Interview: Tom Morello Goes In Depth with Orchid

The Rage Against The Machine rock star gives Crave a tour deep into the world of his upcoming comic debut with a character he calls "The Spartacus of Whores."

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Tom Morello's Orchid

When Dark Horse announced at last week's San Diego Comic-Con that one of their huge upcoming projects this fall was going to be the comic book debut of Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello, there might have been skepticism about some rock star's new vanity project.  However, Morello is more than willing to challenge that preconceived notion of who he is and what he's about. 

"I've always held up proudly to my geek credentials, my dungeon masterdom," Morello proclaimed when we sat down with him for an in-depth interview about his new project called Orchid.  "How many other writers of comic books have appeared in two different Star Trek episodes?  Bring those sons of bitches in this room right now!  If they had any lines in Voyager, they can have some shit to say!  You want a nerd off?!  Bring it!"

He's certainly got us there.

"I didn't want to be another Hollywood jackass with a screenplay, and I didn't have enough time to write the Great American Novel at 600 pages," Morello said at the Dark Horse booth when the project was revealed, "so I spoke with my friend Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance, and he introduced me to my new Dark Horse family."

More compellingly, Morello – aka The Nightwatchman and also a veteran of Audioslave – said he wanted to infuse an epic story arc in the vein of Lord of the Rings with a class consciousness, and he described his lead character of Orchid as "a 16-year-old street prostitute who becomes the Spartacus of whores."  If that's not a good tagline, nothing is. 

Our interview covered Morello's nerd cred, his politics, his education and his music, which is going to feature prominently into Orchid, as each issue will be accompanied by a free downloadable song to essentially score the 12-issue miniseries, which starts this October.  The man's nothing if not ambitious.  Check out this Crave Online exclusive.


CraveOnline:  You mentioned yesterday you read comics as a kid, and then left them behind for a long while.  What was that cutoff moment, and what brought you back?

TOM MORELLO:  About 16 or 17 years old.  It was approximately the time when I started playing guitar.  My OCD started moving into a different direction.  A couple things happened – I started playing guitar religiously, and then I became politically aware.  There was no other room for comics in my daily life at the point, though I maintained my collection of thousands of books, which I've recently repurposed out in Los Angeles.  I now draw upon them as inspiration and research.  

It was probably about five years ago or so when I started back – the three books were Waltz With Bashir, V For Vendetta and The Red Star.  Those were the three re-entry drugs to the world.  

Q:  Who reintroduced you to those drugs, or was it your own initiative?

TM: I wandered into a comic shop – I think I had heard some hype on V for Vendetta.  All three of those books were speaking to the same kind of issues in literature, music and film that appealed to me, but now wasn't just the Hulk punching Iron Man.  There was an emotional depth and a political depth and a philosophical depth that was absent from my initial collection.

Q:  And that's what you're trying to do with Orchid?

TM: Yeah, absolutely.  I think it's a canvas that's big enough to paint anything you want on it.  I like, much like in my music, the ability to be uncompromising in the art in the world of comics as well.  It allows me to tap back into my teenage nerdy love of Lord of the Rings and those, but infuse it with my worldview and a class consciousness.

Q:  So this is your first comic book ever – what was the feeling like when you first saw the pages illustrated from something you'd written?

TM:  Oh, yeah.  It took a year to find the right illustrator for the book, and some very big names in illustration threw their hats in the ring.  There were times where it felt like 'oh, I'm getting in a band where the chemistry is not so good.'  I realized that's an important part.  It's a team that has to work together, in the way we're all pulling in the same direction.  With Scott Hepburn, we had a conversation on the phone, I sent him the 25-page outline of the entire story, and the first thing he did was send me back character sketches, and they were awesome.  It was like, 'he gets it.'  He wants to make this world come to life.  Sometimes, illustrators may be frustrated writers, and they want to go 'well, here's a neophyte, let's tear it apart and put it back together the way I see it.'  Scott got the big picture of it and was immediately trying to flesh out the details, and he's a great storytelling artist, so that helps guide me issue by issue.  Left to my own devices, each issue might be 70 pages long. 

Q:  Is there any thought to what you might to do next?

TM:  No, I'm all in on this.  Let me be clear, I am the writer of this.  I am the creator, there's nothing farmed out.  I'm as invested in this as any musical endeavor I've ever been in, and I want this to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my music.  It's actually more work than a lot of the music stuff, because there's the musical component as well.  Each issue will have a soundtrack, a musical score to each one.  Not a Nightwatchman song – it's going to be instrumentals, with the exception of the first issue, which is going to have a single, which is a big rock track with vocals on it.  The other eleven issues will have instrumental score, and I've done a lot of scoring with the Iron Man movies and a number of other things, too.  I want to use  the unusual textures and sounds that I make on the guitar and forge them into orchestral scores, or approximate Celtic or African music with the guitar.  That's the inspiration.

Q:  Let's get into the world of Orchid.  It's a hell of a catchphrase you used, the "Spartacus of Whores."

TM: Green light!  Bam!  (laughs)  It hearkens back to the idea of the class element that is missing from some of those fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings.  I wanted this character to really be on the lowest rung of the ladder.  This is a dystopian future where humans are no longer the top of the food chain.  There's been a second Noah's Ark-like deluge in the aftermath of global warming, but combined with the toxicity of the seas, genetic codes have been broken down.  Animals are no longer domesticatable, and it's no longer the haves and the have-nots – it's the have-everythings and the have-nothings.  The have-nothings are trapped between these ferocious new species that emerge from the wild to prey upon them and the slave traders of the rich and powerful who occupy the dry high ground.  Orchid is born among the Bridge People – the broken and crumbling bridges of the old world, where she ekes out a living, you know, selling herself, and she has to overcome personal demons in order to see if she can rise above the role assigned to her by this new, brutal society.

Q:  The first ding of nerdy curiosity in my brain wants to know more about the creatures.

TM:  Sure.  It's awesome.  I got to tell you, that's one of the most exciting parts from when you get pages back.  That's the thing about comics – you can just come up with anything!  And Scott draws it awesome!  So I really tapped into my old history as a dungeon master and really went to town with the creatures.  They have pieces of animals that you might be familiar with, but like I said, humans are nowhere near the top of the food chain in this thing.

Q:  Are they evolved intellectually, or are they just big thundering monsters that you have to run away from?

TM:  It's hard.  I don't want to give away too much of it, but there's an element to their motivation in what happens.  But for the abject poor, the inspiration for their world is the slums of Manila.  I spent some time in the Philippines on tour, and they live in these wasp-nest-like thickets under bridges in their own filth and among the dead bodies of their family members who float by.  That's real.  

You know, here we are at Comic-Con, but we live in a bubble.  Much of the world is like that, and that's the element of justice vs. injustice – who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist when poverty is at that level?  That's some of the grist for the mill of the ideological underpinnings of the story.

Q:  Yeah, it's such a stark dichotomy.  Just on the way here from lunch, I saw all these people with elaborate costumes and expensive nerdy trinkets shuffling right by a haggard homeless man with a "Help Please" sign.  It's a weird disconnect.

TM:  You can become blind to it.  This story is – I won't even say it's exaggerated, but it's a polarized world.

Q:  It's what we're kinda trending towards already.  Are you going for any sort of direct criticism of specific people at all, or just basically taking a societal view?

TM:  It's societal.  Again, without giving away too much, I wanted to have all of the visceral excitement – not just of the Star Wars epics and Lord of the Rings and stuff like that, but the visceral excitement of the music that I've been a part of, too.  That's a key part of it.  I want it to have that energy.  A Rage Against The Machine show, for example, is not a dry college lecture.  It's a crazy moshpit.  You're living on 10 when you're in that show.  I want the book to have that feel as well, but also have the underlying content that makes it something that has a life beyond the mental moshpit.  

Q:  Are you focusing on this to the exclusion of music, or do you have more stuff going on?

TM:  A new Nightwatchman record is also coming out on August 30th, called World Wide Rebel Songs, and the first downloadable single from Orchid is a track from that record.  I want to tie the two together – to allow the Nightwatchman fans to know there's a book, allow comic fans to know there's a thing – sort of the "Love Theme from Orchid" with brutal guitar riffage.

Q:  So you said you're doing instrumental scores with guitars translating into orchestral music – are you translating it to more traditional orchestral instrumentation as well?

TM:  When I do scoring, I have the keyboard path that gets turned into real people playing French horns and stuff.  I don't know if we have an LA Philharmonic budget – in fact, I'm sure we don't, but imposing those monetary limitations just means there's more room for creativity.  That's how I look at it.  The guitar will fill in all those blanks, I guarantee it.

Q:  So you got in with Dark Horse through Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance.

TM:  Yeah, he's a friend of mine.  I wanted to do a graphic novel, and I knew that he had done Umbrella Academy, so I said 'dude, help a brother rocker.  Who do I call up to do this?'  When I had the initial script, I sent it to Gerard, and he gave me a kind review and said he'd show it to the people at Dark Horse.

Q:  Did it start out as a comic script?

TM:  No, I just wrote the story.  It's a 25-page narrative of 'this is what happens from beginning to end,' in chapters, but not necessarily like comic book chapters.  When I began writing it as a novella, it was going to be a graphic novel.  I just needed to find the bridge between this story and how to make it occur in the world of comics. Then Scott Hepburn and I have been parsing it into 12 issues – which I find is an interesting challenge.  Now that it's episodic, it's important to have the beats, 11 beats, which is really cool and a fun challenge.  

Q: Have you found yourself preciously guarding some of your dialog?

TM:  Oh, absolutely.  Well, it's not so much preciously guarding the dialog as preciously guarding the ideas.  It's not like I just read comic books and saw Lord of the Rings.  At Harvard University, I studied English literature.  I studied African-American literature and the literature of the oppressed.  I studied folk literature.  So those forms inform my understanding of storytelling, and I've tried to bring all of that to Orchid as well.

Q:  Getting back to Orchid, is she going to be a lone wolf type, or is she going to have a cool supporting cast?

TM:  It becomes a band of misfits.  In this world, the oppressed have risen up with a masked avenger who is a sort of quasi-religious figure as their leader, and the rebellion has been abjectly crushed.  It's dead.  It's absolutely dead.  There are a few youngsters about who are playing at rebellion and sacrificing their lives doing it, and she falls in with one of them, who is on this quest that she could care less about, because she's about just figuring out her own life and making her own way selfishly through the world.

Q:  So that's the hook, that she's self-absorbed and slowly becomes awakened, which is a great allegory for what everyone could do in the real world.  Will she have some kind of supernatural powers?

TM:  She has no supernatural powers, but the fabled mask that was worn by General China, the leader from the original rebellion, has been stolen by this band of rebels, and basically anybody who puts it on is killed by it.  It's a torture device, and it's rumored that only a saint can wear and wield its power.

Q:  Like an actual honest-to-goodness Catholic saint?

TM:  There's a lot of backstory.  At one point, I was very immersed in liberation theology, among the priests in Central America, and the idea of combining the local religious lore with the Catholic saints informs part of the story as well.  I don't want to give away too much, as we're getting deeper into it, but the fate of the mask and what it represents is the hope.  What power source can one draw on?

Q:  So I'm curious as to how you would translate that idea into, perhaps, action in the real world.  Just judging from what I know from the story so far is that we need some kind of rallying point to affect change.

TM:  One thing that's always been fascinating to me is from the late 60s/early 70s – the Red Army Faction, the IRA, the Weather Underground.  These groups that saw the world in such black and white terms – they were these upper middle class – some working class, some middle class – kids who decided that to not act violently was a sin, given the horrendous violence that's inflicted on much of the planet by war and poverty.  One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, and given the conditions that you're in, who are you going to be?  That's what our characters have to figure out for themselves… while they're being chased around by big monsters.

Q:  This might be out of the realm of a little bit, but your real-life political views are well known.  How black and white do you view the world?

TM:  I consider myself kind of non-denominational when it comes to politics, but I'm six steps to the left of your most left-leaning reader (laughs).  That's one way to put it.  I certainly don't view the world in black and white, but there's an element that is absolutely missing.  In our country right now, there is a class war going on, but only one side is fighting it. This relentless pummeling and grinding down of the poor and working class into non-citizens is continuing unabated.  I always stand on the side of the underdog, always stand on the side of the oppressed.

Q:  What do you think is the way to fight that?  How do we start?

TM:  The good news is that it's been fought before.  All the progressive, radical or revolutionary changes that have occurred, whether it was the end of apartheid, desegregating lunch counters, women getting the right to vote, the Berlin Wall falling – all those things did not happen due to the wisdom of kings, queens, presidents, popes or congresses.  Those happened because people like your readers, average people, stood up for their rights in the places where they work, the place where they live, the place where they go to school.

Q:  Right.  That's the unfortunate thing, though – you stand up for your rights, and you usually wind up paying a huge price for it.  How do we convince somebody to pay that price?

TM:  I don't think it's so much a matter of convincing.  The ebb and flow of historical circumstance presents opportunities sometimes for great progress… or great regression.

Q:  Do you agree with the Martin Luther King philosophy that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice?'

TM:  I take nothing for granted.  You sit on the sidelines, and that arc will boomerang back at your ass.