Mr Moustache by Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain is most famous as the frontman of Nirvana, one of the most influential rock bands of all time. The group defined the sound of the early 1990s and brought alternative rock to the mainstream. Their music was characterized by loud, gritty but melodic songs reflecting a bleak vision of life. Apart from making music Cobain was also active as a visual artist. He made collages, paintings and sculptures and even some private comics, posthumously published in his diaries. Sadly, the rock legend became yet another case of a celebrity who couldn't handle his fame. He committed suicide in 1994, but left a strong body of work behind which still inspires artists today.

Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington. His parents were an auto mechanic and a waitress. From an early age Cobain enjoyed drawing cartoon characters and had musical interest in bands like The Beatles and The Ramones. When Kurt was nine his happy childhood was brutally smashed when his parents divorced. The event made him more depressed and reclusive, which worsened during his teenage years and never really went away in adulthood either. Music was one of his few outlets. He dug punk rock, alternative rock and even outsider music, particularly the filthy, nihilistic sounds of Swans, The Breeders, Mazzy Star, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, The Melvins, Black Flag, Sonic Youth and The Sex Pistols. He learned to play guitar and started writing songs of his own. Several of his songs imitated the raw, authentic power of these underground acts. But Cobain's subject matter was far more personal and pessimistic. His lyrics were about topics that would shock or alienate most people, such as drug abuse, rape, death, diseases and human anatomy. Others dealt with his feelings of guilt, self-hatred, despair, rejection, frustration and hatred of high school, macho culture and violence against women and gay people. At the same time he combined this highly uncommercial style with an ear for melody, inspired by more poppy bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and later R.E.M. and The Pixies. This mixture would give Nirvana its signature sound.

Incesticide
Incesticide (1992), cover artwork by Kurt Cobain

In the late 1980s Cobain formed his own band, with Krist Novoselic as guitarist and Chad Channing as a drummer. They named themselves "Nirvana", after the highest level of enlightment Buddhists can experience. In 1989 their debut record, 'Bleach', was released, but didn't do much. However, several songs, like 'Floyd the Barber', 'Negative Creep', 'School', 'Blew', 'About A Girl' and their cover of Shocking Blue's 'Love Buzz' did become concert favorites. Dissatisfied with their first outing Channing was fired and replaced by Dave Grohl. Nirvana signed up with a bigger label and took a more professional producer, Butch Vig. Compared with their previous recordings their new album, 'Nevermind' (1991), had a much crisper production. Cobain deliberately put as many melodic songs he could write on the album, which allowed for a stronger collection of tracks. Thanks to some masterful music videos Nirvana presented themselves as a far heavier rock band than most groups in the charts at that time. The video of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' in particular portrayed the group playing in a high school gym until riots break out. It breathed a sense of danger and dread, which struck a nerve among countless teenagers all over the world. The song became a number one hit, but 'In Bloom', 'Come As You Are' and 'Lithium' also scored high in the charts. 'Nevermind' became a global bestseller and a cultural sensation. After a decade of clean and bland synthesizer pop hits and hair metal Nirvana made both genres completely passé. When they kicked Michael Jackson's 'Dangerous' (1991) from the top of the album charts it became clear to many that a new musical era had arrived. Audiences became far more receptive for alternative rock artists. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead and other bands all benefited from this sudden boost in popularity. Soon thousands of musical artists all imitated Nirvana's fierce sound and gloomy lyrics. Media dubbed the new musical style 'grunge' and Cobain its poster child. He even received praise from rock veterans like Neil Young, David Bowie and Bob Dylan.

In Utero
In Utero (1993), cover artwork by Kurt Cobain

Unfortunately Cobain felt trapped by his sudden celebrity status. The same kind of people who once beat him up in high school were now listening to his songs. He didn't like all the press attention and refused to be the so-called "spokesman of his generation". It brought him in a position where being accused of "selling out" always loomed over him. Thus he desperately tried to get back to his original fanbase. The group's next release, 'Incesticide' (1992), was just a collection of their old singles and B-sides, while their first brand new album, 'In Utero' (1993), featured a much darker and sludgier sound. Despite his best intentions 'Incesticide' still spawned two hit singles, 'Sliver' and 'Aneurysm', while 'In Utero' brought 'Heart-Shaped Box', 'All Apologies' and 'Rape Me' high in the charts. The same year the band tried another change of image. During MTV's 'Unplugged' series they performed a much publicized acoustic concert. It gave them the opportunity to strip their songs from their trademark heavy sound and focus on the strength of the melodies and lyrics. Cobain also added covers of songs by his favorite artists to the setlist, such as Leadbelly, The Vaselines and The Meat Puppets, who all received more mainstream notability. Cobain felt that namedropping obscure artists like these gave his fame at least some purpose. He kept providing shout-outs to artists like The Shaggs, Flipper, Daniel Johnston and Shonen Knife in interviews. For a while he also seemed to have found happiness in family life. In 1992 he married Courtney Love, lead singer of the rock band Hole, and had their first and only child, Frances Bean, a year later.

Artwork by Kurt Cobain

Cobain also kept a diary for most of his life. They were only made public in 2002, published under the title 'Journals'. None of his scribblings were dated and most of them were simply incomprehensible rants and ramblings about his brooding thoughts. The most interesting parts were handwritten try-outs of his lyrics, which finally helped out fans who'd always tried to decipher them. The book also featured letters, his favorite musical records, some self-drawn storyboards for his music videos and... personally drawn comics! All of Cobain's comic strips are in black-and-white and never longer than two strips. They all feature pitch black comedy, like 'Mr. Moustache' in which a racist, homophobic, misogynistic white man hopes his pregnant wife will bear him a son. The foetus then kicks through her belly and his head. 'Mr. Moustache' later became the title of a Nirvana song, while the comic strip's subject matter inspired the lyrics to another song: 'Been A Son'. Another comic, 'The Smiley's', depicts a family of smiling cartoon characters who all brutally kill one another – including the cast of the children's TV series 'Captain Kangaroo' and 'Mr. Rogers' – before being send to a detoxification center for cartoon characters.

Artwork by Kurt Cobain

Other comics also feature cynical deconstructions of random pop culture characters, but make less sense overall. 'Reed & Maloy – Adam-12 – Episode Hell' spoofs the TV police series 'Adam-12'. Its main characters Reed and Maloy make an appearance, as well as comedian Soupy Sales, quiz master Monty Hall and vegetable brand mascot The Jolly Green Giant. None of the events in the panels really connect with one another and Cobain apparently lost interest halfway through, seeing that the sixth and final panel was never finished. Another baffling comic is 'Burnman', in which two men try to save a women from being raped. One of them is shot, but his friend manages to follow the criminal into his house. There he inexplicably finds iconic stunt man Evel Knievel dozing off in a chair in front of a TV set. Cobain's final comic, 'Crybaby Jenkins', features a lot of gross and offensive imagery (chopped off body parts, turds and the word 'Satan' written all over the final panel), while the text is just a string of unrelated words. As amateuristic and incomprehensible these comics may seem, Cobain never intended them to be made public. Some look as if they were drawn under the influence of alcohol or drugs and most feel as nothing more than just some quick doodles to relieve his stress. As such it would be unfair to judge his qualities as a comics artist based on these five comics alone. All throughout his life Cobain made various paintings, collages and sculptures which show off his creativity in a far more interesting way. Some of them were even featured on his record covers, such as 'Incesticide' (1992) and 'In Utero' (1993). Brett Morgen had some of Cobain's comics animated to appear as intermezzos in his documentary film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' (2015). The film further contains several animated segments by Dutch animator Hisko Hulsing.

Artwork by Kurt Cobain

Cobain remained restless about his success. When MTV didn't want them to perform 'Rape Me' during their Video Music Awards in 1993 he still snuck in a few opening bars of the song. During an interview on Saturday Night Live he and Novoselic acted as if they were gay by kissing one another. He also occasionally performed in dress. While some of this behaviour could be interpreted as just a way of rebellion against the squares he so despised, other acts were far more disturbing. During one show he deliberately threw himself into a group of drums, even banging his head against it several times. Cobain also went into the downward spiral of many rock stars by taking too many drugs. In November 1993 and March 1994 he barely survived two overdoses of heroin. On 5 April 1994 he committed suicide by shooting himself through the head. His body was only found three days later. While Cobain had flirted and joked about suicide all throughout his life it still shocked many of his fans. Just like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison he was only 27 years old. Nirvana's sales went through the roof, including the posthumous record 'MTV: Unplugged in New York' (1994) and Kurt Cobain was now cemented as a rock legend.

His memory has been kept alive by newly released recordings and various books, documentaries, essays and graphic novels about his life. As early as 1992 Revolutionary Comics already published a comic book about Nirvana, named 'Hard Rock Comics: Nirvana' (1992), with a story scripted by Spike Steffenhagen and artwork by Scott Pentzer. Cobain even read it, since he ripped out one of its panels - depicting his face in close-up while singing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' - and pasted it into his diaries. He then drew his own scrawny body beneath it and pasted six lines from Alicia Ostriker's poem 'A Young Woman, A Tree' above it. It's not recorded what the rock artist thought about this particular comic book, which was more fantasy than an accurate biopic of Nirvana. After Cobain's death more comics about him hit the market. 'The Kurt Cobain Story' (1994) by Jerry Kenny was published in a series called 'Grunge Comics' by First Amendment Pub. Kurt was also one of many celebrities who has a cameo in Christopher Longé's 'Les Contes Inachevés de David Watts' (1994-1999). Tim Barela's series 'Leonard and Larry' featured a title named 'Kurt Cobain and Mozart Are Both Dead.' In 1999 Everett True and Peter Bagge wrote a cynical one-page comic called 'How To Write A Book About Nirvana', criticizing the exploitation of Cobain's legacy. Barnaby Legg and Jim McCarthy's graphic novel, 'Kurt Cobain: Godspeed” (2003) deals with Cobain's life and loves. 'Tribute: Kurt Cobain' (2014) is part of Bluewater Productions' ongoing series about biographical comics about legendary celebrities. It was illustrated by Jayfri Hashim.'Who Killed Kurt Cobain?' (2016) by Nicolas Otero deals with the mysterious circumstances involving Cobain's death, while Danilo Deninotti and Toni Bruno's 'Kurt Cobain: When I Was An Alien' (2017) shares insight in the early beginnings of Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain by Scott Pentzer
Kurt Cobain by Scott Pentzer, with the body drawn by Cobain himself in his diary

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