Since I write for ComicsVerse, it should be fairly obvious that comics are one of my passions. What’s less obvious is that I’ve also given my heart and soul to musical theatre. From the very first time I saw ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW on my television screen when I was six years old, I knew that I never wanted to live without the drama and excitement of musicals. This led to a stream of minor roles in community theatre and school productions. Actually, I stuck with performing long enough to spend my first semester of undergrad as a theatre performance major. Fortunately, I realized that’s not where my talents lie. I currently attend New York University, where I study book writing and lyrics in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Here, I create, with the hope of one day bringing the issues that are important to me to the stage.

As a consumer and creator of comics and musical theatre, I’ve begun to wonder why these mediums are my favorites. Mainstream society often views comics and musical theatre as lesser art forms. Largely, society views comics as entertainment for children, and they deny comics literary credibility because they have illustrations. As for musical theatre, it’s seen as silly and frivolous, and inherently “girly” or “gay” — as if those are the worst things anyone can be. People rarely take musicals seriously unless they become a movie or TV adaptation. However, both have made huge impacts on who I am as a person, and have influenced my own journey of self-acceptance.

Comic books have leaked into musical theatre, no matter how much we all want to pretend SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK never happened. Theatre has leaked into comics as well, as releases like THE BACKSTAGERS prove. Why is that? Well, if you really pay attention, I think that you’ll find comics and musical theatre have a lot more in common than just Tom Holland.

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The Flash and Flair

The thing about comics and musical theatre that caught my attention in the first place is the sense of heightened reality. It’s interesting that both mediums have this in common, as their presentation is so drastically different. In comics, readers flip through frozen moments in time that often display exaggerated emotions or physicalization. Some comics are more subtle than others, but more American comics than not will employ artwork that is emotionally leading. In particular, vibrant coloring or cartoonish backgrounds act to enhance the emotional impact of a panel or sequence.

Heightened Reality in Comics: KIM REAPER

In KIM REAPER, from the publisher Oni Press, there are often big, cartoonish expressions on characters and backgrounds that take a step away from realism. In KIM REAPER #1, as Becka is overcome with her infatuation for Kim, writer and illustrator Sarah Graley implements both. These techniques are also present in QUANTUM TEENS ARE GO (Black Mask Studios), JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS (IDW), and old-school ARCHIE comics.

Image from KIM REAPER #1, courtesy of Oni Press.

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Heightened Reality in Musical Theatre: NEWSIES

Audiences often view musical theatre at a distance from the stage. Because of this, exaggerated actions and movements are used to help with visibility. However, these movements are also a style choice which heightens the reality of the onstage world. Dance, instrumentals, and song aren’t day-to-day things in the real life of audience members, but they’re performance tools that shape how the audience feels in that moment. Lighting and set pieces, like the coloring and backgrounds of comics, also enhance the emotional impact of a scene.

NEWSIES opened on Broadway in 2012 and tells the tale of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. Through set pieces that were giant displays of newspapers and a dance number that represented a strike, the musical captures the rebellion of the young boys who created a union and took on the greedy media Goliaths of the late 19th century. Moments like the dream ballet in OKLAHOMA, or even full productions like CHICAGO and CATS, also use movement, lighting, and sets to lead the audience to a very specific feeling or understanding.

Video from the 2012 Tony Awards performance of “Once and For All/Seize the Day” from NEWSIES.

The Baring of Souls

Comics and musical theatre allow characters to express their inner thoughts and feelings in ways other media doesn’t allow. This fosters a deeper intimacy between a musical’s audience and its characters. It’s easier to find parts of yourself in someone if they give themselves more fully. However, in reality, people are rarely forthcoming. So how do comics and musicals pull this off?

Introspection in Comics: THE PUNISHER

Marvel’s THE PUNISHER often utilizes inner thoughts. Frank Castle is hardly an emotionally open man: single-minded and solitary since the murder of his family. He rarely says more than he needs to, and he doesn’t get too close to people. To foster an audience attachment while keeping Frank in character, the comics give us thought bubbles or narrative boxes. As seen below in a panel from THE PUNISHER (2014) #1, narrative boxes give Frank some vulnerability. He works through his difficulty coping in a way he would never verbalize. IZOMBIE (Vertigo), BLANKETS (Top Shelf Productions) and THE INFINITE LOOP (IDW) are even more comics that give readers a deeper look into characters.

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THE PUNISHER (2014) #1
Image from THE PUNISHER (2014) #1, courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Introspection in Musical Theater: FALSETTOS

In musical theatre, songs often play with the momentum of time. Writers frequently use them to either ease a quick time lapse or freeze time so the audience can look deeper into a specific moment. By hitting the pause button on the clock, we get to see into a character’s soul. Even if the actual lyrics don’t reveal the explicit truth, that’s the job of the music. The musical FALSETTOS, recently revived on Broadway in late 2016, has numerous songs that access inner feelings. In this concert performance of a song from the show, “Holding to the Ground,” Trina works through the uncertainty of her life as her ex-husband’s male lover is in the hospital wasting away from AIDS. More examples include “Playing Nancy” from GROUNDHOG DAY, “Satisfied” from HAMILTON, and “Dust and Ashes” from NATASHA, PIERRE, & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812.

Video from a 54 Below concert performance of “Holding to the Ground” from FALSETTOS.

Censorship and Politics

Typically, creators of comics and musical theatre have more freedom to create highly politicized art. Historically there has been no shortage of the law shutting down theatrical productions for “immoral” or “damaging” content. However, theatre artists have always been willing to risk their livelihood to get their messages out at all costs. As for comics, the 1954 Comics Code brought about the end for many publishers, titles, and characters. However, many of our favorite superheroes were created in an artistic effort to speak out against Nazism, like Captain America and Wonder Woman in 1941 and Hellboy in 1993.

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Politics in Comics: PEEPLAND

A current example of a politicized comic is Titan Comics’ PEEPLAND. Set in the mid-eighties, the comic explores political and police corruption while addressing the treatment of sex workers, the queer community, and people of color. It’s a racy and edgy comic that embraces darkness with a purpose. These issues aren’t ones many people want to deal with, but they’re real issues. These issues very much exist still today, and they must be brought to light. BLACK (Black Mask Studios) and BITCH PLANET (Image) are more comics that aren’t afraid to get political, as well as the far more mainstream example of X-MEN (Marvel).

Image from PEEPLAND #2, courtesy of Titan Comics.

Politics in Musical Theatre: SPRING AWAKENING

In 2006, SPRING AWAKENING opened on Broadway. The musical is an adaptation of the controversial 19th-century German play of the same name. SPRING AWAKENING addresses the problem with refusing to give adolescents proper sexual education and draws parallels between the failings of the 19th century and the failings that continue in modern education. SPRING AWAKENING touches on rape, incest, physical abuse, bisexuality and homosexuality, suicide, and abortion. On a lighter note, it also manages to speak frankly about masturbation in an attempt to destigmatize it. In the clip below, “The Bitch of Living,” six school boys talk about the sexual fantasies that plague them. “I Am What I Am” from LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, “If You Could See Her” from CABARET, and “I’m Here” from THE COLOR PURPLE are even more politically driven song moments.

Video from a press music video of “The Bitch of Living” from SPRING AWAKENING.

A Melding of Minds

What I love, as both a creator and consumer, about comics and musical theatre is the fact that, for the most part, they’re largely collaborative art forms. Comics require a writer, an illustrator, a colorist, a letterer, an editor, and more. True, sometimes a person will take on multiple jobs, and if it’s a small, independent comic it might fall on a singular person, but for the most part, the creation of a comic is up to a team. The same goes for musical theatre. In the development of musicals, you have a lyricist, a composer, and a book writer. A lot of times, it’s a team of two that divide the responsibilities how they see best, but it’s still a melding of perspectives.

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When it comes to television and film, there’s a saying that a script is written three times. First, it’s written by the screenwriter. It’s then written again by the director. Finally, a script is rewritten yet again by the editor. For comics and musical theatre, it’s entirely different. Obviously, the final product filters through editors and such, but the creative process for comics and musical theatre starts as a group effort. I think that’s so important in art because it allows a greater authenticity. The human experience is not a singular one. Therefore, to form a piece of art through multiple sets of eyes is to get a more complete understanding of humanity.

Collaboration in Comics: WYNONNA EARP

One of my absolute favorite comics, WYNONNA EARP, is a great example of collaboration. I’ve always loved WYNONNA creator Beau Smith’s witty and gritty writing for this supernatural Western. The titular heroine, Wynonna, is a no-nonsense sass-machine with a dirty mouth and a reckless streak a mile long. However, some of the earlier releases in this franchise left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Wynonna is hard to take seriously in her earliest over-sexualized depictions. However, Lora Innes is responsible for the artwork for most of WYNONNA EARP (2016), and she brings both fun and power to the visuals of this extraordinary world. There’s still an edge to Wynonna, but she’s softer. She’s accessible and tangible. Innes’ Wynonna feels like someone I could know. She feels, in some ways, just like me. I never feel more connected to these stories and characters than when Smith and Innes team up.

In the opening of WYNONNA EARP (2016) #1, Wynonna seizes an opportunity to vent about her boss Dolls’ inconsistency when it comes to a hard or soft approach. She blames her need for stability on her “dysfunctional house on the prairie” childhood. Her listener is revealed as an armless baddie with a gun to his head just as Wynonna thanks him for lending an ear. Then, she promptly shoots his head to bits.

WYNONNA EARP (2016) #1
Image from WYNONNA EARP (2016) #1, courtesy of IDW.

Collaboration in Musical Theatre: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

As for musical theatre, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is an outstanding testament to collaboration. The musical follows the story of a young gay man — Hansel — who reluctantly undergoes sex reassignment surgery in order to marry a man and relocate to the other side of the Berlin Wall. Hansel — now Hedwig — emerges from the surgery to find that their vagina has closed up and all that’s left of their penis is a one-inch mound of flesh.

John Cameron Mitchell writes a book full of heartbreak, rage, and the confusion of identity. He captures Hedwig’s bitter outer shell in snappy, sometimes brutal dialogue. Meanwhile, Stephen Trask’s music and lyrics cut to the core of pain, love, and loss. His music is raw, vulnerable honesty. Together, Mitchell and Trask meet in the middle to tell an incredibly authentic story about the desperate search for any kind of love.

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The clip below, while taken from the 2001 movie adaptation, is identical to this portion of the stage production. Here, Hedwig is getting back to their love of music after a rough and recent divorce. They perform a song, “Wicked Little Town,” that is a bittersweet culmination of their experiences and desires — a song that is soon to be stolen by lover, musical apprentice, and eventual nemesis Tommy Gnosis.

Video from HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001).

Why are Comics and Musical Theatre Important?

To me, comics and musical theatre take some of the biggest risks in their storytelling. They embrace the stories and characters that other media shies away from, and while they’re certainly not perfect, they’re making some of the more notable efforts toward inclusion and diversity. These art forms have fewer people to answer to, and so they reach for honesty with no fear. Since these mediums have smaller audiences, they can take greater risks.

Comics and musical theatre are fantastical and bold. They both embrace a suspension of belief, while also getting to the very real heart of who people are. I believe that these mediums make the highest efforts to understand the inner-workings of humankind and the differences between us all. Sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes they’re dark, but they capture emotion, struggles, and life. Sometimes they’re historical events, and sometimes they’re complete fiction, but they’re the most genuine expression of our fears and desires. Comics and musical theatre allow the truth inside of us to be laid bared and celebrated, and they allow us to connect in deeper ways.

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