Tom Morello can be described many different way and his resume of accomplishments is unparalleled. As the guitarist for Rage Against The Machine, Audio Slave, and Nightwatchman, Morello’s unconventional style challenged conventional guitar playing and re-imagined rock guitar for a whole new generation. Rolling Stone Magazine named him one of their “100 Greatest Guitarists” and his accomplishments on guitar stand up to the greats like Hendrix, Page, Rhoads, and Wylde. On top of his accomplishments as a musician, Morello’s commitment to political activism that is truly inspiring as he’s spent time helping organizations like Sweet Homes New Orleans post-Katrina and Amnesty International.
Now Morello can add author to his resume, as he’s just completed the 12-issue comic book series, “Orchid”, for Dark Horse Comics with artist Scott Hepburn. “Orchid” is the story of a teenage prostitute living in a post-apocalyptic future and trying to survive under the brutal rule of tyranny. After watching her mother get brutally murdered in front of her own eyes, she is empowered to become the leader of the uprising and overthrow the oppressive government using the powers of an ancient relic. Morello adds horrific monsters and political messages into the mix to create a powerful and emotionally compelling tale of sacrifice and redemption that is truly larger than life.
Morello was kind enough to sit down with Bloody-Disgusting to chat about the conclusion to his 12-issue epic, post-apocalyptic dystopia in “Orchid”. Throughout the interview Morello comes across as a intelligent and passionate artist that has a true passion for the creative process, which he spills out on the pages of “Orchid”. He spoke at length about how he successfully made the transition from rock god to comic book author, and how Orchid artist Scott Hepburn managed to squeeze some bloody beheadings into the book.
BD: Tell us a bit about the genesis for Orchid and how the idea sort of blossomed?
Tom Morello: It was about four years ago that it started. I originally did not conceive of it as a graphic novel, it was just a story that I wanted to find a home for. Artistically I wanted to tell the story of Orchid and the options that were in front of me were to write the great American novel, become another jackass with a screenplay in Hollywood or return to my roots in comics. I was a huge comic book fan and had amassed thousands of comic books at my childhood home in Illinois. When I picked up the guitar I kind of left comics behind and over the last decade I’ve really re-visited my love for the genre. Comics are a medium in which nothing is off limits and you can tell stories that are intellectual and philosophical, but still action packed. There are really no boundaries with the medium and I thought that would be the perfect place to tell the story of Orchid.
BD: You’ve said that Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance was instrumental in helping to open the door for you in the comic world. Go back to that conversation for a minute, because I’m interested to know if Orchid was fully developed at that point or was Gerard able to impart any wisdom from his comics writing experience?
TM: It was a fully developed idea at that time and I had about a twenty-five page outline of the narrative written at that point. I showed that to Gerard and he said, “Hey they might be interested in this over at Dark Horse.” The structure of the story was pretty well set from the inception.
BD: Comic book writing differs drastically from writing prose, as I’m sure it does from composing music. We recently spoke to Corey Taylor who said that there was a massive learning curve for him when turning in his first few scripts for House of Gold & Bones. Was there a similar learning curve for you or was the world of Orchid already so fleshed out that you could just jump right in?
TM: Absolutely. I felt confidence in the story itself, but there was certainly a learning curve in terms of realizing it panel by panel. Thank goodness that I had Scott Hepburn with me as the illustrator, as he was sort of the M.V.P of this project, and he was spectacular in his sense of cinematography throughout the book. I was able to draw on his years of expertise, as well as the editors over at Dark Horse, to really make sure that the story was able to fulfill my vision and still come across as compelling.
BD: What was it about Scott Hepburn’s artwork and style that made him the obvious choice for this project?
TM: Well after I hooked up with Dark Horse, it was about a year before we found Scott. Some of the big names in comic book illustration threw their hat in the ring, but I found that much like a band, in order to make great art you have to have great chemistry. It wasn’t as simple as pooling talent and then one plus one was going to equal seventeen. There were some uneven relationships in the early stages, but when I came in contact with Scott I was in the studio working on one of my Nightwatchman records and he emailed over some of character sketches. I had given him some fairly detailed outlines of who I wanted these people to be, and his sketches not only matched those expectations but they exceeded them. I knew immediately that this is someone that I could work with and that would bring the work to a whole new level, as well as fulfilling my vision.
BD: Scott really did a fantastic job at bringing this world to life and creating some fantastic visuals for the book…
TM: Someone sent me an e-mail saying that Bloody-Disgusting is the #1 horror site online, and for the horror fans out there I will point out that the one thing that Scott Hepburn gave me more of was bloody beheadings. (Chuckles) I didn’t write in those bloody beheadings to the degree that he likes to draw them. Part of this book that we had the most fun creating was the creatures of the wild. The idea was that in this dystopian future toxic tides have risen and smashed genetic codes, creating all these creatures that can’t be domesticated. We had a great time conjuring up all these scorpion-bears and saber-tooth cats with the bone on the outside, but Scott would find a way to have these creatures disembowel the population. (Chuckles) That is why it was so great to work with Scott is because he put himself wholly into this book. While Scott sort of bringing my world to life, he was also putting an indelible Scott Hepburn stamp on the book as well. I was a fan of his work before Orchid, but I think his work on this book is right up there with some of the very best comic book illustrators out there.
BD: With Orchid you seem to be building the characters just as much as you are developing the world they live in. Was it an intentional thing to make the world a character within the story sort of like how Gotham City is within Batman?
TM: Absolutely. The two sort of non-living characters within the book are the city they live in and the mask itself. We really wanted those to be distinct entities that were in some way recognizable as something that would be able to grow out the world that we live in now and still have their own personality. Troubled times demand troubled stories and that is what we were aiming for with Orchid.
BD: Without giving away the ending, “Orchid” does offer you the opportunity to come back to the characters.
TM: It’s possible. If I do come back and work within the world of comics at some point it will be within the world of Orchid, because I had such a great time and love these characters. There are no plans at this moment to come back, but we did leave the door cracked open and we do have some potential ideas for future Orchid adventures. We really could have written this in about 40 issues, but we got it down to 12. There is really a lot to this world and these characters, and I think we’ve forged a really compelling 12 issue story. I’m very happy with the way it turned out, but there definitely is a lot more that we could explore.
BD: I would love to see you explore more of the back-story of the rebels and their uprising.
TM: I have an idea for a story that would come after Orchid, but I also have a story exploring the Last Saint and how they collected the relic. It’s funny, I have a two-year old and a three-year old at home and I’m also making a solo record on top of that, so there are only so many hours in a day. When I do something I am all-in, and this is not a comic series that I farmed out and just put my name on. I oversaw every panel, every dotted “I” and crossed “T”, because this story meant a lot to me and I wanted to make sure it fulfilled my vision. I’m very thankful that Dark Horse allowed me to do that and to Orchid fans that have been tremendously supportive around the globe.
BD: One thing you said that I thought was brilliant was “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” If you shift the perspectives and look at Orchid from a character like Tomo Wolfe’s point of view she is essentially a terrorist from his standpoint.
TM: One of the ideas that I’ve explored in a lot of my work is what is legitimate violence. The idea that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist is absolutely true. Orchid and her band of rebels are very clearly terrorists in some people’s eyes, and it goes both ways with state terror that is imposed on bridge people. I had very early lessons on perspective dating back to the cold war era’ and I remember thinking to myself that if my teacher told me that they were lying about us, maybe we were the ones lying about them! It was at that time that I decided that I was going to make up my own mind and not be spoon fed any sort of dogma from either side. I think that hopefully Orchid in the context of a thrilling fantasy narrative makes that same point.
BD: Stepping into the comics world, do you think your background as a musician was a double edge sword in that in that it gave you a means to generate some buzz about the book, but also gave fans this preconceived notion of what the book might be like?
TM: There may have been a preconceived notion as to what the book might be, but my experience as an artist definitely helped. Creating art that has moved people is something that I’ve strived to do throughout my career. That has always been sort of the north star that I’ve always followed and aligned myself to for nearly twenty years now. I wanted to make a graphic novel that was going to have all the visceral mosh-pit frenzy of a Rage Against the Machine concert, but still have dark introspection of a Nightwatchman coffee house show. I wanted to use all the arrows in my artistic quiver to tell the story or Orchid.
BD: Orchid is a politically infused story, but were you worried the politics may scare off potential readers?
TM: Well the intention was to write an action packed epic post-apocalyptic thriller. Like everything I do, it had to be infused with my world view. First and foremost my songs and my writing has to be compelling as an artistic piece.
BD: A number of musicians have made their foray into comics with Corey Taylor, Alan Robert from Life of Agony, Claudio from Coheed and Cambria, and Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance. What do you think it is about hard rock/metal musicians, that allows them to seemingly make the transition between mediums so successfully?
TM: Well I think that a lot of them were comic book fans as a kid. As youths who feel disassociated with the places we grow up and don’t feel like they are a part of mainstream consumerist culture, I gravitated towards two things; hard rock and comic books. That is a pool you are drawing from and maybe who are making pop music or country music weren’t necessarily comic fans. I think when you feel alienated then comics can put the band-aid on the wound.
BD: Does working on a project like this allow you to come back to music with a fresh perspective?
TM: It was interesting ping-ponging between the two, because music is a very tactile event where you are sitting in a room with other musicians writing or recording songs. When you are performing a show in front of an audience there is an immediate feedback, but the writing of Orchid was done in blissful silence. I wrote it in my studio, but it was just me and the voices in my head guiding their way onto the page. I really like the idea of having two worlds where one is action-packed fists in the face and the other is sort of this mental mosh-pit.
BD: The comics medium is one of the only mediums that you can work in where you can bring one person’s singular vision to fruition exactly as you envisioned it without any outside interference.
TM: Comics are very unique in that there is nothing that you can’t explore. You don’t need a 200 million dollar budget to show the world of Orchid on the page, but if you were to put it onto the screen that’s another story. Some of the biggest decisions in the world of music and movies are made due to budget constraints, but not in the world of comics. The only time there was every any ever sort of conflict with the folks over at Dark Horse was in the last issue I needed two extra pages. I told them that I cannot tell this story without those pages and they understood. It turns out that those two extra pages are two of my favorite pages from the entire book.
BD: The original artwork must look phenomenal up close. Did you get a chance to get any of Scott’s pages from the book for your own personal collection?
TM: Oh’ ya! Poor Scott, when he comes to town I pillage his art. He’ll occasionally frame one and send it in the mail, but I’ve got my favorite twenty-five pages or so from the series that I was able to keep my own personal collection. We did a signing and Scott was selling the original artwork and I was yelling, “No give it to me!” (Laughs) I think it was sort of cool that people that really love the series can pick up a piece of art from Scott and take it home with them.
BD: It must be fun for you to do a signing in the comics world and have fans who might not be familiar with your music, but they love Orchid.
TM: Well it goes both way because I had some fans of my music that have never bought a comic but, but they picked up Orchid and a whole new world got opened up to them on the comics side of things. Then there are plenty of comic fans that might only be vaguely familiar with the name Rage Against the Machine or Nightwatchman, but they just love Orchid. At comic con this year I was unable to make it, but there were a couple people that dressed up as Orchid, which was fantastic. It’s unbelievable to think that this work that matters a great deal to me, also resonates with fans enough for them to want to dress as the characters, which I think is great.
BD: Fans can read issue #1 on Bloody-Disgusting for free. Give us your pitch for why fans should be checking this series out?
TM: I would say that Orchid is set in a dystopian future, where a teenage prostitute must overcome her own personal demons to become the Spartacus of whores. It is a world that is ravaged by environmental disaster and economic inequality. Those on the lowest rung of the ladder have to find a way through a legendary ancient relic, to throw off a brutal dictatorship. The wild card in all of this is that genetic codes have been smashed and there are ferocious creatures of the wild that are ready to prey on everybody regardless of their political affiliations. Enter Orchid and good luck to her.
BD: Can you give us a quick update on everything you have going on in your musical career?
TM: Well I am working on a new solo record, but it might not be titled a Nightwatchman, because this is going to be a heavy rock record. This will be the first time since Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave that I’ve made a really big rock record. It’s just a time to rock and I’ve written a batch of songs with huge riffs and huge grooves. I’m working it out with my band now and we’re about five songs deep at this point, but we’re taking our time with it. It will definitely be a release the hounds effort.