Rock music often intersects with comic books, whether it's Anthrax penning their ode to Judge Dredd ("I Am The Law"), R. Crumb illustrating a Big Brother and the Holding Company album cover or Archie meeting the Ramones and KISS meeting Vampirella on the page.
In 2016, fledging publisher Z2 Comics began testing that often shaky market. Now, with successful graphic novels from Babymetal, Skillet and Black Veil Brides frontman Andy Biersack under their belt, along with forthcoming offerings from the Grateful Dead and country singer Sturgill Simpson, they're running ahead of the pack.
"Rock music historically has been for people that feel they don't belong anywhere else or are a bit against the system," says Skillet frontman John Cooper. "And come on, it's not like growing up that you were the coolest person on the block if you were playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading Detective Comics. There definitely is crossover there, just like there is for rock music and WWE."
During a five-minute walk with Skillet through the recent New York Comic Con en route to our designated interview spot, three fans recognize Cooper, which surprises him. Clearly, the crossover is there, and Z2's recent sales on their top titles have been solid: Between 8,000 and 22,000 copies for each, according to the publisher.
When Billboard sits down with Z2 Comics founders and publishers Josh Frankel and Sridhar Reddy, as well as head of business development Josh Bernstein, just prior to their own Saturday night NYCC panel Making Music in Graphic Novels, they are palpably excited. They want to produce books of quality -- and have taken note of previous failed experiments by other publishers.
"I think part of the problem people have had with music comics in the past is they use it as a simple cash-in," says Frankel. "They'll slap the band's name on it and it can be of subpar quality and does okay, but it's not something you can hang your hat on. There was a Metallica comic four years ago, and it did okay because it's Metallica. But it got licensed. There wasn't much loving care. We could do a Metallica book and probably sell 100,000 in our sleep versus them selling 10,000."
"What we always tell musicians is this is not merchandise," stresses Reddy. "If your album is 1.0 and your next album is 2.0, our book is 1.5. It has to have the heart and soul of the musician in it because fans will pick up on that immediately. You've got to give fans credit. They understand when something's just a cash grab. Whereas [with] something that actually comes from the artist that they love and understand, they can pick up immediately when the artist is involved."
Frankel started self-publishing his own comics while in college in 2010. He soon connected with rock journo, Revolver Golden Gods Awards co-creator and comics maven Josh Bernstein. Thanks to the latter's personal connection to Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame, Frankel did a comic with Pekar called Cleveland in 2012 under the ZIP Comix banner in conjunction with Top Shelf. In 2014, Frankel, with a different business partner at the time, founded Z2 Comics. But after the duo parted ways amicably, he brought Reddy onboard.
"One of the reasons we did music books was just pure desperation," admits Frankel. Initially, their single book, non-music titles released in 2015 did well, but, as with other publishers at the time, "each issue #1 did worse than the one before it." He told Reddy that they should get out of the single-issue market or they would go out of business.
Z2's first music graphic novel was 2016's Welcome To Showside by Ian McGinty. They made a six-minute animated pilot for it, and Reddy got Henry Rollins to voice one of the characters. It was an epiphany. "Henry's a musician, he has cache in all these different roles, and a following as Black Flag and as someone [who] is a trustworthy source of culture," says Reddy. "It planted the seed way back then about doing these things. Then Murder Ballads came along."
According to Frankel, Murder Ballads from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys sold better than expected. They also produced a five-song EP tie-in exclusive to the release. From there, they jumped onto the Paul Oakenfold title Perfecto, which was also bundled with an original, exclusive soundtrack from the popular DJ. They learned something valuable with that release: DJs do not tend to take merch on tour. Another key project to come along was Babymetal's Apocrypha: The Legend of Babymetal, which moved 22,000 units, making it the biggest Z2 music title so far.
With interest in their brand growing faster than anticipated, Frankel and Reddy enlisted Bernstein in early 2018 to plot out their future direction and projects. Bernstein, who started his career as a Marvel intern at age 16, had worked with them unofficially for two of the three years prior. Z2's reach now extends into many popular music genres.
Beyond being a longtime bucket list item for Cooper, Skillet's post-apocalyptic sci-fi graphic novel Eden reflects their individual personalities, things they believe about the world, and the struggle that he and his wife/bandmate Korey have gone through. "It took us 10 years to really get any attention in the band," notes Cooper. "It always felt like me and her against all the odds, so that the book has a bit of that feel to it. To me, that's the most personal."
Different musicians working with the company appreciate their personal touch as well. "Working with Josh and everyone at Z2 has been a pleasure," Biersack tells Billboard. "My creative interests tend to be centered around world building and creating characters through which my lyrics and ideas can be brought to life. I would attribute this in large part to my passion for comic books that started at a very young age. When I came to them with the concept for The Ghost of Ohio, they were immediately engaged and the work that was done by everyone in their creative team to bring my vision to life was invaluable."
Cooper also says Z2 were very helpful in educating him about the process of comic book creation and finding the right artists and co-writers (Alex Paknadel and Dan Watters of Random Shock Studios) to create a graphic novel that he is very pleased with. His Skillet bandmates are also happy with a book that taps into the hope they foster and the community they have cultivated.
Reddy invokes the term "fan rabidity" in terms of how the Z2 team researches artists for potential projects. They look for credibility in terms of not just sales but fan passion. "You go on Reddit and you start doing a deep dive into the culture behind the band" says Reddy. "You see comments like, 'This band changed my life. When I was in a dark place, this meant a lot to me.' When you see multiple people having that same narrative, you know there's a connection between this musician and their audience." More often than not, when the company approaches such artists, they have comic book ideas that will resonate with fans.
Frankel adds that authenticity is important. Skillet's John Cooper "is a giant comic fan," he says. "He has a Batman tattoo on his leg. So he brings a real love of the medium, and he really wanted to do it and was passionate. It wasn't just a cash-in to try to get the Christian audience."
Big Facebook numbers do not always mean people are tuning in. Bernstein states that "we're more into engagement over reach." When Z2 first learned of Yungblud, he had only 50,000 Instagram followers but garnered 20,000 engagements per post. "Now he's got 1.4 million followers and getting 400,000 engagements," says Frankel. "The sell-in on that book has been insane. We printed 15,000 of the first run and already sold 10,000. We'll probably have to reprint that soon because his fan base is so rabid."
"Z2 were so supportive of everything I wanted to do creatively and elevated me so inspirationally that I was able to fulfill my vision in its complete entirety," remarks Yungblud. "I can't wait to do the next one with them."
Credibility and durability are key artistic components to Z2 projects. "[Someone like] Gotye is the biggest artist in the world and headlining Coachella, then gone the next year," says Bernstein. "There's no buy-in from the fans there. We like to work with artists that have a story to tell but also have those super fans."
Sales have been good thus far for Babymetal's Apocrypha (22,000 copies), Andy Biersack's The Ghost Of Ohio (8,000), Skillet's Eden (10,500), Yungblud's The Twisted Tales of the Ritalin Club (10,000 pre-sales) and Poppy's Genesis One (8,000 pre-sales). Frankel expects sales to rise during between now and Christmas. "We may sell all those out and have to reprint because 70% of book sales are in Christmas," he says. "Our Facebook ads become 5 to 10 times more effective in the Christmas season."
The literal music tie-ins with many titles adds another level of allure to Z2 releases. Auerbach and Oakenfold are not the only ones bundling music with their comics. The Poppy book includes a vinyl LP release, while Skillet have a QR code in the front of their book to link to the original song called "Dreaming Of Eden." Andy Biersack's Ghost Of Ohio tied into his solo album of the same name, while musician and graphic novel author/illustrator Dave Chisholm released a separate, full-length soundtrack to his Instrumental title for Z2.
With album sales on the wane over the past decade, comics are an interesting proposition for rockers, particularly with a product that is tangible, colorful and no longer has an uber-nerdy stigma attached to it. "Labels and artist managers are now seeing this as another opportunity to create more canon for their storyline between albums, bundling with albums, creating a new revenue stream, creating a new merch item to take on the road or to bundle them with VIP packages and tours," says Bernstein. "The price point compared to what a hoodie costs on the road is actually a bargain."
Wheels are in motion. The Yungblud book will be available countrywide by the end of the month. They have a Sturgill Simpson book being written by veteran comics author Jason Aaron (Thor, Doctor Strange) coming out next September with "some very prestigious Japanese artists" attached. The Grateful Dead: Origins book arrives in April, and five more Z2 titles will be announced in January. Of the company's 20-30 planned titles for 2020, at last 75% will be music related, and they will be hiring additional staff as well.
The Z2 crew has some personal dream projects coming up, too. "We're gonna do projects with the dudes that were on our bedroom walls growing up," says Bernstein. "Pinch us."
Frankel says he hopes that their graphic novel releases will convert some music fans into comics readers. He observes that many Babymetal fans bought the Poppy book, and slowly but surely some readers of select titles are becoming overall Z2 fans. That said, Z2 will not do superheroes. They do not need to compete with name heroes from Marvel and DC. They are carving out their own niche.
"[While] it's not the main goal, one of my dreams would be eventually to hopefully have Z2 help build an artist," says Frankel. "I don't ever want to be a label. There's no fun in that. But I'd love to eventually be able to work with labels and say, 'You have an up and coming artist, maybe this can help break them.'"