"They're a funny-looking band, they look like a cartoon," says veteran cartoonist Frank McLaughlin, whose idea this was. He has been drawing comic superheroes such as Superman and Captain America for 25 years; this is his first venture, artistically speaking, into the real world of small-time musicians.
"I thought it would be funny to do a book using these guys' adventures: not having enough money, finding jobs to survive, waiting for the big break," McLaughlin explains.
Romping through the first issue are band members "Billy Dee," short and pudgy; Artie Ebert, wearing shades and an improbable mop of hair; Allan ''Flash" Wallace, toothy and lanky; Tom "Gonzo" Seesberg, like a grimacing Herman Munster.
"I tried to draw as much from real life as I could," says McLaughlin, who, upon first hearing the band five years ago at a "pretty sleazy place" near his Connecticut home, became inspired.
The comic characters yuk it up while working at Loopy Looie's Carwash; they
dream of stardom, crack bad jokes, wind up in a wrestling ring, get to play Big Augie's Ripoff City. There are five issues of the comic book to follow, the next of which will add the band's new bass player, Eddie Gamble, probably as Loopy Looie.
One thing that sold Ace Comics publisher Ron Frantz on McLaughlin's idea was the "sparkling clean" story lines, Frantz says.
Frantz, based in Bethany, Okla., went into the comic-book business two years ago. Plans are to print 50,000 copies of each Big Edsel issue and to release them every other month. McLaughlin supplies the stories and artwork, Frantz prints and distributes (along with Spotlight Comics), and publisher and cartoonist divvy up any profits. Big Edsel lead singer and founding member William B. Donald (a.k.a. Billy Dee) owns the name.
"I don't see millions of dollars coming my way," says Donald, 44, a former truck driver from New York, before a recent show at the Bent Elbo in Northeast Philadelphia.
Any real profit potential for the band lies in merchandising - Big Edsel T- shirts, dolls, lunch boxes and the like - or, biggest bonanza of all, a Saturday-morning kiddie cartoon show. Big Edsel's management is working on putting that together. "I think their potential is limitless," McLaughlin says, and Frantz agrees.
This, despite the fact that "nobody ever heard of the Big Edsel Band," McLaughlin acknowledges. "We're going against all the established ways of trying to promote something." Normally, fame comes first, followed by T- shirts, posters, TV shows.
The band must have something.
Based in the Philadelphia area for six years, Big Edsel has a loyal following, playing somewhere nearly every night. (Typical for the group is this week's schedule: tonight, Shenanigans in Sea Isle City, N.J.; tomorrow and Thursday, the Bent Elbo in Fort Washington; Wednesday, the Bent Elbo in the Northeast.)
The group's repertoire includes 400-plus hits from the '50s, '60s and '70s. A recent set opened with "Good Lovin' " and wound down with "Silhouettes," with the audience calling out requests.
After 20 years toiling at the edge of the pop-music business (in 1967 Donald's band, the Jellybean Bandits, made number 98 on the singles charts with "Country Woman"), Donald finds his transformation into a comic-book character rejuvenating.
"When I see my character," Donald says, "I look at it like now I'm immortal."