Batman and the blues co-exist in the brain of New Orleans-based writer Gabe Soria.
Published by Z2 Comics as a paperback and by Mondo as a deluxe box set, “Murder Ballads” follows the bloody quest of a failed record-label founder to reverse his fortunes with Donny and Marvell Fontweathers, blues-playing brothers he encounters on the road. Their resultant crime spree spirals out of control. The story is a literal take on a “murder ballad,” i.e. a narrative song about a killing.
The book’s accompanying soundtrack, credited to the fictional Fontweathers, was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, a longtime friend of Soria’s, and features vocals by bluesman Robert Finley.
Soria and Auerbach will sign copies of “Murder Ballads” at Euclid Records, 3301 Chartres St., on Tuesday starting at 5 p.m.
“Murder Ballads” exists, Soria said this week, “because of my love of music and my fascination with certain music demi-mondes.”
A Los Angeles native who has bounced between New Orleans and New York since the early 1990s, Soria has been an ardent fan of comic books since childhood. He cut his teeth as a writer with various music magazines.
While living in New York, he got a job at a website devoted to comic books. At the time, New York was the epicenter of the comic book world. Soria made connections that eventually led to his being hired by DC Comics to write an issue of “Batman Adventures,” a series based on the animated “Batman” TV show.
He went on to write multiple issues of “Batman ’66,” a comic book series based on the 1960s TV show starring Adam West.
“Every time I write a Batman story I geek out a little bit,” Soria said. “That I’ve been allowed to do some strange, weird things with Batman is such a thrill.”
Case in point: In one episode, the “real” Batman, who is vaguely campy in an Adam West sort of way, is troubled by a fictional Batman TV show that portrays him as a brutal avenger. Soria describes the plot as “very meta.”
Local writer and graphic novelist Gabe Soria loves issue No. 13 of the “Batman 66” comic boo…
He conceived the basic storyline for “Murder Ballads” 17 years ago, but couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. “The idea nagged at me for years and years,” he said.
He attempted, unsuccessfully, to turn “Murder Ballads” into a screenplay. Around 2010, a couple years after publishing an unrelated graphic novel, he realized a similar synthesis of words and images would work.
Living once again in New Orleans since 2013, he wrote “Murder Ballads” while also working shifts at Euclid Records. A music connection from his past factored prominently in the finished product.
In 2002, a friend from Cleveland sent Soria a copy of the then-unknown Black Keys’ debut album. Soria liked it. When the Black Keys came to New York to open for a ska band at a club in Brooklyn, Soria interviewed them.
They became friends. Over the years, as the band blew up and headlined arenas, Soria wrote their official bios. He also penned the liner notes for “Locked Down,” the Grammy-winning 2012 Dr. John album that Auerbach produced.
“I’m still awed by where they’ve ended up,” Soria said of the Black Keys.
While walking to pick up his son from school one day, Soria texted Auerbach, asking if he’d been interested in recording a blues-based soundtrack for “Murder Ballads.” His one-word response? “Duh.”
Soria supplied Auerbach with a two-page overview of what he wanted: A traditional “murder ballad” (they eventually chose “In the Pines”), a song that sounded like a Booker T instrumental, a song reminiscent of Eddie Hinton, etc.
“From that, Dan went for it,” Soria said. “He’s an incredibly hard worker and an intuitive songwriter. I didn’t need to tell him much – (songwriting) is his business. He took my road map and blazed his own trail.”
After the original vocalist fell through, Auerbach suggested Finley. A north Louisiana native, Finley worked for decades as a carpenter, performing his especially soulful take on the blues on the side. He was finally “discovered” in his 60s and released his much-acclaimed debut album, “Age Don’t Mean a Thing,” in 2016.
Soria quickly realized Finley was the right choice. That Finley hailed from north Louisiana, where much of “Murder Ballads” is set, represented “a perfect confluence.”
Last October, Soria spent several days at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio in Nashville while the “Murder Ballads” soundtrack was recorded. The band Auerbach assembled included a host of Nashville pros, including Bobby Wood, the fabled keyboardist who has backed everyone from Elvis Presley to Garth Brooks.
“My role,” Soria said, “was to sit in a chair, nod my head and go, ‘Alright.’”
Writing the book was his main contribution. The key to writing both comic books and graphic novels, Soria said, “is knowing that ultimately you’re serving the visuals. (The text) can be revealing and deep and insightful, but if you’re not serving the visuals, you’re not making a successful comic.
“When you’re writing, you’re thinking about what your artist might do, and how to make their job easier.”
The writer must consider how the words will align with illustrated panels on the page. What is the last panel on the right-hand page, the last one the reader sees before turning the page? How does the reader’s eye track across the entire page?
“That affects how you tell a story,” Soria said. “You are dependent on the artist. What they do will make it or break it.”
Paul Reinwand illustrated the first half, or Side A, of “Murder Ballads.” Chris Hunt brought Side B to life. Soria hadn’t met either one in person before they illustrated his book, but is thrilled with the result
“‘Murder Ballads’ ties in all these things that I love. I love music. I love comics. I love working with Dan. I was able to do all of them at once.”