From aliases to aesthetics, New York’s Wu Tang Clan have been sprinkling nuggets of comic book imagery throughout their audio weed place since their 1993 debut 36 Chambers. With 2010’s Wu Massacre still smoking out ear buds across the globe, BeatDust caught up with cover artist and comic book icon Chris Bachalo to talk inkwork and ill-ustrations.
Culture is meant to mix and mingle with others, it’s the only way it will continue to expand and inspire. Aside from the kung fu and gambino references that helped change the face of hip hop, Wu Tang were also instrumental in bringing elements of the comic book world into the culture. While RZA created his own comic book persona in the form of the futuristic superhero Bobby Digital, other members decided to adopt more classic personas from established characters – seen in Method Man’s alter ego Johnny Blaze or Ghostface transforming into Tony Stark at the drop of a beat.
Mixing rhyme and crime over distant Soul samples, musically Wu Massacre is yet another solid contribution to the Wu catalog, while not on par with the earlier classic albums it stabilizes the ship that RZA rocked with 2007’s questionable 8 Diagrams. But regardless of where one places it among Shaolin’s releases, Wu Massacre stands on its own merit due to its venomous visuals provided by world renowned artist Chris Bachalo.
Tracing over the origins of the project, Bachalo explains to BeatDust “Alex Haldi the [art director] over at Island records contacted me. They were looking for comic book inspired covers for Wu Tang’s new release and Alex was a fan [of my work]”. Bringing the Wu members into his field of excellence, Bachalo embellishes the comic influenced themes of the ‘Wu Tang Slang’ – creating a theme that parodies both the dark gritty nature of contemporary comics as well as the vintage superhero concept of the past.
In taking his comic book skills and transferring them into the constraints of a 12 inch, Bachalo notes “the process was exactly the same a producing a comic which made it all the more enjoyable. Its not something I had to think about, how to make [the transition], same process as creating a comic book cover. The only difference with [Wu Massacre] and, say, producing a Spider-Man cover is that I didn’t have to design Spidey first”.
Drawing off their already larger than life personas, Bachalo designed the characters around the emcees alter egos and characteristics. Method Man, channeling his Johnny Blaze moniker is steeped in overtones of Marvel comic’s Ghostrider, with flames and skulls littered throughout his portrait. Ghostface, surprisingly steps away from his usual Tony Stark Ironman persona and is instead depicted as a more burly, deadly and lady loving version of X-men’s Colossus. According to Bachalo, Raekwon was originally fashioned on the character Kingpin from the Daredevil series, with splices of his Chef ideology mixed with HBO’s Dexter Morgan thrown in – evident in the bloodied butcher’s apron.
All three are exaggerated versions of themselves with each illustration covered enough shades of [metaphoric] grey to leave the question with the viewer if they are looking at villains or heroes. “Working with the Wu Tang guys was really easy in that I quickly understood what they were about. Their characters were well defined, I really liked them and completely understood the attitude that they were communicating” explains Bachalo.
“I welcome a little direction on each job, which is big reason I like comics” Bachalo notes in regards to the input the group and art director had on the product. “I take direction from the scripts but I have enough room to be creative with the layouts. This project was very similar in that Alex gave me direction in what they were looking for and then gave me a lot of room to be creative. He was great to work with”.
Going further into the foundations of the project, Bachalo continues “When I create, initially I might work on what the art director specifically asked for and then, during the brainstorming session, if I have any ideas that I think might be cool i’ll add them to the mix. I do the same thing with comic books covers. In the beginning the drawings and ideas are pretty loose. I’ll show the art director what I’m working an he’ll give me direction. He’d come back with, “we like that , that one and that one – lets tighten those up”
Taking the bare bones of the original sketches, Bachalo gets his Frankenstein on – fleshing out the characters and backgrounds in greater detail until they come alive on the page. “After the feedback I refine and complete the picture, put them in an appropriate environment, ad lib a little here an there. It was all stuff I really like to draw. First thing we covered was designing the characters, then we hit the cover layouts”.
Crafted out in the traditional lush, fluid kind of comic book line – it took Bachalo off an on about 6 weeks to construct and complete the Wu Massacre project. In regards to his artistic arsenal, he explains “mostly I’m a pencil on paper guy. All the early drawings are scratching with with lead, erasing, small drawings. Then I’ll scan on photoshop and refine. Alex and I went back on forth from there, mostly through photoshop. The final pieces were pencilled and inked (by Tim Townsend) on paper. There are originals and Island [Records] owns them”. Apart from the various cover artworks (the main edition with all three emcees on the cover and the collectors editions with one emcee featured solely one each) Bachalo also illustrated a 10 page comic book based upon the Massacre creations which sadly remains unreleased. “I begged to write [the comic] but Alex wanted to do it, it was dream job for him. Me too” reflects Bachalo. Sections of the unfinished comic have found its way online sans dialogue which only adds a level of mystique to the work.
Chris Bachalo’s visual storytelling on Wu Massacre brings a level of validity that has been missing from the majority of Wu Tang projects since the turn of the millenium. Even with Meth, Ghost & Rae spitting flames, Bachalo brings so much heat with the cover art that it casts shade over the music contained within.