There’s no accounting for taste, but Max Bemis is embracing a certain generation’s guiltiest pleasures with his latest comic, the unashamedly ‘90s Oh, Killstrike. Since Bemis released his debut, Polarity, in 2013, the Say Anything frontman has been producing thoughtful, personal comic books that inject the same wry humor you’d expect from one of his songs.
And on the subject of fatherhood, Bemis returned to that personal approach with Oh, Killstrike. Its protagonist, Jared, is a budding father who’s on the fast track to Bad-Dadville. As he grew up, Jared shunned a lot of things that made him happy—specifically the ‘90s era of comics, which he compares to music’s better-to-forget hair metal movement.
The comic is a caricatured look at Bemis’ own experience as a new father, but Bemis and Jared’s own journeys start by taking stock of the past. Specifically, the ‘90s: an era of impossibly ripped superheroes, bombastic story lines and—as Bemis reminds us—some pretty epic radio rock, and he gets a huge hand from Logan Farber, whose art breathes life into the bulky mercenary.
In honor of Oh, Killstrike’s release, which is out today via BOOM! Studios, Bemis compiled a ‘90s-heavy playlist—radio hits and all—and took some time to talk with us about alt radio, superhero movie soundtracks and how comics nostalgia played in with his own life.
Listen to the playlist below on Spotify.
Thanks for making this playlist.
Bemis: Of course. It’s pretty epic. [Laughs].
You’re laughing, but it reminded me of so many ‘90s superhero movies soundtracks.
Bemis: Totally. It was like curating my own Joel Schumacher film. That would be my inspiration for this.
Did you have those when you were growing up? The Batman soundtracks?
Bemis: Oh, of course. I remember specifically that Batman Forever was a really good one. One of them has Sunny Day Real Estate on it, which was weird.
Did you discover a lot of music through soundtracks early on?
Bemis: Absolutely. I’m trying to think about bands I might have been exposed to by movie soundtracks. When I was 13, there were all of those really bad teen movies that were coming out. I guess it was the ‘90s, but those Melissa Joan Hart movies had those pop-punk bands on their soundtracks. I think the second time I heard Blink 182, it was on the Can’t Hardly Wait soundtrack. That was the first time I heard The Replacements.
How many of these songs were a part of your own collection?
Bemis: I’d say all of them, I think. I’d be very surprised if I didn’t own the tape or CD of all of them.
Oh, Killstrike’s lead character, Jared, is so critical of ‘90s-era comics—something he used to love. Why do music and comic fans have this reaction to things we loved at one point?
Bemis: It’s proximity from a certain time period. It always brings a nostalgic element, and there’s different stages of grief after a certain decade, where you’re like, “That was terrible, entirely.” After the ‘90s, everyone was bitching about the ‘90s. Now that we’re going on 20 years separated from it, it’s in fashion a little bit. It’s kind of annoying. I’m entirely annoyed with myself for taking part in the whole nostalgia thing, but I’m discovering that, while it’s laughable, there’s some legitimacy to it. We’re cringing because five years out of a fixation, we’re usually someone else entirely. And that’s definitely Jared’s thing. He’s definitely gone on this whole journey, and anything that reminds him of his vulnerability—that’s how we all are. “Oh, I was an idiot 12-year-old…”
But he’s going back to this at a very specific period of time. He’s becoming a father. Do you think life-changing events make us hungry for those sort of comforting forms of media?
Bemis: Of course. I think people say things like, “I was a kid once. Things were simple and easy.” It’s a safe place to retreat when you’re going through stuff currently.
What were those things for you?
Bemis: Bands. Comic books were the first thing I went back to as an adult because my life was so freaking traumatic—now that I’m talking about it, this discussion really frames it. At the time, I was going through all of this personal stuff in my early ‘20s. Really gnarly stuff. I started having dreams about comics, then I walked into a comic store literally based on the dreams. And then I was immediately sucked back in. I was seeking comfort, but I realized that there was substance there. It was more than, “Oh, I’m going to fill my head with this nostalgic bullshit.” In music now, there’s this sort of nostalgic craze for the ‘90s, and I think it’s done a lot of good for punk music and indie rock. It’s evolving into a more futuristic thing, like, let’s move forward and do interesting things. But I think if you don’t look back, you’re losing context for a lot of things that can happen in growth. I think for a person, that happens as well. If you don’t look back, you’ll never learn anything if you don’t take yourself back to a certain emotional place.
What happens when we get nostalgic for those bands from 2015 that are celebrating something from 20 years before?
Bemis: [Laughs]. That’s so hard to imagine. That’s a great question. There’s got to be something like post-irony. That’s a scary thought. It’s scary to imagine there might be an even more ironic form of being a hipster. It’s like, it’s full sincerity—which is already kind of happening, I forget the term for it. I know there’s a full-on term for dressing like George Costanza.
Bemis: Normcore! Right, so that’s already happened. So I can’t even imagine where it’ll be [later]. I can be really cynical and critical of pop culture. There’s a lot of stuff going on that I have a hard time taking and deserves to be laughed at, like Coachella culture. I feel like a dork referencing it, but think of how many great bands perform there. It’s a beautiful thing. But we haven’t gotten to the point where we can make fun of it, like nu metal. I think that’s important, because it’s as funny as Korn. Like, Vice Magazine has morphed into this thing where it’s making fun of itself, and that’s great. Not everyone can recognize the ridiculousness of everything.
The playlist begins with one of the greatest karaoke songs of all time: Live’s “Lightning Crashes.” Have you seen the music video? There’s the whole birth element to that.
Bemis: [Laughs] I haven’t seen it in years. I just remember the guy’s face. I do remember the line about the placenta, and I remember reading about the song and the whole birth metaphor. But honestly, the song popped into my mind because it was the most emotional ‘90s song I could think of, even before I made that connection. A lot of these songs are Jared’s inner mind that he won’t let out. If he were to make a playlist in reality, it would be very, very boring and pretentious. But his inner mind is probably playing “Lightning Crashes.”
There are some songs I feel like anyone would feel okay about, like “In Bloom” by Nirvana.
Bemis: There you go. There are some respectable moments. I remember putting that on there because I wanted to put something on there that was undeniably good, or as close as you could get. I’d like to think in this comic, there are some kick-ass moments that are actually funny and actually good. It’s not a one-joke thing over and over again. That’s my way of saying the ‘90s aren’t a total joke. [Laughs].
Then Tupac comes in.
Bemis: Not in the first issue, but there’s a lot of rage and anger that eventually builds up in the last few issues, leading to a physical altercation. I thought that would be a nice way of summing up getting ready to go kick someone’s ass, or go murder them. [Laughs]. It’s going to get heavy. Live isn’t going to cut it.
But Stone Temple Pilots do immediately follow.
Bemis: I feel like that’s their best song. Ironically, I heard it on The Crow soundtrack. That’s how I first heard it, and I remember being obsessed with it. Then Stone Temple Pilots went through their whole crazy, trying-to-cope-with-being-a-grunge-band-that-sounded-like-Pearl-Jam thing, then they wanted to sound like The Beatles. That was cool. They’re a great embodiment of ‘90s confusion for the best and worst outcomes.
Did they miss their peak because of that confusion?
Bemis: No. [Say Anything] is never going to be as big or successful as the Stone Temple Pilots. They’ve all done crazy, cool stuff, I guess. Not that I’m a huge Velvet Revolver fan or anything. They built careers out of it at least. If anything, I’d like to model my career path after Stone Temple Pilots than—oh, God, I feel mean even saying it, but any band that just had one hit. Chumbawamba. That song was probably bigger than any Stone Temple Pilots song.
There’s not as much artistry with Chumbawamba.
Bemis: Yeah, and the way [Stone Temple Pilots] rolled with the punches and sort of, you know, embraced their own identity and then pushed it away. It felt right with the Killstrike-type of saga. They came back with that one record that sounded like the ‘90s, then they kinda stopped, then—what are they?
The last track is a curveball: Tori Amos, “Silent All These Years.”
Bemis: Well, that was a song that all the girls in my class, when I was like, 12, they’d break out into a weird coordinated dance during recess or whatever. And I remember, wow, these are emotions I can’t grasp as a preteen male. There was some connection to femininity that I couldn’t grasp. Now, I listen to that song and I’m like, “wow, that’s a killer song. That’s some deep shit right there.” I like to think it’s maybe because I’ve grown up and gotten in touch with my emotional core to some degree. And I’d hope that’s Jared journey. I think it applies to his character, it applies to a guy as much as a girl. I brought up femininity in a sense that Tori Amos is a classic Lilith Fair icon. She’s emblematic, she’s a certain stereotype. But if you listen to her music, especially that song, it’s an emotional conclusion. I’m at one with the universe. My male, my female side. The moon, the sun. The Tori Amos. The Stone Temple Pilots.
Has Jared embraced any of that emotional, nurturing side yet? I feel like there’s not a panel where we see him even touch his child.
Bemis: No. He’s really bad. [Laughs] At the beginning of the book, Jared was a terrible, terrible exaggeration of my experience of being a father. There are some guys who are great at it right off the bat. But there’s still that thing where you’re not the mom. You can’t provide the sustenance, quite literally. You have to adopt a certain responsibility. That’s the main, underlying emotional story in Oh, Killstrike. Definitely when you meet Jared at the beginning, he’s so far gone. He thinks he’s a good husband, he’s doing everything in the rulebook to be a dad, but he’s not connected. It’s a journey you go on as a parent, to just connect more and more with your kid. I don’t want to ruin it, but everyone will just have to hope he doesn’t die and then nothing good happens. Just so it’s not a somber, true-to-life Fantagraphics book by the end.
That’s what Jared would have wanted.
Bemis: Yeah, he would prefer to die a martyr without learning any lessons. [Laughs]