Music and comics go together like … well, music and comics. Sometimes it’s just a well-chosen lyric juxtaposed with a particular panel sequence, or a character singing a favorite song that also happens to reveal something important about their story arc. However it’s done, the blending of such an evocative auditory medium with the visuals of the comic page can greatly open up the ways in which we connect emotionally with comics.
In the wake of Valentine’s Day, this piece pays tribute to three excellent uses of love songs in comics, from the youthful to the exuberant to the disillusioned yet hopeful.
“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes/Young Avengers, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Mike Norton
As a 60s girl-group song, “Be My Baby” was part of an unprecedented musical expression of female desire. Suddenly girls and young women were singing about their passions en masse, and people were listening.
Not that blueswomen hadn’t been doing that for decades already—Bessie Smith’s Do Your Duty, for instance, is a woman telling her man to keep up with her high sex drive (If I call three times a day, baby/ Come and drive my blues away/ When you come be ready to play)—but blues was somewhat off limits to the mainstream in a way that the Ronettes and similar groups weren’t.
These were songs dealing with what girls wanted and how they felt. The boys in these songs were meant to be sung about, as a focus for their affections—but the female experience, those wants and feelings, were front and center.
“Be My Baby” opens with a statement of unabashed desire: The night we met/ I needed you so.
The song goes on to talk about love, but those first couple of lines set the tone. Compare this with another song from the period, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” wherein the Shirelles agonize over the possible negative consequences of physically expressing their desire—e.g. Is this a lasting treasure/Or just a moment’s pleasure?; But will my heart be broken/When the light meets the morning sun?
The choice of possessive is also interesting. It’s “Be My Baby,” not “I Want To Be Your Baby”; the Ronettes are asking the song’s subject to belong to them rather than the other way around. They might want to “make [him] so proud of me,” but they’re still in control.
It’s fitting, then, that this song’s appearance in Young Avengers is during a morning after narrated from a female point of view.
Noh-Varr is there to be looked at by the female gaze of Kate and the gender-indeterminate gaze of the reader. In a reversal of typical comic portrayals, he’s the one dancing in his underwear from all angles while a fully clothed Kate watches.
In the backup vocals, the Ronettes ask their song’s subject to “be my baby now”: not at some vague later date, not even tomorrow, but now. The ability to live in that “now” is one of the most enjoyable privileges of youth. Now Kate gets to watch a “beautiful alien boy danc[ing] to the music my parents loved” and to see the universe from a bedroom window. Although a Skrull attack shatters that peace, the moment is forever captured in those pages—so Kate, and the Ronettes, and we readers, never have to let go of that particular “now.”
“Fat Bottomed Girls,” Queen/Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
The song re-works a potentially negative term into one of praise, and anticipates countless rappers’ paeans to the beauty of the badonk.
When Suzie sings it in Sex Criminals, this takes place in front of others (including her new guy Jon), but it really seems as though she’s singing to herself.
After all, she’s a woman with curves and body fat in the booty department, and the song directly addresses Fat Bottomed Girls who “make the rockin’ world go round.”
By singing these words to and about herself, Suzie is celebrating her own physicality and breaking away from the shame she once felt about her body and what it does.
And this is the moment when Jon realizes he’s in love with her: the moment at which she exhibits the confidence to praise her body and its necessity for the survival of the rockin’ world.
This blending of the physical, emotional, and mass-cultural is emblematic of how Sex Criminals achieves the rare feat of recognizing not only that sexuality is all of those things, but that together those elements can create something wonderful.
“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl/Preacher, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
It’s surprisingly easy to forget, but “Fairytale of New York” is a love song.
Not a love song to a person—neither Shane McGowan nor Kirsty MacColl use the word “love” at any point—and not to New York, which barely gets mentioned beyond the second verse and one line in the chorus.
It’s a love song to the power of dreams: the illusory, hopeful, enduring ideals that we cling to and that make our worlds.
The song is bookended by mentions of dreams or dreaming, and the listener’s introduction to New York, the couple’s encounter, and the attachment between them are all characterized by dreams of some kind.
It’s been said that all moments in a comic occupy the same temporal space in real time; that is, every drawing and panel exists on the page simultaneously since they’re all in the same book.
“Fairytale of New York” is like that with beauty and squalor/hope and disillusionment on any listening after the first. When it gets to the shining promises of “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” an ordinary woman being “queen of New York City,” we already have in our heads the name-calling, the addiction, the parting of ways, and the loss of dreams.
To enjoy the song, though, we have to forget that second part—and indeed the first part, where the male narrator is “in the drunk tank” on Christmas Eve.
This is even more apparent during Christmastime in the UK, where at any given time some radio station is probably playing “Fairytale of New York.” At some point, these multiple radio plays must overlap, meaning that while Kirsty MacColl is accusing Shane McGowan of taking her dreams away on one station, on another station Broadway is waiting for both of them.
With this scrambled temporality, it was inevitable for “Fairytale” to show up in the comics medium at some point. What better place than a Garth Ennis series?
The 54th issue of Preacher takes its title from the last line of the last verse: I Built My Dreams Around You. In this issue, Tulip reunites with Jesse and tells him about the six months she spent with Cassidy, during which he kept her constantly supplied with drugs and alcohol so she wouldn’t leave him.
So Jesse gets the love of his life back, but discovers that his best friend is a monster whom he never really knew at all—the same kind of hope/disillusionment dichotomy that the song does so well.
It’s fitting that the song comes into the series at the point when the truth about Cassidy comes to light. The Pogues’ New York is “no place for the old,” a dream country where no one ever feels the pressures of mortality, and youth has no living end. As a vampire, Cassidy has never felt his body age, has never even been sick (as far as we know), and can regenerate entire limbs in a day to replace whatever’s been damaged.
There are dreams he “can never say goodbye” to: a personal Ireland characterized by his brother’s sharp insight and the strength of his parents’ love, which dares to cross the religious boundaries of a highly sectarian culture, and which follows him to New York in the forms of Brendan Behan and his friends at McSorley’s Bar—all of whom are named after crew members in the popular folk song “The Irish Rover,” and who interact through almost stereotypically masculine banter about fighting, insults, and their penile situations.
And of course, Cassidy clings to a dream of New York. His arrival into New York Harbor is on Independence Day, a holiday which characterizes America’s idealized self-image, and the fireworks reflected in his shades make it look as though he almost has literal stars in his eyes.
The highly romanticized way he talks about New York is a lot like early descriptions of America as a land of opportunity, wealth, and new beginnings for everybody.
These dreams build his self-image as a purveyor of Irish charm, a bro’s bro, and a bit of a romantic idealist. But his inability to let these dreams go renders him incapable of sustaining friendships or becoming a better person.
He stops going to McSorley’s because he “didn’t want to watch me friend get old”—or, in other words, didn’t want anything to change between them, even though that’s what happens to all friendships.
As the series unfolds, we find out that he encouraged previous girlfriends to try heroin and that it ruined their lives (You’re an old slut [apologies for the word] on junk/ Lying there halfway dead with a drip in that bed, sings McGowan); that he did some of them serious physical damage by hitting them with vampire super-strength; and that he’s willing to betray his best friend by sleeping with his girlfriend.
“Fairytale of New York” ends with the loss and retention of dreams. You took my dreams from me/ When I first found you, McColl sings, and McGowan answers, I kept them with me, babe/ I put them with my own. The “dreams” sung about here have led to heartache and drug abuse, but if someone is keeping them, perhaps a tiny bit of them is worth saving. After all, outside the NYPD Choir is “still singing Galway Bay,” and Christmas bells are still “ringing out.”
And so we must believe that there is something worth saving about Cassidy. Not that his actions are in any way excusable, but for his atonement by self-immolation to mean anything, we have to retain a piece of the dreams that he’s built around himself and presented to the readers. If his aim is to “burn … out” the “evil” that he’s done, then there must be some goodness in him as well—otherwise there’s nothing left.
Cassidy’s cameo appearance in The Boys—heavier, sans shades, “feel[ing] old”—suggests that although we can build our dreams around so many things, we have to wake up sometime.
But somewhere a song from home is floating through the air. Somewhere somebody is re-reading Preacher or listening to “Fairytale of New York” for the 10th Christmas in a row. Somewhere our dreams are still waiting, because we never quite let go.