Tom Morello, best known for his guitar work as a member of the political rock act Rage Against the Machine, hosted a packed Q&A on Friday night at the 2012 Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo. “Hi, everybody, thanks for coming, I have no prepared remarks!” Morello said as he entered the room to thunderous applause.
Before the Q&A began, Morello delved into the history behind his Dark Horse series “Orchid,” which is currently on its sixth issue. His path to writing a comic was a long one, dating back to his childhood in Libertyville, IL, where his mother would buy him comic books from the spinner racks at pharmacies. He accumulated thousands of comics during his early teens, before discovering music and politics, but the escapism of epic fantasy stuck with him through his music career. When the story for “Orchid” came to him, he knew comics were where the story belonged.
The Q&A kicked off with a question about the inspiration for “Orchid,” which Morello described as a mixture of childhood escapism and adult politics. “Why are the vassals always trying to put their knights back into power? What is the story of the vassals in [J.R.R. Tolkein’s] Minis Tirith?” With “Orchid,” Morello said he hopes to bring that story to the fore. In order to lend an authenticity to his story, the characters in “Orchid” are based in a large part on Morello’s friends from his early days in L.A. when he was trying to make it as a musician. He knew many drug addicts and prostitutes who took him in and treated him well even when no one else would. His hope is that “Orchid” makes real people in those walks of life more relatable and human to readers.
While there are no follow-ups to the series currently planned, it’s possible that he will one day return to the “Orchid” universe to tell another story. Morello finds the deadline system of the comics industry a hindrance to the creative process and method he is accustomed to in other endeavors. “In my rock life, people usually wait for you to work up to a new show. In comics, I have a very cruel taskmaster sort of — waiting for the next issue.” Morello explained. “So it doesn’t matter if you’re Tom Morello?” “Hell, no!” Morello answered, to a round of laughter and applause.
Morello then laid out the lessons he has learned while working in comics. “I thought it would be more of a solo endeavor, but everything is collaborative. After working out a deal with Dark Horse, we set out to find an artistic collaborator. Lots of artists threw their hats into the ring but we just didn’t have the chemistry,” Morello started. “It’s like starting a band — everyone has to work together. Scott Hepburn was suggested by my editor. He sent some sketches, and it’s been collaboration all the way.
“We long ago divided the story into twelve issues, so now we’re writing issue eight,” Morello continued, answering a follow-up question. “We get on the phone and talk about how things should go. He’ll send me thumbnails, and then we’ll get back on the phone and talk about it in excruciating detail, and then he’ll send a second draft and I’ll write to the thumbnails — and then he’ll ignore what I said and draw what he wants anyway!” Morello emphasized the importance of his collaborators in the production of “Orchid,” saying, “The things I lean on are people with experience, like Scott’s an illustrator and Anthony Arnoff is a literary editor. The people who do it for a living may provide better advice.”
Several fans asked Morello about how “Orchid” ties into his musical career, prompting a reminder that there are soundtrack companion pieces released with each new issue of the series at http://nightwatchmanmusic.com. Although he writes a score for “Orchid,” he does not plan on releasing a concept album based on the work — though he has considered the possibility. “I like to keep them separate. I like having a score to it but, frankly, I haven’t really thought about it that much. The answer is no, I’m not going to.”
Many questions were about Morello’s stint in Rage Against the Machine. When one fan asked if there was any news on an extended reunion for the band, Morello replied, “No news. Nothing happening. I answer it all the time — but nothing’s happening. Tell your friends nothing’s happening so I can stop having to answer this question! There are no shows planned for this year, though, but we may have something to mark the 20th anniversary. I swear, if anything is going to happen, we will announce it, so you can stop asking!”
Responding to an inquiry about his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, Morello replied, “It looks grim — the music industry looks grim, but it may not be a bad thing. What I can’t abide by is the whining and bitching of an industry about people who work minimum wage downloading music when corporations used to sell a 14-cent CD for $14. One of the reasons we’re still talking about Rage Against the Machine 20 years later is because the torque that Epic Records brought to the band, but that doesn’t happen right now. A band like Rage Against the Machine wouldn’t get that kind of deal. Corporations would rather sell ringtones than help an artist.”
Fans also asked Morello about his other musical stories, in particular what it is like to play with artists he greatly admires. On playing with Bruce Springsteen, Morello said, “It’s pretty fucking cool to play with the Boss, man. As some of my anarchists say, he’s the only boss worth playing to. I get super nervous playing with the Boss — I mean, make sure there’s a bottle of Jameson in the dressing room!” Another fan asked about playing with Boots Riley, the rapper in Morello’s band “Street Sweeper Social Club.” The origin of his relationship with Boots, and the band itself, involved Morello sitting Boots down at a restaurant and telling him that they were not in a band together. This origin was enthusiastically dubbed by one audience member as “the most Rock origin of a band ever!”
Morello’s experiences with comics and music led a fan to ask him just what other talents he possesses, leading into the topic of “Guitar Hero.” At some point in the hit game’s series, Morello actually became a playable character in the game, an experience which produced both good and bad results. New fans being exposed to his music is an obvious upside. The bad results were much more varied and humorous. “For the next four years, someone would come up and say, ‘Bro, I kicked your ass in ‘Guitar Hero!'” Morello said. “I’d be, ‘Bro, you’re a grown man playing video games!'” Quickly realizing his audience, Morello added, “But I can’t even kick my own ass in the game. I do have the game in my house, though, only so little kids can come over to my house and kick Tom Morello’s ass in a video game.” Perhaps the strangest encounter as a result of his post-“Guitar Hero” fame was with an elderly woman at a grocery store who asked him, “My son Jimmy is 5 years old, and he loves you in ‘Guitar Hero’ — do they make stuffed animals of you?”
Morello’s politics were the panel’s final point of discussion with the musician explaining that while believes in political activism, he argues that an artist’s mission should not be to make the world better, but rather to be true to his or herself. “If you have political ideas and you aren’t expressing them out of fear, then you’re not being true to yourself. I think it’s horrible when artists harboring convictions in that realm don’t do anything.” Asked if Scott Hepburn shares his views, Morello downplayed the importance of political similarity in artistic collaborations. “There was no litmus test with Dark Horse or the illustrator. I’m clear about my politics, Dark Horse agrees to put the book out, Scott agrees to execute it and that’s all there is. [Political agreement] is not mandatory.”
Asked how a young suburbanite could get his political feelings across, Morello pointed to his and Serj Tankian’s non-profit social justice organization, Axis for Justice. “There are so many kids in suburbs who have the drive and will to change the world, but they have no way to plug in.”
The final question of the night asked if Morello would ever run for public office. Morello quickly nixed the idea, explaining that he once served as an office worker for a Senator. Morello quickly realized the senator was not allowed to speak as candidly as Morello is capable through his art. In one instance, Morello answered a phone call into the office from a woman complaining about Mexican people moving into her neighborhood. Morello listened until she was done, and then responded, “Lady, you are a damn racist and you’re going to hell.” He got yelled at from everyone in the office for two weeks. The experience bolstered his belief that art was the proper outlet for his political commentary. “If I’m in a job where I can’t call a damn racist a damn racist, I’m not interested.”