In retrospect, the concept for MF Ruckus’s years-long project — a series of motion comics detailing the tribulations of a fictionalized version of the band living in a burned-up hellscape — may have been overly ambitious.
“People aren't used to seeing a band — especially a rock-and-roll band that is kind of known as just being a good-times, party-rock kind of goofy band — take a stab at this,” says singer Aaron Howell. “We gave this video to our record label, and they didn't know what to do with it, because none of the bands on their roster are putting out fifteen-minute motion comics where the music is just a soundtrack.”
The project started out simply enough. Howell got the idea to write the story, "The Front Lines of Good Times," in comic-book form, then animate the drawings, adding voices and sound effects to create “a cinematic, animated comic book.” He established an eight-chapter arc for the story and set about creating the first full-motion comic in 2017. More than two years and a lot of setbacks later, the second episode is finally out.
“You basically take something, put it out in the world, get a response, then you have to rework your plan,” says Howell. “It took a really long time to get the first two done. So we got our asses kicked a little bit on the first one. We reworked the plan. Then we got our asses kicked a little bit on the second one, and we’re reworking our plan.”
The Front Lines of Good Times stars the members of MF Ruckus as they wander the wasteland trying to play music and survive, a metaphor for life on the road as a touring band.
“It's post-apocalyptic satire mixed with true stories of living as an independent artist and entertainer,” says Howell. “It's marrying these two interests that I have, which are 25 years as a touring musician and all the stories and idiosyncrasies that go with that, along with my morbid fascination with the Apocalypse.”
The themes in the comic, he says, bloomed after reading about master builder and Freemason Randall Carlson’s Great Year theory, which suggests that Earth faces a near-life-ending event roughly every 10,000 years.
“I think that's just fascinating — that it's not a matter of if, but when,” says Howell. “And yet, given that modern human beings have been on the Earth 160,000 years, and before that pre-modern humans — however many millions of years we've been on the Earth, we've managed to make it. We've managed to cross these great barriers that might have wiped us out, but we have come back together and rebuilt. I just think that's a fascinating thing; I think it speaks to our credit as a species.”
Being in a touring band, he says, has a lot in common with the plight of the comic’s characters.
“So in the reality of the comic, being entertainers is a secondary avocation,” says Howell. “The primary means of survival is scrapping. Those themes of futility, uncertainty, heartbreak, adversity, and then trying to pull yourself out of the mire with humor and friendship and small victories and tiny creature comforts — those things all play into the story.”
And that story is dark, he warns. Yes, it’s rendered in comic form, tinged with humor, but it’s still a world where society has collapsed.
“You’ll see jokes throughout the whole thing that are just shrouded in this catastrophe and apocalypse and malevolence and isolation,” he says. “Two-thirds of the population has been wiped out. It's freaking lonely in this world.”
In the story, he says, the band is traveling through the wasteland to get to safety, an allegory for MF Ruckus’s real-life adventures on tour.
“You’re out there, traveling in a band and trying to make art and trying to simultaneously project an image of success while feeling like a liar, because to you, you feel like an abject failure. It really does have this Road Warrior element to it. Especially in Western society, we built this comfy place in the world. Existence, comparatively speaking, to people even a hundred years ago, is a very comfortable way to live. When you go out on the road, you get to experience this adventure and chaos and uncertainty and this wildness that I think the average young person does not get introduced to as much.”
While writing, illustrating and animating the eight-chapter story of a moderately successful rock band and its fantastical adventures might seem like a lot to take on, Howell says it’s what he and his bandmates are driven to do, despite even their own misgivings.
“My commitment to this project wanes every day,” says Howell. “My commitment to this band wanes every single day. I'm pushing forty, and I still go on grown-man slumber parties with my friends. I question that all the time, but I've got a thing I've got to finish. I've put a lot of work into this comic. I put almost 25 years into this band, and I'm not ready to quit yet. I'm too OCD and too much of a completionist to quit while I still have some loose ends to tie up, so that keeps me going."
The fans also make it worth the time, according to Howell. MF Ruckus, he says, has a handful of people all over the world who really do care about the band and want to see this project through. (For the full MF Ruckus experience, go to patreon.com/MFRuckus.)
“At the end of the day, I know that maybe worldwide we have a few hundred people who listen to everything we put out and will come see us play,” says Howell. “When it comes down to brass tacks, that's what I have. I try not to take myself too seriously.”
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But while it’s good to be humble, he says, being too self-deprecating is an affront to the fans who spend their time and money to support the art they love.
“I view what we do as a service position,” says Howell. “When we're entertaining people, we're on the clock. The rudest thing you can say to someone after they compliment you on your art is, ‘Ah, that was terrible,’ or ‘Were you watching the same show I was?’ You're dismissing and invalidating their experience, and they gave you a hard-earned piece of their time and resources that they will never get back. That is such a disrespectful and inconsiderate thing to do to a fan.”
With all the irons Howell and MF Ruckus have in the fire, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the latter is, first and foremost, a band — and that, Howell says, is all that matters.
“We love to play together,” he says. “These guys are my best friends. I'm not trying to make a living as a musician. The main motivation for me ceased to be ‘making it’ and being rich and famous a long time ago. The fact of the matter is, I do all of this because the guys I play with in the band are my best fucking friends, and I love nothing more. The only thing I want to do with my life, besides take care of my family, is travel the world and play music with my friends. That's all I ever wanted to do.”