Exclusive Preview: Flaming Lips Frontman Wayne Coyne Embraces the Absurd, Endearing in "The Sun is Sick" Comic
To hear The Flaming Lips vocalist Wayne Coyne describe his new one-shot comic The Sun Is Sick, the head fearless freak didn’t intentionally construct a new book as much as harvest it from the corners of his brain over a year and a half of creative riffing. A collection of illustrations crafted during phone press interviews and after music sessions, Coyne started his 43-page experiment as “a few different, completely unconnected, stream-of-consciousness doodle things.” That’s a bit of a simplification, though: much like his music, the multimedia artist has engineered a psychedelic roller coaster that ploughs through such massive themes as birth, death, and love transposed in bizarre and visceral imagery. Within these panels, liquid galaxies become hallucinogenic trip sessions and rogue spheres defecate new life forms on black rainbow galaxies. The Sun Is Sick is an uncensored window into a vivid sci-fi nightmare that fits potently into The Flaming Lips’ mind-melt oeuvre.
The loose narrative takes the reader into the world of the Virgo 2151 Eruption Galaxy. A combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey, old Heavy Metal comics, and the Technicolor fantasy lying under most Lips songs, the story follows two intergalactic maintenance workers fighting to save the sun from a cosmic grim reaper. Meanwhile, a blind, blue princess gives birth to a giant eyeball that grants her vicarious sight. Disorienting, visionary, and very, very NSFW, there are few if any modern comics quite like this. The Sun Is Sick will be available on The Flaming Lips’ Web site on July 22nd and at the Warner Bros Records / War Machine booth #4435 during Comic-Con International this weekend (Coyne and his bandmates won’t be attending as they’re currently on tour).
The repeat Paste cover artist spoke with us about his latest comics foray as well as its connections to Christmas on Mars, spawning disfigured eyeball children, and The Flaming Lips’ overarching philosophy. Spoiler Alerts.
Paste: When I first reached out for another comics-related piece, I’d heard that you didn’t read them regularly. Why was the comics medium attractive to you for this project?
Coyne: I don’t read comics like a real comic book follower, but when I was young my oldest brother would have comic books around. I would read MAD Magazine a lot. When Watchmen came out, I think someone around us had that and we were all fascinated. I don’t follow them, per se, but I remember a long, long time ago — maybe mid ‘70s — there was a magazine called Heavy Metal and I would buy it whenever I could find it out there in the world. There were a few artists in there that I’m sure influenced me, like Moebius.
Paste: That influence definitely comes through in The Sun Is Sick. The otherworldly and sexual aspects are there.
Coyne: I see things in (Heavy Metal) that I like, and there’s a lot of guys out there but I always forget their names. I only remember the few, like Gary Panter. I didn’t think about it at all when I was doing this as a comic book. I would just draw ridiculous stuff then add sequences to it. It’s fun to know what happens to people or things. So once I thought about giving it a title or giving it themes, I was reminded of some of that Heavy Metal stuff. Those adult-oriented, you-can-just-do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want comics.
Paste: One element that struck me about the introduction of The Sun Is Sick is that it’s almost identical to the opening of Christmas on Mars, with a giant swath of the galaxy expanding. Was that intentional? Do these stories take place in the same relative universe?
Coyne: Oh I see! You know, I never thought about that. The bulk of Christmas on Mars was disconnected as well. I never remember it having a beginning, a middle, and an end, because I would always think of things right on the spot. I think I’m susceptible to all those stupid, repetitive, subconscious things that all artists do if they don’t have someone telling them ’you’re doing the same thing over.’ I do rely on a lot of accidents, really.
A lot of times I’ll doodle on something while I’m doing interviews, because sometimes I’m on the phone for three or four hours and I want to get something going. I’ll just start from a scribble, or something that someone else already put on the page. Sometimes I think those are the most original. It gets away from the central reoccurring theme that I don’t seem to be aware of. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe there’s some unquenchable question that I keep asking the universe that I can’t get an answer to.
Paste: It has an interesting story, too.
Coyne: Well, at the end I wanted something to happen to those guys. Once I started to draw more and more of them, I really felt like something has to happen to them so we like them. You have to care about the characters. Even for myself, I like drawing absurd shit, but at some point you have to ask ‘why do we care.’ I like the very end of that bit the best.
Paste: That specific storyline ends on a somber note, with the declaration ‘Death wins in the end.’ It made me think of some of the interviews you’d done for The Terror and how the recording was influenced by the death of your father. Did that leak into this content as well?
Coyne: Well, like I said, there are these themes that I’m not really aware of. I veer toward them, and it’s only later I realize I was wondering about the same thing I was wondering about in 1996. I think you have to have some of these things happen in the story, and I didn’t think about it very much. That whole ending was very much stream-of-consciousness. I’d draw a page, and then I’d draw the next page not knowing where it was going. I got lucky in that (The Sun Is Sick) tells some kind of connectable story. I probably have no real answer of why that’s important to me (laughs).
Paste: The storytelling has a very fluid, natural feel.
Coyne: Sometimes you can almost tell that I almost don’t want to draw the panels: they’re just boring. I’ll draw a crazy piece of a panel and I’ll realize I have to connect the previous page to this page. I try not to ever erase. That’s one of my rules: I just keep drawing on it. There were a couple panels that just went so completely bad that I replaced them with another panel. Most of them are drawings that I just do, and I don’t erase them.
Paste: Is this going to fit into any other projects you’re doing with The Flaming Lips? Christmas on Mars had an album. Will there be further continuity?
Coyne: I don’t know. I’ve already started drawing on stuff that I feel like I could continue that story on. I think (the comic) occurs in-between all those things I do with The Flaming Lips. Not all of (the projects), but a lot of them require that there be this group that has to cooperate and we have to get together. There are a lot of things that I have to do with other people. There’s some of this time in-between, where this is something that I don’t need anybody to help me with. I just simply draw whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter. So I think I’ve found that to be the thing that I do in-between that scheduling with other people.
Sometimes you’re finished with the things that you have to do at eleven o’clock or midnight, and I’m still buzzin’ and I still want to do stuff. So I’ll sit around and draw and listen to music. That’s such a relaxing, stupid, freeing thing. I’m also doing it by myself. That’s the main reason I’m doing it as a whole. Earlier in my life, I probably didn’t have as much energy or ambition to think in my free time. Earlier I would have watched television or something, but now I don’t watch TV, but I’m still amped up. I want to do something, but everybody else is too tired!
Paste: I’m curious about what happens to The Blind Princess and her eye baby. Have you thought that far ahead in the narrative you’ve begun here?
Coyne: Well, I didn’t even think that she was blind and had a baby that’s an eyeball until after I drew it. I’d had the concept that the Princess was blind in the beginning, but then I’d forgotten about it and I was only reminded later. (The Princess) is blind and she has this eyeball baby — that’s cool! It’s a great concept, and she’s able to see through the baby. I can definitely see her having adventures and moral dilemmas and quagmires; does she use the baby for her own (purposes), or is the baby so hideously deformed that it can’t live without her, or is the baby some super-genius creature that grows up to be the smartest entity in the universe? There are a lot of great things you could connect to that. It could go anywhere.
Paste: In the comic, these cosmic, universe-shifting events are occurring, but the responses from the characters are almost casual and passive, like they’re used to seeing these events on a daily basis. Their responses are so subdued compared to the severity of what’s happening.
Coyne: Even things I learned from when we were making Christmas on Mars, is that you don’t have to explain what’s going on. That’s even the beauty of superheroes. We don’t question that The Hulk or Captain America can pick up a whole building and throw it somewhere. I don’t feel any need to explain what’s happening. I think it’s because we relate to what they’re doing. Otherwise it’d just be a bunch of sci-fi bullshit, which I’m not really interested in. I like science and I like science-fiction, but that’s not my ideal. I like all the freaky stuff; but I like that they’re just people or entities and things are happening to them. Christmas On Mars reminded me of that too; something is happening and the people have these normal, everyday reactions. Star Wars has that about it. You’re already in this fantastical world, and they’re just these grumpy characters trying to get the spaceship started.
Paste: You mentioned that the comic has The Flaming Lips philosophy. What about the comic has that and what exactly is that philosophy?
Coyne: It has this love of the absurd, but (the comic) has some limits on what it can say and do. We tried to get it printed at a couple of places that print comic books, and they said they wouldn’t do it because of what the drawings are. They’re just too nasty or too disturbing for people. But part of it is that it has this real heart. Part of it is that these entities care about each other, and because they care about each other it changes what they do. To me, that’s the reason The Flaming Lips have an audience at all. I think we do veer toward a lot of over-the-top absurd stuff; we love living the freaky life. I think without there being some real emotion and some real heart to it, you wouldn’t care. As it goes, I think that’s why I wanted to print it and thought it should be something that’s attached to The Flaming Lips. I feel like these characters care about each other. They’re trying. They really are optimistic against the horrible things that are happening to them.