Crank Up the Colors : Armed with blazing six-strings and super power amps, Metallica, Ozzy and other rock 'n' roll heroes are leaping from the larger-than-life concert stage to a whole new fantasy world: comic books

Chuck Crisafulli is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

For generations, rock 'n' rollers have dreamed of being the Beatles or Stones. But now some of them are trying to out-muscle Batman and Superman.

No, Metallica hasn't started wearing capes and Ozzy Osbourne can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but they've each got the one thing that certifies super-hero status: their own comic book.

In an ambitious appeal to rock fans and comic fans alike, the first four issues of Rock-It Comix have swooped upon comic book shops, music stores and newsstands. The magazine-size books are the newest series from Westlake Village-based Malibu Comics.

Most of the company's non-rock comics take place in an "Ultraverse" populated by well-muscled heroes with names like Sludge and Firearm, as well as fiendish villains such as Bloodbath and Bruut. Rock-It stories are more likely to begin on a tour bus, and might describe the adventures of a wailing guitarist beset by fiendish censors.

In the first batch of rock comics, the exploits of Metallica, Ozzy and metal queen Lita Ford are all detailed in explosive, full-color artwork, while the story of upstart record company World Domination is told with striking black-and-white paintings.

The current release of the first four titles gives Rock-It its kick-off, and monthly releases are now planned throughout 1994. Metallica's historical retrospective will be spun through three special issues, with Part Two coming in March. A Black Sabbath book is scheduled for release this month, with a Megadeth book also coming in March.

In all, nearly 30 bands have become interested in working with Rock-It, and confirmed forthcoming titles will cover such diverse acts as Santana, Pantera, Pharcyde, the Doors, Yes, PM Dawn and the Lemonheads. Many groups have provided exclusive photos and interviews to for their comic sagas.

The flesh-and-blood rockers depicted in the Rock-It line couldn't be happier about being rendered two-dimensional--they helped to create their books.

Ex-Runaway Ford even helped write her own story, in which she, her band and her faithful dachshund Chili Dog do battle with the oppressive forces of Libby Snore (almost rhymes with Tipper Gore)--leader of the PMRC and commander of some zombie-like Young Republicans.

Ford also oversaw the artwork for her book, which was done by respected comic illustrator Jim Balent. She's thrilled with the results.

"It's almost like having an album out. There's the same level of excitement. Fans are coming up and saying, 'We love your comic,' and asking me to sign it, just like they'd do with a record."

Ford is not only proud of her comic book, she's actually a bit envious of her penciled and inked self. "It's fabulous and wild-looking," she says. "I'm putting some of the artwork on one of the guitars I'll use in concert, and I also hope to wear on stage the costume that the artist created for my character. But I keep looking at the breasts he drew for me, and I wish the real ones looked as good!"

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Comics have been good to Scott Rosenberg, the founder and president of Malibu Comics. He became an entrepreneur at 13 when, having exhausted his meager savings buying up comics, he promptly began selling off his more valuable titles.

"That's the only way I could make enough money to keep buying more comics," says the 31-year-old self-described comic fanatic. "I started renting tables at conventions and began my own mail-order business. In 1986, having graduated college, I decided it was time to become a legitimate publisher. The way I funded the company's start-up over the first few years was again by selling off half of my comic collection."

Rosenberg is extremely happy to be producing a rock 'n' roll comic book that the rockers themselves can enjoy.

"We only wanted to work with bands that really wanted to bring their creative vision to an illustrated form," he says. "A lot of what goes on in music merchandising is distanced. Somebody buys a license to use a band's name or image and then goes off and makes widgets using that name and image. The bands aren't involved. But we want the bands to take pride in their comic book."

The story lines in the Rock-It series will range from straight bio to phantasmagoria, and the artwork may be presented as traditional comic panels, stylized paintings, or something in between. But Rosenberg explains that the process of putting a Rock-It title together is always the same.

"Our creative people begin by brainstorming about the bands they want to cover," he says. "It doesn't have to be an act from the pop charts, but it does have to be somebody who will be exciting on the page--somebody could sell a million records and still not be a good choice for a comic book story."

Through a partnership with the Gold Mountain Entertainment management firm, Rosenberg has access to a wide range of musicians, whom he hooks up with appropriate writers and illustrators.

"Once we've decided on the acts we want to work with, we approach them through Gold Mountain and let them know that they can do anything with our resources," Rosenberg says. "Anything they ever wanted to do in a video or a movie, they can now do in a comic book without ever worrying about the budget. The musicians approve the artwork and contribute to the writing of their story. Panel by panel, they tell us what to do, and we love it."

John C. Anderson of the marketing and promotion company International Strategic Marketing liked the Rock-It concept enough to sign on as a third partner. His company will have the finished books selling alongside the X-Men in comic book shops, and alongside Rolling Stone in music outlets and at newsstands. Future plans may have the $3.95 comics sold at concerts as inexpensive alternatives to tour programs.

"It's a great cross-pollination," says Ron Stone, president of Gold Mountain, whose acts include Nirvana, the Lemonheads and Bonnie Raitt. "Comic book culture and rock 'n' roll culture head toward each other anyway, and both are taken very seriously by some people. Comic books are no longer the domain of pimply-faced 12-year-olds. A lot of people read them, and a lot of those people listen to rock 'n' roll."

Stone and Jack Jacobs, Gold Mountain's director of acquisitions, began discussing a blending of rock 'n' roll and comic books two years ago when they were looking for a novel way to publicize World Domination, Stone's newly formed alternative record label.

They did some research into the comic book world and found that publishing giants Marvel and DC were more interested in owning characters outright than working directly with musicians to create new books.

But with Rosenberg, they found a kindred spirit.

"I've always been a fan of music--everything from the Carpenters to Poison," he says. "And I'm a madman about comics, so the idea of Rock-It was something I jumped at right away."

While typical comic books can go from conception to publication in a few months, the inclusion of the musicians in the approval process means that it can take a year for a Rock-It title to go from drawing board to comic racks.

"Poor Scott," says Gold Mountain's Stone, chuckling. "None of the characters he's created have ever talked back to him before."

Rock-It Comix are not the first books to plunk down rock 'n' rollers in a format normally suited to super-heroes and dastardly villains. Batman and Superman were joined for a short time in 1992 on the DC Comics roster by Prince & the New Power Generation (another installment is due soon).

Marvel, home of the Fantastic Four, once put out an Alice Cooper comic, and a pair of KISS titles it released in the late '70s have become collectors' items now selling for $50. Marvel has also just released the first edition of, huh-huh, a Beavis and Butt-head comic (it is "recommended for immature readers only").

From less-well-known comics publishers there have been lines of unauthorized band histories and one-shot rock 'n' roll parodies.

"Most of the unauthorized books have had unimpressive black-and-white art and have been kind of shoddy," Rosenberg explains. "They were unauthorized not in the cool sense of that word. They were just slapped together. We're doing authorized versions, but these aren't all publicist-polished biographies. They're not sanitized. Sometimes the bands want to go in directions that surprise us."

Ford didn't shy away from allowing herself to appear as the sexy protagonist of a violent story.

"I like sex and violence," she says, laughing. "They make my day. I've always been a fan of tough women in films--Sandahl Bergman wielding an ax and that sort of thing. Now, in my comic book, it's like I'm getting to be an actress in that kind of movie."

Illustrator Balent, a hot name among comic fans due to his powerful drawings of such sexy super-vixens as Vampirella and Catwoman, says he enjoyed turning Lita into a heavy metal Amazon.

"I'm a big fan of strong women, fangs, claws, and rock 'n' roll," he says. "Working with Lita was a dream come true."

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Some books, like Ford's, will take advantage of the form and stretch into the fantastic. The Ozzy tale sends the singer into an ominous nether world to pit his wits against hellish monsters. Ozzy's late guitarist Randy Rhoads appears as a force of light to steer him back to the world of the living.

Other rockers will use the comic book as an opportunity to tell their band's history in their own words.

Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath is a comic collector himself and is the proud owner of first issues of Spider Man, X-Men and, most appropriately, Iron Man. He co-wrote the story line for the Black Sabbath comic, and says there was satisfaction as well as challenge in putting together the authorized history of the band.

"It's nice to be able to get the facts straight about Black Sabbath for a change, but I found out it's possible to get too factual for the comic book form," he says. "A good comic has to have the right kind of drama, and most of all it has to be a good read, so our history had to fit the form we were using."

He and longtime bandmate Tony Iommi opted for a fairly straight historical approach in the Sabbath comic, rather than use elements of fantasy, horror or science fiction. They also felt the band would be miscast as supermen.

"Maybe if Ozzy was still in the band we could all be super-heroes, but I can't really imagine me and Tony flying around and doing good deeds," Butler says.

Illustrator Balent believes that Rock-It has finally solved the difficult task of giving a comic book some rock 'n' roll spirit.

"There's always been a real problem mixing music and comics, because you're just never going to capture a truly electrifying performance in a comic book," he says. "You're not going to get killer guitar licks off of an inked page. My first concern with Rock-It was that they might just want flat representations of concert scenes, and frankly I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to read metal lyrics for 22 pages.

"But when I found out that the artistic approaches and story lines were wide open, and that the wishes of the musicians involved would be treated as gospel, I knew this was the way to go."

The Rock-It line is currently being featured prominently at the three Golden Apple comic book shops in the Los Angeles area, and owner Bill Liebowitz says they are making an impression.

"The Ozzy book is selling well because he's so well known, and the Lita book is selling well because Jim Balent's art is so well-liked," he says.

Liebowitz is giving the Ozzy book a special push on Feb. 22, when Osbourne will make an in-store appearance to sign 1,000 special editions of his books, which will be sold on Feb. 20 and 21.

Rosenberg is past validation these days, and is well into uncontrolled glee. The expectant father says that he sometimes finds it hard to believe that his adult day job consists of running a comic book company and fielding calls from his favorite rockers.

"I'm the kid in the candy store. When I wake up Monday morning, I'm bummed because it's been a day or two since I was at the office. I may be a grown-up, but I'm still kind of nuts about comics and rock 'n' roll."

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