When I look back at “Sunza,” one of my thoughts is, “Yeah, that’s pretty metal.” There is literally a woman wearing a skull mask within the first ten pages, after all. You can all but hear the rolling gallop of reverberated power chords fading in at the last page where Long John says, “Sunza bitches,” a smoking gun still in his hand. Pretty metal, indeed.

As much as I’ve tried otherwise, I’m a person that must work in complete silence. When it comes to the writing of a comic––including but not limited to brainstorming, scripting, layouts, pencils, or lettering––I need to be absolutely focused because, I’ve learned, I can be easily distracted or discouraged. However, when I’m inking or coloring (which, luckily, take a long time), I tend to get a lot of podcast-listening done or, when I’ve heard enough talking for one day, music-listening. I’ve heard a lot of writers describe a playlist that they wrote a book to and, though I can’t have specific, you know, sounds while I’m writing, music ended up being very present during the creation of Long John.

I know, I should say that I was listening to Ennio Morricone on loop or to the wonderful Django Unchained soundtrack, but I had played both Morricone and Django out long ago (though I highly recommend them, as well as the superb soundtrack to Rockstar’s game, Red Dead Redpemption). However, what both Morricone and the Django Unchained soundtrack (to which Morricone contributed) do well are create an atmosphere. The music bleeds together to not only take the listener/viewer through a narrative progression, but it’s also an essential tool of world-building. If I’m going to listen to any music while making comics, I want it to contribute to the atmosphere I have in my head for Long John (in this case) so that I can build a consistency within the chapter, at least.

For “Sunza,” that consistency was underpinned by the independent metal band, Dawnbringer, and specifically their album Nucleus. It may be surprising that a metal band was my aural motivation during the creation of a western comic, but it has nothing to do with the genre as much as it has to do with the ambience that the music fosters. In fairness, Dawnbringer has been a mainstay in my headphones since about April 2014 when I accidentally discovered them through an algorithmically-generated recommendation on iTunes. The first album of theirs I purchased was a concept album, titled Into the Lair of the Sun God. I liked the sound, but it wore off quickly because I was too busy to be able to sit down and just listen to the narrative it was trying to tell. After a few months, and feeling guilty that I wasn’t able to spend more time with the album, I decided to see what else Dawnbringer offered. Through that initiative, I happened upon Nucleus, the album preceding Into the Lair of the Sun God. And with Nucleus, it clicked.

Dawnbringer (from Nucleus forward; their stuff before Nucleus is a completely different world of which I am not quite ready to become a part) could be best described as melodic, experimental, raw, thoughtful, narrative, sludgy, epic, hard rock-ish, heavy metal with a hint of early ’80s guitar pyrotechnics (a la Iron Maiden, if you are familiar); in short, however, the best way I can actually describe this band––after learning more about them––is singer-songwriter metal. The adjectives don’t help, ultimately. What I liked about them, and especially with Nucleus, is two-fold.

First, the music was open and listenable. While aggressive, it wasn’t punishing. I’m not a big fan of the chuggachuggachugga guitars and the screaming/growling vocals of certain strains of heavy metal, complete with excessively down-tuned guitars and double-bass pedaled drums that echo the sound your car makes when something inside the engine breaks. Instead, Nucleus (and Into the Lair… as well) is “open” in that they often let the chords ring out when they need to and the addition of soft reverb gives the impression that it’s echoing over a tired valley––perhaps one after a long medieval battle, because we are talking metal, here. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of riffing and soloing and all that one expects, but it’s turned ever so slightly to seem a bit off-center, which forces the listener to lean in and start paying close attention. I find that the biggest turn that’s made is in the song construction; Dawnbringer doesn’t often follow the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure and, instead, the songs start and end in completely different places, making a lot of different movements (to use Classical terminology) to take the listener through its narrative.

Second, the lyrical content of the music is really interesting in the context of heavy metal. A lot of expected and familiar ground is covered (narratives of dark stories, songs about the devil, etc.), but its approach edges more on the psychological, introspective, and painterly than on the violent and cliche:

I dream of a mountain to rise from the sea

Then I soar into sunlight, born to be free

I don’t know, I don’t know

I dream so desperately.

-“Swing Hard” from Nucleus by Dawnbringer

While I can confidently say that nothing from this album literally influenced or made its way into “Sunza,” the tone Nucleus created––epic and open and dangerous but reflective––is the white noise through which most of its pages were produced. When I read “Sunza” I see a desperateness in the world and its characters, people pretending to be stronger and more resilient than they actually are because they realize they are under the plodding steps of time and don’t want to show how scared they are of them. In fact, they try to subvert them, which is always a losing battle. With that in mind, I can’t help but also hear Dawnbringer, churning through my subconscious, when I read “Sunza” as well.