where we had to interpret some RoboCop scripts and things like that. It was demanding and intricate. Especially at that age, because at the time, my classmates and I were way more excited to draw these giant splash pages and didn’t want to focus on the sequential art so much. It was all about the big hero shot, because that’s where the action was and was more fun to draw.
But Walt ran a tight ship and kept our heads in the right place, on the fundamentals. He’d bring in some other top comic book talent into the class to lecture us, including his wife Louise. It was all very eye opening and cool--learning the complexities of the comic book industry from an inside perspective. I was a huge fan and enjoyed it.
Just recently, Walt wrote a fantastic introduction to my Crawl to Me graphic novel, which was a huge honor for me. I reconnected with him at NY Comic Con and showed him my published work. It was a real full-circle experience to hear the nice things he thought about my storytelling.
When Life of Agony was signed and started to take off, how hard was it for you to put your passion for comic books on the back burner?
By the time LOA got signed, I was already in my senior year in art school. The band was building great momentum and you could just feel that something was going to happen. There was a definite aura about it. There was something really special going on with the band that I couldn’t ignore.
On the flipside, I was getting close to graduation and the thought of going around searching for work in the comic book industry--in which I had no connections in at the time--seemed like an extremely daunting task filled with rejection and disappointment. It was the early '90s and the Internet was just in its early stages, so online portfolio submissions didn’t even exist yet. You literally had to meet a comic book editor at a convention, strike up a conversation, show off your work and IF he was interested--which was a long shot--he’d hand you a business card for you to send more stuff along. After that, you might get an interview to meet some more folks who would ultimately give you a low paying job inking a small book or something like that. It sounded absolutely brutal to me.
With the band getting signed and some talk of booking some national and international tours, it became pretty clear to me that I was going to pursue the music at that point. I figured that even if the music didn’t pan out, I could always fall back on my art. The excitement of being a founder of a signed band, recording and performing my own music for a living overshadowed any comic book dreams I had, because they seemed so far away and unreachable.
Do you think that your interest in comics had any impact on what you created in Life of Agony?
Absolutely. For one, I illustrated the band’s iconic skull logo. The LOA logo not only became really popular with our fans, but it became super important to the band’s marketing and branding. When fans would see that logo on a poster or T-shirt, even if it didn’t have our band name next to it, they would immediately associate it with our music. It really became a powerful icon.
The logo went on to appear on all of our merchandise and albums over the years, not to mention on the countless fans themselves, who got the logo tattooed on them permanently. Over the last two decades, I’ve designed every Life of Agony T-shirt, poster, and website design the band has ever produced. I also provided creative direction for other fine artists to execute album covers and arranged cover art photo shoots. Being an artist has been so helpful in communicating visual ideas: everything from illustrating designs for staging scrims to contributing ideas to video directors for music video treatments. It’s been a great way to keep my drawing skills up, and staying creative while keeping busy and make a living with music.
What’s the origin of your latest series Killogy?
Ah, Killogy, my new baby! This is such a fun project for me. I’m working with some of my childhood heroes on something very new and different. It’s a mixture of horror and dark comedy told in intertwining stand-alone tales. The main story follows three murderers who’ve been arrested and thrown into a police holding cell overnight. To their surprise, they are not alone. They’re left to their own devices in order to figure out the impending supernatural events, which threaten their survival in captivity. Their individual stories slowly reveal information that may lead to their escape...
The three main characters are all based on the likenesses of actor Frank Vincent [Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Sopranos], Marky Ramone [legendary punk drummer, formerly of The Ramones], and actress Brea Grant [Heroes, Dexter]. I’m writing and illustrating the books and it’ll come out this Halloween through IDW Publishing. I’m super stoked about it.
What possessed you to want to model murderers after those three people? And how did you get their permission?
The characters are very different from each other and very specific looking. When I first started my character designs for the book, I quickly found that my illustrations resembled the celebrities in which I ended up approaching. I haven’t really seen something like this done in an original comic book series and thought it would be a lot of fun to draw, as well as being a challenging thing to take on. I also think that from a reader’s standpoint, it’s very cool to have these celebrity’s voices in their heads while reading the dialogue. It gives the characters life and believability, which helps to drive the story forward. In my opinion, it definitely adds a unique feel to the series, separating it from other books in the genre.
Approaching the stars for their involvement seemed like such a long shot at first. I mean, I didn’t know any of them personally and I really didn’t know if they would be receptive to the idea. This wasn’t a typical licensing situation. It’s not like I wanted to make a comic book based on an existing property of theirs, this was an all-new property, which involved my original characters. One by one, through my various contacts, I found mutual friends to these people and met with them. I pitched the idea and got them interested. It actually went pretty smooth, once they heard the concept behind it. They were all very flattered that I wanted to turn them into comic book characters and I couldn’t be happier to do it.
I’m about halfway through issue one and it’s going great. It has a very different art style than my previous works and I’m anxious to see what everyone thinks about it.
How far along is the film adaptation of Crawl to Me?
We’re about a week away from receiving the first draft of the movie script from the screenwriters. We have David A. Armstrong, the popular cinematographer from the Saw franchise, on board to direct. I cannot wait to sit down and read the script. Up until a few months ago, we went through a lengthy screenwriter search, which involved meeting with over a dozen screenwriters who submitted treatments to adapt the property. We got our hands on some great up and coming talent, screenwriters TJ Cimfel and David White. The creative process has been going super smooth and judging from their treatment, I think the film will be even more terrifying than the book.
Quite a few rockers have also worked on comic books, from Rob Zombie to Claudio Sanchez to Glenn Danzig. Are you a fan of any other rockers’ comics?
I’m always interested in checking out other musician’s comics. I think it’s awesome and I feel connected to them in some way because of that mutual passion. Last year, at the Revolver Golden Gods Award show, I actually caught a few minutes to chat with Rob Zombie at the after party. I handed him my Wire Hangers graphic novel to check out. It was a very cool experience chatting with him. He had actually heard of Wire Hangers and had seen some of my artwork online. I have the utmost respect for Rob: He’s super talented as a musician, director and as a comic writer. I hope to work with him one day on something.
Do you think Life of Agony is dead for good now that Keith has transitioned into Mina? And how did that transition affect you?
First off, I fully support Mina and her decisions to live her life the way she wants to. I think it’s great that she’s finally able to be comfortable in her own skin. I can’t even imagine what she’s experienced, dealing with all of those feelings bottled up for years and years. Anyway, we’ve been friends since childhood, so whether LOA is active or not, I will always be there for her, and she knows that.
In regards to LOA, I actually don’t think Mina’s transition is the ultimate reason the band isn’t active right now. We’d been doing a lot less touring over the last bunch of years, way before she announced her personal news. The whole Broken Valley record affected us in such a bad way. I’m still very proud of that album, but we were completely mishandled by Epic Records. We didn’t accomplish what we set out to do and it was a big disappointment for all of us. As a result, we became disheartened by the music business to the point that we didn’t even want to write new music together anymore. We still enjoyed playing live, so we did that a few times a year in short stints. But it became a lot less frequent.
We started to realize that if we were going to continue as a band, that we would have to sit down and write a new record together. We couldn't just go out there tour after tour performing the same old songs. We started to talk about writing new material more seriously and passed around some musical ideas amongst the four of us. But that never really went anywhere. We were already on different pages, musically and emotionally. We had all moved on to other things, other projects. I honestly don't have any hard feelings that we were unable to get it together. We had an amazing run, a successful career lasting 20-plus years. We did amazing things together and I'm grateful for that. I would never say that's it's over for good, or close the door forever because life continues to offer unexpected opportunities all the time. You never know what's gonna happen. As long as we're all still breathing and healthy people, there's always the chance of doing it again.
I can only speak for myself, but I can say that starting a family has definitely made me want to tour and travel a lot less in general. For that reason in particular, I'm much happier being home working on my comics and film projects. It fulfills my creative needs and allows me to live the life I want to at this stage.
So comics are your focus now? Or are you also working on some new music with another project
I have my hands pretty full with the Killogy comic series and the Crawl to Me movie through 'til next year. I’ve also been developing a limited edition Crawl to Me hardcover book that will be released by IDW Publishing later this year. It’s an oversized edition and includes some never-before-seen artwork. It’s really something special. There will also be some very cool variations of the book, too. I can’t announce the details just yet, but keep your eye out for it soon. For more info, check out my site alanrobert.com for updates and I always like to post in-progress shots of my artwork on Twitter: @arobert
But I'm far from done with creating music. It will always be a passion of mine. Besides the movie soundtrack stuff, I'd also love to complete the follow-up album for my punk band, Spoiler NYC. Our debut, Grease Fire in Hell's Kitchen, was received really well a few years back and it would be great to crank out some more punk rock tunes again! Just gotta make the time to do it.