In his relatively short career in comics, Troy Brownfield has worked on it from all angles. He's worked as an editor for Fangoria's comics line as well as the Scream Factory, he's written comics for the likes of Dynamite's Buck Rogers franchise and DC's Batman 80 Page Giant, and he's been a writer about comics for Newtype USA and Newsarama. But for his recently launched webcomic Sparkshooter he's relying on a different skillset: managing bands.
"When I first had the idea for Sparkshooter, it sort of came in fully formed," Brownfield said. "I’d really started working with bands, doing everything from moving equipment to writing songs to booking gigs, when I was about 16. I didn’t play in a proper band myself at that point (though I still played sax in the 'basketball band' at school), but my best friend was playing guitar and formed a group by senior year. It became the center of our social orbit for our last year of high school. Going forward, I was constantly involved with bands and music scenes for years."
Launched on Feb. 29, Sparkshooter is The Rolling Stones meets Avengers. Vs. X-Men: ten bands vying for success in a Battle of the Bands competition set in Brownfield's hometown of Indianapolis in the year 2003. After years of managing, booking and just being around bands, the ideas for Sparkshooter came on pretty quickly.
"When it hit on me that I wanted to write about a band situation, two common threads of my experience came together. One was a four-man band line-up, and the other was the installation of a new lead singer," he said. "It was about three seconds before I decided that the new lead singer would be female and that elements of her arrival would make some things brilliant and make some things lurch in upheaval. Shortly afterward came the idea that the four guys were moving from the ashes of another group into a new situation; I’d certainly seen that a time or 12."
Brownfield said a four-person band is "fairly iconic" in music and apropos for telling a story.
"It’s pretty archetypal. It also allows for a balanced mix of personality types that both play to and subvert the stereotypes associated with each of the roles in the band," Brownfield said. "Based on history and expectations, everyone generally assumes that the drummer is the wild man, the bassist is the steady guy, the lead guitarist is the Lothario, etc. That’s certainly true is some situations, and I wanted to borrow a little bit of that and bounce off of both real personalities that I’d dealt with and other inventions of my own."
Brownfield gave a breakdown of the band members, describing them in musical terms and references:
Ray: Ray is the guy that isn’t seen in the four preview promos. He’s the lead singer of Crazy Yeats, and he’s a huge thumping pain in the ass. I named him Ray after the singer from And And! And that Jimmy forces Outspan and Derek to fire in The Commitments. The lines “He’s goin’ solo”/”He doesn’t have any bleedin’ choice” always cracked me up, and they fit with something that happens in the first few pages. But Ray will stick around as a character. And remain a huge thumping pain in the ass. He’s like that guy that was in the band at your high school that smoked weed with his brother at nine and checked out Proust from the library because he saw someone reference it in Spin, and now he thinks this makes him worldly. I believe you will want to hit him. And that’s okay.
Sean: Sean’s the brunette guitar player and occasional singer. He’s the one that, at 25, senses that this might be their last chance if they really want to make it as a working band. Sean’s pretty thoughtful, and has previously been a reluctant front man. He’s excited to get a new singer, and sort of relieved it doesn’t have to be him. There’s a lot of my best friend Shawn Delaney in him, as well as some of the less caustic late ‘80s/early ‘90s shoegazing musicians that loved making amazing noise with the guitar but not necessarily being the center of attention.
Elihu: In the ‘80s, there was a student at Rose-Hulman that ran a BBS that a lot of kids in my area (Terre Haute, Indiana) used to log into. This pre-internet visionary was named Elihu. I always liked it for a character name, and kept it around since there wasn’t anything appropriate; consequently, I thought it was a great name for a lead guitar player. Our Elihu is extroverted, given to braggadocio; in some ways, he’s a metal axe-slinger in this alternative guy’s body. He’s Sean’s best friend, and they balance each other in interesting ways.
Sondra: Some of my favorite acts are male bands fronted by women. Blondie, Curve, Cowboy Junkies, Garbage . . . hell, Janis fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company. There’s a great dramatic juxtaposition there. As a female front woman, you’re often called upon to be sexy, but you have to be tough. You might not be the one writing the songs, but you’re the voice. There are a lot of contradictions in that spot. It’s also interesting because Sondra’s the rookie in the band. She’s got to step into these pre-existing channels of communication and fit. That mirrors Chanda Guth, who sang in a group with me and Shawn Delaney. Shawn and I had been friends for 13 years at that point, and we totally had to alter the way we expressed ideas to each other to accommodate this new person. Our wives joke that we understand each other in grunts, and that’s sort of true. We have this sort of version of twin speak that’s a language of song, movie and anecdotal references that get ideas across to each other that almost no other human perceives; it’s like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard has to learn the alien’s language to beat the invisible monster and establish peace. Yeah, I just said that. On another note, I, with permission, borrowed Chanda’s interesting ethnic background for Sondra. Her mom’s parents were from India and Japan, and she was a pop singer in Asia. That was too good to not tap into in a story sense.
Lowell: Bass players are a little different. With exceptions like Les Claypool, Robert Trujillo and Cliff Burton, it’s a vocation for the less flashy guys. With Lowell, I wanted to have this big, steady dude on bass whom happens to just be an extremely interesting cat off-stage. Lowell’s drily funny, and he knows practical things like cooking and how to fix an engine. He frequently finds himself the peacemaker and/or Michael’s sitter.
Michael: I have managed, worked with, booked or been friends with so many drummers named Mike that I’ve lost count. And they are all fucking nuts. The biggest influence on Michael from the world of rock is Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices. One thing there is, in my opinion, one of the best gags in the whole story. But that won’t hit for like a year, so I don’t mind referencing it.
Jack: Jack is the manager. And it would be easy to say that he’s me in a lot of ways. But he also stands in for the audience. He’s allowed to break the fourth wall on occasion, but in a slightly more organic way. You’ll see what I mean; there are times that I really want to evoke the feeling that you’re in the clubs and bars where this is going on. In fact, if you’ve been in the clubs and bars where bands are playing, a lot of these dramas and funny things are happening in front of you, and you just aren’t privy to it. Like me, Jack loves the guys in the band, but there are always times that he wants to kill them. It’s like Ian in This is Spinal Tap; I quoted that “There’s no sex and drugs for Ian, David! I find lost luggage!” speech to Shawn probably a thousand times in 15 years.
Sparkshooter takes place in the all-too-real Indianapolis music scene where Brownfield cut his teeth as a music booker and manager. From real-life venues like Radio Radio, the Melody and Birdy's to the promise of real musicians from that scene making cameos in the comic, Brownfield is anchoring this heavily into his hometown music scene. On the upcoming seventh page of Sparkshooter, artist Sarah Vaughn set the comic on Indianapolis' Guilford Avenue near the now-closed club Patioo, which hits home for Brownfield.
"I will say, though, that Sarah Vaughn does an absolutely champion job with the settings," Brownfield said. "[Seeing Page 7] was like looking into an inky version of my 20s. We have, admittedly, taken a couple of liberties with Broad Ripple, adding a couple of extra venues for plot’s sake. But many of the places are or were real."