Last year, comic artist Matthew Rosenberg, a lifelong Wu-Tang Clan fan, sent off pitches to several rappers with ideas for album stories. When he got the call that rapper Ghostface Killah was in the studio, he wasn’t aware that the new record would be based on one of the stories he’d pitched.
“I was like, oh, cool, what’s the story of the record? Because I honestly didn’t know they went with my thing,” he told Co.Design. “And they were like ‘Uh, are you fucking kidding? It’s your thing, you wrote it.'”
Rosenberg knew he needed to get started on the album’s accompanying 11 page comic book that night–the music industry moves a lot faster than the world of indie comics.
The artist did have experience in this realm: he’d written an accompanying comic book for Ghostface’s last album, 12 Reasons To Die. But this time, instead of depicting the already-written themes of the album in a separately sold comic, Rosenberg had crafted the story himself from beginning to end, giving him the bizarre role of creating the album’s entire narrative without once touching a mixer or writing a verse.
For the new album, 36 Seasons, his story was divided into 10 chapters (for the original 10 songs, which ended up as 14 by the end of the recording process), which in turn were each represented by one page of comic art. The story is based on a truly classic motif: Odysseus’s homecoming at the end of the Odyssey.
“It’s a common theme of a guy who’s been gone a long time [coming] home and things have changed for him personally and the world around him, and he’s struggling,” Rosenberg says. “It’s about friends betraying him and him doing wrong by the people he loves and trying to make [that] right.”
Ghostface’s management originally wanted Rosenberg to create a play-by-play graphic novel version of the record, but the artist decided against it.
“Ghost is such a good storyteller, to literally tell the same story as him in comics is like, not exactly fun,” he says. Instead, Rosenberg opted to represent each song with a piece of art that drew out one aspect of that song’s story or mirrored its themes.
The same night as he got the phone call, Rosenberg says “I made a list of maybe 30 of my favorite people in comics and just started sending out emails.” With those who said yes, he assigned out the songs based on which artists style he thought would fit both the subject and artistic vibe he wanted for that part of the story.
For example, the page for the first song represented Ghostface’s return home after a long time gone. “It looks like a storybook, like a Young Adult book cover,” he says. “I wanted a peaceful, serene feeling to start, and then it just gets crazier [from there].”
Due to the many artists involved, there are as many styles as there are pages. But the resulting art has an overarching noirish feel.The front cover of the record, done in the style of a movie poster, features an ominous, gas mask-like face emerging out of darkness.
Ghostface’s figure is often highlighted against the darkness around him, cast as a rare hope for the struggling community. Even those first two pages, which are beautifully painted, demonstrate the unavoidable reality that Ghostface’s homecoming reveals. The left half of the page shows him facing towards us, holding his bag, as the street is illuminated in a warm, colorful glow behind him. On the right, we see him facing back towards the street, which is suddenly ominously overcast, its dirt and graffiti made visible by his perception.
Rosenberg believes the record easily stands on its own as a great artwork, and he conceptualizes his curated work as a read-along visual guide.
“I proposed [an idea] that’s like a super violent children’s book,” he says. “It’s a visual companion to the record.” He does believe his contribution of an overarching plot makes the album unique. “Just the narrative story itself is not something a lot of people are doing in music,” he says. “and I think taking that and doing [the comic book] is taking it to the next level.”
The themes of the story are extremely prescient in America’s current political climate, where two grand juries decisions to make no indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers has shaken citizens’ trust in the justice system, and ignited anger over police brutality in minority communities.
“The antagonist, the villain of the story, is a police officer,” Rosenberg explained. “The [story’s] idea is really about [Ghostface] wanting to police the community himself, and not being able to trust the police. The idea of the police as an occupying army, as a gang.” In this story, redemption comes not from expunging the criminals, but the corrupt police officers from the community. “People struggling to get by and having to commit crime is not the epidemic that needs to be talked about right now,” Rosenberg says.
The mask featured on the cover is a central symbol in the album’s story; Ghostface dons it as he assumes his role as the underdog savior of his old home. It may be ugly and frightening, but that doesn’t prevent the rapper’s character from making a positive impact on his community.
This gets to the heart of the album, and it’s artistic interpretations. On 36 Seasons, much like in the real world, the good guys don’t always look pretty, and heroes may arise from the most unlikely places.