Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Gorillaz Almanac' celebrates 20 years of the world's biggest virtual band

Gorillaz band members on flying car with 'Gorillaz Almanac' flag waving.
'Gorillaz Almanac' cover detail. (Z2 Comics)

When you hear the word "almanac," who do you think of? Old farmers? Eric Eskola? Cathy Wurzer? Joe Mauer? It'll probably take you a while to get to Damon Albarn's animated band Gorillaz, but in fact, they now have their very own Almanac.

As "Beatrix Blotter," the volume's fictional editor, puts it in an opening note, Gorillaz Almanac (buy now) "is inspired by the British tradition of comic and pop music annuals, which come out every year and feature cartoon characters, celebrities and pop stars getting up to all kinds of mischief."

If you're going to have a Gorillaz Almanac, 2020 is the year to do it. Made-up musicians were just about the only ones free to get up to "all kinds of mischief" last year — and to boot, the year marked their 20th anniversary as a surprisingly enduring conceit.

Albarn created Gorillaz in the late '90s with artist Jamie Hewlett, originally conceived as a response to the rise (or, as Maria Sherman would point out, the re-rise) of manufactured boy bands. Gorillaz' debut EP, Tomorrow Comes Today, was released in 2000.

If the band was conceived partially as a joke, Albarn gloried in the musical freedom that came with hiding behind four animated alter aliases. The mandate to make music matching Hewlett's cosmopolitan slacker style inspired Albarn to connect with a wide range of contributors, resulting in unclassifiable but undeniably catchy songs with a built-in visual hook.

Two decades later, Gorillaz have become the most successful virtual band in music history (don't trust me: Guinness signed off on it) and have in many respects eclipsed Albarn's Britpop band Blur. Their "live" shows are multimedia spectaculars, and in 2018 they won the Brit Award for Best British Group, beating out London Grammar, Royal Blood, Wolf Alice, and the xx.

Publisher Z2 Comics describe themselves as a company that "helps musicians tell their stories through graphic novels." Their catalog includes titles about Blondie, Cypress Hill, Elvis Presley, Major Lazer, Sturgill Simpson, the Doors, Dan Auerbach, Ludwig von Beethoven, and of course Poppy, another quasi-virtual artist.

Gorillaz Almanac is a romp, a showcase for Hewlett's art and the bizarro humor of writers Ed Caruana and Thomas O'Malley. (If Albarn had any direct involvement, it's uncredited.) Superfans will love all the deep-dive references to Gorillaz songs and projects; for the uninitiated, like me, the Almanac makes an apt introduction to guitarist Noodle, bassist Murdoc, drummer Russel, and keyboardist 2D.

The book's contents include tales from the road penned by "former Gorillaz roadie Hamish Trombone," a surrealistic comic misadventure starring a shipwrecked 2D (lost at sea after "pirates attacked Plastic Beach"), concise Q&As with several Gorillaz collaborators (asked what he'd do with a time machine, Schoolboy Q says he'd go back to 1985 "to tell my mom to **** somebody taller"), reminisces of Russel's Brooklyn childhood, tales of Noodle's samurai adventures, folk art by 2D, and excerpts from the Murdoc-penned screenplay for the Gorillaz movie shelved in the early 2000s (it turns out to star Murdoc as an action hero, with Russel as his sidekick Fat Head).

In keeping with the project's musical generosity, there's space devoted to recommendations of other artists, including Prince ("Raspberry Beret" reminds 2D of a doomed crush on a cafe clerk) and Sounds of Blackness. Russel recommends "the legendary Minnesota ensemble" for music to play to your baby; after that I couldn't help but to the drummer the courtesy of choosing him in the "Which Gorillaz member are you?" flowchart.

Gorillaz have also been on lockdown, we learn, though it would seem their Spaceballs-style interstellar Winnebago would provide safe transit out of the pandemic zone. They've been busy in the studio, though, as their group chat evidences; a CD of the band's latest album, a compilation of tracks from their Song Machine video series, comes with the Almanac.

Lest you doubt fans' devotion to this cartoon quartet, the Almanac includes four densely-packed pages of cosplay costumes. With his distinctive blue hair and iris-less, pupil-free eyes, 2D is a particular favorite, but the green-visaged Murdoc also has his partisans and Russel's "IT'S NOT RAEL" shirt in Charlie Brown yellow also crops up. Even after finishing the Almanac I wasn't entirely sure who each cosplayer was trying to be, but that's okay, I have almost a whole year until it's time for another edition.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

March 18: Nothin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock (buy now)

March 25: Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond by Sandra B. Tooze (buy now)

April 1: Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 by Richard Thompson

April 8: Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile

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