Say Anything singer debuts 'Polarity' comic in April
Posted January 17, 2013
Max Bemis describes a bipolar manic episode as feeling like you have superpowers. So it's fitting that he's recounting his struggles with the disorder in comic-book form after albums of songs about them.
The lead singer of the indie-rock band Say Anything makes his debut as a comic writer with Polarity, a new four-issue miniseries out in April from Boom! Studios and featuring the art of Jorge Coelho.
Fronting a band fulfilled one dream, and now Bemis has moved on to another, after wanting to be a screenwriter when he was younger and writing "really terrible feeble comics" when he was a little kid, he says.
"I've always had a wealth of ideas for comics, but I'd never actually tried writing. I was sort of nervous about approaching a medium that I had such passion for. It would be like how I felt before I wrote my first song being such a music fan - can I do this?"
Polarity is loosely based on Bemis' own life and dealing with bipolar disorder - his worst times with it were in his early 20, the age of his main character, a Brooklyn artist named Timothy Woods.
Surrounded by hipsters and superficiality, Timothy survives a near-fatal car accident and in the aftermath discovers that his bipolar medication has actually been subduing an incredible set of powers.
The series also mirrors Bemis' own character arc that he lived: "finding out I have bipolar, dealing with the disease, being in denial that I had it, screwing off and then eventually taking responsibility of it," he says. "That was sort of a drama in and of itself, so in crafting this main character, my goal is to create the ultimate archetype of a guy like me dealing with this."
During a manic bipolar state, Bemis, 28, remembers that he'd potentially have delusions and basically operate in hyperspeed. "It's almost as if you were on drugs - psychedelic drugs meets uppers."
But when it happens to Timothy, the singer explains, "the crazier he becomes, the more powerful he becomes. It was kind of my way of telling an allegory about how it actually feels to be bipolar, which is that you do have these enhanced sensory experiences.
"In this case, this guy can get enhanced strength and speed and can read people's thoughts. But it almost feels that way in real life."
Bemis promises a lot of sardonic black comedy - his biggest influences as a writer and as a musician are Richard Lewis, Larry David and "Jewish comedians who berate themselves."
He describes Polarity as the fusion of a Woody Allen movie and Spider-Man, but pretty dark as well. "It's more of a comedy than anything, but at the same time it has lots of pathos and exciting moments so it's not completely silly."
With each issue, Bemis is also including a free download of a new original song that, when collected the others, be part of a four-track EP soundtrack for the series.
While he has a number of ideas for tunes, Bemis actually hasn't written songs about his bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed in 2005, and that period of his life since Say Anything's earliest albums, including 2004's …Is a Real Boy and the 2007 concept record In Defense of the Genre. (The band released its latest, Anarchy, My Dear, last year, and on Tuesday releases a three-disc set of rarities, All My Friends Are Enemies.)
"I've chosen to not harp on stuff that happened to me when I was 21," Bemis says, "but in this case it is happening to this character who is a very, very exaggerated, altered version of myself so I'll be able to easily mine those experiences for the songs."
Especially on a personal level, his understanding of the illness has been deep over the years since he was in therapy dating back to his childhood, and he's learned how to communicate what it's like to be bipolar to fans, friends and family. What's helped for him is being able to compare it with a more superhuman aspect.
"You feel like you have powers, and that's such an easy thing to explain," Bemis says. "How does Superman or The Flash feel at that moment if he was just a regular guy and it's an onset of this feeling that consumed him?"
Bemis admits it's more fun on a base-line level to put those experiences in script form than in song. He knocked out the first draft of the first-issue script in one night, and enjoys just simply letting situations pour out while watching a movie and hanging out with his wife. (The couple are expecting their first child in the next few weeks.)
He joins a growing list of musicians crossing over into comics, a group that includes Slipknot and Stone Sour's Corey Taylor (House of Gold & Bones), Coheed & Cambria's Claudio Sanchez (The Amory Wars, Key of Z) Tom Morello (Orchid) and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance. While Bemis hasn't talked with Way at length about comics since around the time Way started working on Umbrella Academy.
"It was nice to meet another complete nerd who was also the center of a band," Bemis says. "He of all people I admire the most as someone who did something really impressive outside the comic industry and used that to launch an amazing comic."
One big difference in Bemis' situation is that "I'm not in a massive band like his. It affords me a little more spare time," he says, adding that his ideal world is continuing with Say Anything but also becoming a full-time comic writer with four or five titles every month.
However successful Polarity is, Bemis will always keep comics as a major love of his life, after having grown up with them, moving on to music for a few years but then swinging back thanks to the works of writer Garth Ennis. Bemis remembers taking a stack of Preacher comics with him when he was sent off to a rehab hospital after one of his first bipolar meltdowns.
"The floodgates were burst open and it's truly an obsession. Borderline unhealthy," Bemis says, laughing about his "massive" collection of comics and graphic novels.
"All I do is read comics. I love creating music just as much as I love reading and creating comics, but at the same time it's even superseded listening to music for me in terms of what makes me happy and calms me down."
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