The following is an interview with writers Joseph Illidge and Hannibal Tabu and artist Meredith Laxton regarding the upcoming release of the graphic novel, MPLS Sound, through Humanoids’ LifeDrawn imprint. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with the creative team about the research (and inspiration) necessary to bring this story to life, how it highlights the history of music in Minneapolis, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your graphic novel, MPLS Sound, through Humanoids’ LifeDrawn imprint! LifeDrawn’s stories stem from real-world inspiration, tackling deeply personal and political themes. In light of this, what can you tell us about the premise of and inspiration behind the story?
Joseph Illidge: Thank you! It’s been a journey of years, and the whole MPLS Sound team is excited for the world to see it.
The premise is about a fictional band called Starchild that competed with the music scene of Minneapolis during the early Eighties, with the ultimate goal of becoming Prince’s band. Starchild would have been The Revolution, in an alternate timeline. Why they didn’t, and how Starchild’s invisible history lives between the raindrops of actual history, is where the heart of the story lies.
Hannibal Tabu: Well, the idea came from the mind of Fabrice Sapolsky. He knew I had worked a long time in music journalism and knew, during the era when I was operational, that Prince grew to truly global prominence. We looked at a lot of topics never covered from that era and our intensive love for the scene – from the production work of Andre Cymone, Jam & Lewis, the influence of Alexander O’Neal and so on – and things just started to come together. Prince made choices that ruined way more musical careers than he launched, and we wanted a look at the other side of that mirror.
JI: For me, there was a personal inspiration, as well. When I was brought onto the project by Humanoids, I was living in the aftermath of being gaslit by someone who represented “the system.” The story of Starchild’s bandleader Theresa Booker fighting against a music industry dominated by White male rock was informed by my personal journey of reemergence of self. The story of Starchild is one of dreams persevering in the face of pain, and knowing one’s value in a competitive environment, in any room with people who possess a kind of “power” but not power over your soul.
BD: What can you tell us about your shared creative process in bringing this story to life, in not only researching Prince’s career (with its highlights and lowlights) and the history of music in Minneapolis, but also in adapting both to a fictionalized account?
JI: Based on the counsel of Fabrice Sapolsky, the first editor on the book, I watched a lot of interviews of people who were close to Prince in business and life. I went further by purchasing books on the Minneapolis Sound, watching a lot of Prince’s live performances, listening to the music of the time. That’s the fun part, descending into a mental space and musical atmosphere to get you into the zone.
Weaving Starchild’s history throughout real history was a lot of work, and deciding what real people would make appearances in the story was tough. The people you’ll see and recognize act as both mentors to Theresa and catalysts that push her toward a greater sense of personal agency, moving at one hundred miles per hour toward her destiny.
HT: I started by looking at what Prince avoided. Dark skin. Thicker frames. There was an aesthetic that he, right or wrong, figured would sell on a large scale. I started from there, basing the lead characters on people I knew – a woman I worked with at a magazine, the tallest kid from my junior high and so on – and extrapolating from there. Fabrice turned me on to a great set of podcasts by QuestLove with Jam and Lewis, which gave me a lot of great information. Finally, I had found two women who grew up in Minneapolis – a white lady whose kid went to my daughter’s school and a Black woman who lives on the south side now. I spent hours speaking with them about details of the era, clarifying what made sense and what didn’t. After living in Los Angeles and seeing how so many depictions failed to recognize that there’s a whole different town south of the 10, I wanted to represent a Minneapolis that could be recognized by the people who knew it best.
BD: Meredith, there is often a synergy between art and music that calls upon the same senses and breathes further life into a project. Did you find that the subject matter of the graphic novel impacted or complemented your creative process in crafting the tone and style of your artwork?
Meredith Laxton: I have been a long-time fan of Prince and the aesthetic style of The Revolution, so I was really excited about the visual direction of MPLS Sound. I love the idea of injecting a bit of flamboyance into a grounded story, and I think that works well in this book. Our main character, Theresa, is bouncing back and forth between two worlds, a quiet suburban reality vs. the vibrance and glamour of the MPLS music scene. Being able to give both of these scenes their own flavor was really important to me.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Theresa Booker’s story will connect with and impact readers?
JI: The journey of Theresa Booker to go from being ordinary to extraordinary is at the core of our existence as humans. We all want to achieve something, even if that desire is buried deep. Injustice and legalized racism and sexism led to the fights for women’s rights and civil rights. Funk music, rock, hip-hop music, all social reflections of rebellion against being marginalized and misunderstood.
America is fighting for its soul, its legions of injustices against generations of American families coming to bear through journalists and storytellers ripping away the lies of “history.”
Theresa Booker’s story is a mixture of all of these things, and its universal echoes speak to the experiences of people who dare to dream, dare to fight, have something to say and the power to broadcast their words to the world.
HT: As much as we love Prince – and I believe it’s safe to say everyone on the team does – we recognize the challenges with his legacy. It was a very cutthroat scene there, and not just the initially fabricated beef between Morris and Prince that eventually turned real. I feel that seeing Theresa struggle with those kinds of unfair roadblocks could help some people figure out how to pivot in their own lives.
ML: Most importantly, I think Theresa’s story is about finding your own voice, even when you must go against the grain to do so. It feels like a lot of people want to follow the example of influencers and celebrities so much so that the idea of presenting their true selves becomes frightening. I’ve come to really admire Theresa’s fortitude and I hope her journey can inspire others.
BD: What makes Humanoids the perfect home for this graphic novel?
JI: Humanoids has been an innovative publisher since its inception, operating ahead of the curve and against the grain, setting high standards for stories about the human condition.
There is no better home for the story of Theresa Booker, Starchild, and MPLS Sound.
Rob Levin took over as editor, and his standard operating procedure of reaching for high quality on every level of the production was inspiring. Mark Waid, Humanoids’ Publisher, generously offered sage advice which gave MPLS Sound an extra boost in the story’s heart.
HT: Humanoids has a great ability to tell stories about real lives, giving them weight and importance. There aren’t a lot of publishers with both the reach and the inclination to tell personal, strong stories this way.
ML: Humanoids is a powerhouse for inventive and inclusive stories. I’ve found their line up to be full of inspiring and down-to-earth books that invoke the strength of real people and their stories.
BD: Are there any other upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
JI: With my collaborators Dimitrios Fragiskatos, a comic book store owner, and designer/journalist George Carmona 3rd, we recently launched “Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community,” a guidebook to highlight Black creators, comic store owners, convention founders, various publishers, and their recent works. Proceeds go to the Dwayne McDuffie Fund, and you can learn more about the guide at comicbookaccess.org.
My other projects are under wraps for now, but you’ll be hearing about them throughout 2021 for sure!
HT: Later this year, I’ll be doing a supernatural Western, a three-issue mini series called War Medicine with Wunderman Comics. I just turned in the last script for that. Likewise, Project Wildfire will be in comic book stores this November, courtesy of Second Sight Publishing, which I’m very excited about.
ML: I am currently drawing a graphic novel adaptation of a young adult horror/thriller for a major publisher and am hammering out the details of my own project, both to be announced at a later date.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about MPLS Sound?
HT: It’s important to know that it’s not a Prince story. This is a story where he’s like a weather front, that blows in and out and changes lives. There are many things in this world that can blow in and change everything. The question is, who will you be on the other side of the storm?
JI: The Minneapolis Sound is one of the most important musical movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, and MPLS Sound is a love letter to that time, place, and the music it birthed.
Dive in with our book and emerge into a vibrant and exciting time.