Well, I mentioned in my last post that I was going to start adding some academic essays I have written. I feel like you put so much effort into writing these essays to just have them read, marked and then tossed (I mean, filed….) in the back of the cupboard with the rest of your old assignments. This one in particular I really enjoyed working on, as it was a research paper where the student chose their own topic and then completed it through independent study. In the paper I focus on two different media which tell the same story (a concept album and a comic book) and through these I discuss the narrative techniques used.
Hopefully some of you find it interesting since it was so much fun to research and write. Also, I obviously was working within specific word limits so for anyone who knows and loves Coheed and Cambria and their albums- this barely scratches the surface and it is my own opinions on what I think certain scenes and techniques mean.
A collaboration of music and comics to tell the story of The Second Stage Turbine Blade: An analysis of narrative techniques.
How do the two different media, Coheed and Cambria’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade album and Claudio Sanchez’s comic of the same name work both independently and collaboratively to tell a story?
There are several, different narrative techniques used in order to tell a fictional story effectively and these techniques can vary depending on what medium is used to communicate the story. This research report explores narrative techniques through the analysis of two different media; a musical concept album and a comic book, both of which tell the story of The Second Stage Turbine Blade. It focuses on these works independently and collaboratively, in order to ascertain the different ways stories can be told. It will also discover through analysis, which of the media is more suitable to portray a story independently.
A fictional story can be present in various media forms through the effective use of narrative techniques. However, music and graphic novels are sometimes overlooked or portrayed as superficial storytelling forms, due to being heavily image and audio based. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines narrative as “a telling of some true or fictitious event…recounted by a narrator to a narratee” (Baldick 2008). This definition embodies a wide selection of media as containing narrative, including some lyrical music and graphic novels because these media are still creating narrative, just through different means. Claudio Sanchez’s epic, science-fiction saga, The Amory Wars, is produced as both a comic book series and several music albums which collaborate to tell the overall story. This research article will focus on the second instalment of this comic book series and concept album, by analysing the techniques used to portray The Second Stage Turbine Blade story both independently and collaboratively. As a way of giving the analyses context, the storyline is about the lives of protagonists, Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon and their four children. It is set in an alternate universe called Heavens Fence: a colony of seventy-eight planets, joined by a beam of light called the Keywork and ruled by antagonist, Wilhelm Ryan. The plot follows Wilhelm’s desire to end the Kilgannon family due to the Monstar virus (present in Coheed and Cambria’s blood), which if unleashed knowingly, could be the end to his tyranny (Sanchez 2010 p. 5).
Some lyrical songs can be considered a storytelling medium through effective use of vocal and instrumental narrative techniques. However, there is not much information on narrative form within lyrical music because it generally tends to be overlooked by music researchers. Middleton (1990 p. 103) suggests that most musicologists do not analyse popular music because ‘they find it lacking’ and so, their focus is usually on purely instrumental music. Despite this, it would seem that music can produce narrative more effectively through the added use of spoken text. Though still relying on the audience’s imagination, using lyrics would create a more structured narrative. However, not all researchers believe that lyrics can communicate to an audience. In Rock: The Primary Text, Moore (1993 p. 160) briefly touches on song meanings by affirming that lyrics are important because they enable the audience to interpret a singers ideas, however he still suggests that the role of lyrics in communicating a message from performer to listener is questionable. In contrast, Nicholls (2008 pp. 300-301) asserts in his thesis that songs undoubtedly contain narrative and can be analysed for their narrative discourse by a scale system from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most complex form of narrative through song. He also suggests that these more complex songs use multiple media such as ‘lyrics, music, prose, and art work’ (p. 301). This proves that a vast range of media can communicate a narrative to the audience and that lyrics are a useful tool for analysing narrative form within music. Some other examples of narrative techniques are: the types of instruments and how they are used to create suspense or emotion and also, how the singer uses their voice to express emotion within the storyline. All of these aspects have been considered in order to analyse the concept album’s narrative form.
The Second Stage Turbine Blade album uses a balance of visual imagery and character dialogue within lyrics, instrument use and the singer’s voice to create and add depth to the storyline. Neal (2007 p. 41) asserts that these ‘structural elements’ determine how the audience connects with the narrative themes and interprets the music. Firstly, a song that uses character dialogue, ‘Time Consumer’ (2002) is about Coheed Kilgannon, being tricked into killing his two youngest children by poisoning them, in order to prevent the Sinstar virus (a second strain of the Monstar virus) from destroying the world. Chatman (1978 p. 101) believes that verbal narratives can use character dialogue to illustrate movement through the storyline. This is evident in the chorus which contains the line ‘me and my star, Matthew good night’ which is dialogue from Coheed saying goodbye to his children for the last time (2002). Another four lines in the song are dialogue by Deftinwolf (Wilhelm’s subordinate) convincing Coheed what must be done:
“Wait, now, here when will you believe me?
Me, I’m merely asking you to help me.
When did I say to murder?
Wait, now, here. Please hear me out” (2002).
These are just two examples of dialogue from one song that illustrates what is happening at a certain point in the storyline. Next, there is visual imagery provided by the lyrics in several songs, but most notably in ‘Neverender’ and ‘Everything Evil’ (2002). For instance, the lines ‘…when the day begins to break, like the tears that run across your cheek’ describe through simile, Claudio’s emotions as he flees from the planet and his old life. Another illustration of visual imagery is the more gruesome scene where detectives discover the murder of eldest daughter, Josephine, at the home of the Kilgannons:
“Blood hungry, cannibalistic unfit family ties,
in a series of knocks,
to the young girl’s head side” (2002).
In both of these instances and other lyrics on the album, the narrator is not limited to being one character and is able to describe all of the stories events. Chatman (1978 p. 103) explains that some verbal narratives use an omnipresent narrator with capacity to report from all angles of a story. So, this technique aids the audiences understanding of the narrative. The way that Sanchez utilises his singing voice, along with the instruments, adds another layer to the narrative. Depicting this is a section in ‘Devil in Jersey City’ (Coheed and Cambria 2002) where Josephine is attacked by members of a gang. The sequence of lyrics that relate to the gang members are sung in a loud manner with fast electric guitar music, and then the song alternates to one line where Sanchez sings in almost a whisper, ‘don’t let them scare you’ (2002). Sanchez’s voice with the instruments makes the narrative more dramatic because it contrasts between the emotions shown by the angry gang members to a fearful Josephine and her attempt to calm herself. Another example that sets the scene is from the beginning of the ‘Delirium Trigger’ which is set on a space ship that is about to crash (2002). It is an instrumental section where the guitar is synthesised to sound distant and the notes seem disconnected, which symbolises a space environment. A moment later, Sanchez emits a high-pitch scream which becomes static against the microphone, sounding like the ships intercom. The lyrics that follow contain dialogue by the ship captain, sending a signal over the intercom. The use of the instruments, Sanchez’s voice and the lyrics collaboratively set the scene for the listener. Thus, the combination of instruments, the singer’s voice, character dialogue and visual imagery in the lyrics, creates a narrative within a concept album.
Comic books are a popular storytelling form, but they are sometimes viewed as superficial in terms of narrative content. Spiegelman, a comic creator, has stated ‘comics fly below the critical radar’ (Williams 2008). This may be because comic books primarily contain images rather than the traditional novel, which uses text and little to no image content. As stated by Round (2007), ‘to create a comic is not a way of telling a story with illustrations replicating the world it is set in, but a creation of that fantastic world from scratch’. This distinguishes further, that comic books are creating narrative through text, but especially image. Chute and DeKoven (2006) suggest that graphic novels need not be grouped with traditional fiction because the text is primarily handwritten and ‘its spatializing of narrative is part of a hybrid project’. This is evident with graphic narrative techniques such as: colour/lines- signifying emotion or action, image placement, literary devices and image and text collaboration to progress the story. These elements have been used to analyse the comic book series for examples of narrative form. Firstly, The Second Stage Turbine Blade comic books mainly use a third person register, along with character dialogue and text techniques, to further the narrative. An example is from a scene where Claudio leaves a handwritten note for his girlfriend, Newo Ikkin. The note’s contents are spread over several panels, alongside images of Newo waiting for Claudio (Sanchez 2010). The way the text is used and arranged on the page also adds to the action within a scene. In several instances, onomatopoeia is used to describe sounds happening during action. One example in particular is of a wall being smashed- where the supporting text ‘BOOM’ is bright orange and drawn to look jagged and dislocated (2010). Also, the way that panels are illustrated and where the images are placed creates action in the narrative. Illustrating this is the below image (Guzman & Smith 2010):
In this image there are lines used to indicate the movement of the monster breaking through the wall. Newo is placed in the corner in what looks like a stationary position but the indicated action suggests she is actually being forced backwards by the blast. This creates narrative by ‘invok…(ing)…tension between seeing and hearing’ (Round 2007). Several of the action scenes are detailed in a similar way- with use of lines and vivid colours. In other scenes that indicate emotion within the narrative, the colours change to reflect this. First, is a sequence of panels that represent Josephine remembering being beaten by the gang members. The panels are primarily in shades of red to symbolise her fear, and the anger and abuse that she remembers (2010). Secondly, the comic book’s final scene shows Claudio on the planet, Shylos Ten, being the only surviving member of his family. These panels use subdued colours such as black, grey and brown and an image of rain running down Claudio’s face to convey his sadness and helplessness (2010). Thus, the use of image and text in comic books enables a range of narrative techniques.
When the analyses of the concept album and comic books are viewed collaboratively they produce a more fully formed story. This is especially true of the music because with the aid of the comic books, the album makes more sense for the audience. First of all, the album cover art has a dragonfly on it which relates to the overall theme of the story. This is because dragonflies are used by Wilhelm Ryan’s subordinate in the comic book to release Coheed and Cambria’s Monstar virus, so he can use their powers to destroy the world (Sanchez 2010 ch. 3). Barthes & Duisit (1975) say that interpreting narrative requires following the storyline and recognising it as being segmented. Nicholls (p.308) agrees by mentioning that music analysed to contain level 5 narrative theory uses linked song titles to create the order of a narrative. Each of the song titles in the concept album chronologically represents a different part of the storyline and this is evident by comparing them to stages in the comic book. For example, the song, ‘Delirium Trigger’ (Coheed and Cambria 2002) has lyrics indicating when the Monstar virus is induced in Coheed due to being tricked into murdering his children, and this happens in the second chapter of the first comic book (Sanchez 2010). Exact quotes of dialogue from the comic book are also used as lyrics in parts of the concept album which combines these two media. For example, there is a scene where Mariah is killed by Wilhelm’s subordinate and her head is given to Wilhelm as proof (2010). The dialogue by Wilhelm in this scene, ‘the world’s not big enough for the both of us’, is used in the chorus of ‘God Send Conspirator’, with added lyrics that add to the emotion within the scene (Coheed and Cambria 2002). The concept album also collaborates to provide an audio aspect to certain scenes in the comic books. There is a sequence in the comic book where Claudio speaks to his dying sister, Josephine. Her lasts words to him are, ‘Claud-i-o…my dear Claud- i-o’ (Sanchez 2010). This is utilised in the concept album as a chorus line- Sanchez sings the line several times with the broken syllables as they are used by Josephine in the comic book (2002). These examples only show a small selection of the collaborative possibilities provided by the concept album and comic books. However, it proves that narrative can be effectively conveyed through more than one media, at the same time.
When most people hear the term ‘narrative’ they think of stories, and namely traditional media. But there are so many media today that can develop narrative through effective use of techniques, that we need to leave our minds open to all interpretations of the word. By doing this, there will be more opportunity for creative developments in the future of storytelling. A narrative can be produced in any media form if techniques are used effectively within the medium. This was illustrated by the analysis of The Second Stage Turbine Blade concept album and comic book series which can be studied separately or collaboratively. First, the comic books use image and text techniques, literary devices, character dialogue and colours to create narrative and it does it exceptionally well. On its own, the comic book series tells a complete story which is easily interpreted. Secondly, the concept album uses character dialogue and visual images through lyrics, the singer’s voice and instrument use to convey a narrative that is unique and interesting. However, separately the music album is difficult to interpret as it is more open to audience imagination. This is not a problem when the two projects are used collaboratively because the story has added depth when there are two media.
Coheed and Cambria 2002, The second stage turbine blade, CD, Equal Vision, New Jersey.
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Sanchez, C 2010, The amory wars: the second stage turbine blade (ultimate edition), Evil Ink Comics, Los Angeles, CA.
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