Inside The Making of Neil Young’s Greendale Graphic Novel
Neil Young’s Greendale
Written by Joshua Dysart, Illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Back in 2003, Neil Young released Greendale.
Critics and fans were of divided opinion on the album with reactions ranging from it being a baffling, liberal 101, eco-hippie rant to being hailed as a groundbreaking concept album similar to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Who's Tommy or Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'.
At the time, we felt Greendale was "the most important album released in 2003 and the musical equivalent of Silent Spring".
A 10-song concept album, Greendale is set in a fictional California seaside town. Based on the saga of the Green family, the "audio novel" has been compared to the literary classics of John Steinbeck's work, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" for its complexity and emotional depth in exploring tragedy in a small town in America.
Some critics went as far as saying that Young had broken new ground by creating an entirely unique art form -- the "audio novel". The New York Times said:
"Mr. Young has always been remarkable for his creative resilience, and this time he really has done something new, rendering into this combination of print and audio a novel that is surprisingly sophisticated and satisfyingly complete."
It's now been over seven years since the Greendale songs' debut and today, the album is finally being recognized as Young's best work thus far of 21st Century and one of the greatest in his career.
Simply put, Greendale is "Neil Young's Avatar".
It's been a CD, a concert/stage play, a film, a book and a DVD. And now Greendale is now a graphic novelization of the album. Over four years in the making, it has been called by Wired Magazine an "enviropocalyptic comic".
It is a stunning work and it's timing could not be more fortuitous now that Mother Nature is in full gallop mode in the 21st century.
The graphic novel's plot line focuses primarily around the character of Sun Green and her awakening as she comes into her own as an environmental and political activist, choosing an unconventional life as economic and political turmoil exploit both people and natural resources. Says Young in an interview with New York Times By GEORGE GENE GUSTINES: "I’m happy the story is getting around; I think it’s empowering for young women.”
In an interview with publisher Vertigo's editor Karen Berger:
Neil approached us over four years ago with the idea of taking his acclaimed concept album and realizing it as a graphic novel. The original album was conceived as a musical novel of sorts, a 10-song rock opera that tells the story of the restless characters in the sleepy, seaside California town of Greendale, with a teenage girl, Sun Green, at its center. It has also been a live rock opera, a film that Neil directed as ‘Bernard Shakey’, which would lead to a companion book, plus an off-Broadway musical.
Joshua Dysart was the first writer who leapt to mind to handle the writing. Josh’s sheer talent and sensibility as a writer and his longtime political activism made him perfect for this book, and growing up on Neil Young’s music certainly made him a slam dunk. Neil immediately responded to Josh’s first thoughts on the adaptation and a great collaborative process between the two of them followed. And, while I always knew that Josh would do a great job, I was wowed by his ability to convey this rambling rock and roll feeling to the graphic novel form and to create an atmosphere that felt very much like Neil’s music.
Trying to find the right artist wasn’t anywhere as easy. I had sent Neil samples of many different artists but he had a particular look in mind and wasn’t satisfied. But then he saw Cliff Chiang’s art and immediately fell in love with it. Not surprising, as Cliff’s clean, modern style has an organic, natural feel to it. He is a fluid and accessible storyteller, which worked perfectly to transform this rich family saga into a graphic novel. There is something about his work on GREENDALE that takes his art to another level. His wonderful ability to capture the details and nuances of a very large cast of characters, while impressing us with the towering and majestic landscapes, made him the perfect choice (You were right to wait, Neil!).
In an interview with the graphic novel's author Joshua Dysart from Huffington Post by Bryan Young:
Originally, Greendale was a bit of a rock opera in that the songs were loosely related to the Green family who lived in this fictional Northern California town of Greendale. And they're all very much grounded in activism and it's all very much Neil's frustration and anger over choices the Bush Administration was making in 2003 regarding our energy policy in particular. It's an activist album. He went on to direct a film by himself, which was sort of an accumulation of music videos, and a rock opera, and they put out an art book. And all of these further illuminated the narrative of Greendale. So when it came time for us to attack it, we sort of felt like the narrative had been wrung out from that angle, so we wanted to do something different, but firmly entrenched in the Greendale mythos. We got into the mystical aspect of the women of the Green family. And so what we tried to do was to tell a story that both had human elements that Neil Young had, but really use comics to their great strength.
In an interview with the graphic novel's author Joshua Dysart from Blog@Newsarama by Michael C. Lorah:
Suffused with magical realism, Dysart conjures forth imagery only suggested by Young’s grooving guitar solos. Sun Green’s comforting connection to mother Earth plays nicely against the chaos erupting around her, in both her family and the outside world. For Young fans, Dysart moves a few pieces around to make the story flow more elegantly – Sun’s war protest comes early, for example, leading to a touching scene of one young girl perhaps moved by Sun’s field art – but he also gives new insight into the Green family and effectively samples several of Young’s better lyrics throughout the dialogue. Crossing paths with her grandparents, parents, cousin Jed, granduncle and officer Carmichael (oh, and the devil himself), Sun comes into contact with all the major characters from the album, as Dysart weaves their stories into Sun’s awakening social consciousness.
In an interview with the graphic novel's author Joshua Dysart from Newsarama.com By Michael Lorah:
Neil is a real human being who produces real music about real people, and cares immensely about what his name is on, and about what he is a part of and what he projects. He is not the center of some great marketing machine. And that was very, very rewarding to see, because I had been a fan of his my whole life. To have him meet with me again and again and again, and do phone calls, and give elaborate notes throughout the process; to really, really care – it didn’t do anything but solidify my love for his art and for him as a person and as a human being.
In an interview with the graphic novel's artist Cliff Chiang from
Newsarama.com by Chris Arrant:
QUESTION: You said earlier that when you sat down to draw it, you had both the “Greendale” music album and the film Neil did to help inspire you.. but was there anything else that either directly or indirectly influenced the work you did on this book?
Chiang: There were a lot of things I was thinking about when working on the book. I knew based on the album and the art book that came out with it, that our Greendale graphic novel didn’t need to be glossy and slick; it needed to feel organic, old and warm – like an old t-shirt. I thought it would be great if we could print it so it looks kind of old – with no real black & white – so I asked our colorist Dave Stewart to knock back stuff to make that happen. I also asked to add coffee stains and spatters, like you’d find in an old book. As you’ll see from the interior of the cover, we wanted to evoke an old family photo album feel. I didn’t it to have a dustjacket – I wanted something more traditional and weathered.
(Note timeliness of headline in top panel)
Greendale continues to be timely in its demonizing of the oil companies and expressing Young's constant themes of love and war.
In an interview with the graphic novel's author Joshua Dysart from Comic Book Resources by Kevin Mahadeo:
QUESTION: What can you say about the character of Sun? There's this aspect in the comic and in the art book that, while not necessarily religious, is based on the ideology of Mother Nature and the Mother Goddess from folk and myth.
DYSART: In the art book, there is this vague suggestion that all the women along the Green line have this relationship to nature. This was really interesting to me because Neil was consciously or unconsciously writing it only in the women. To me, that immediately lent itself to the mythologies of the Green Woman. I was really into and am still interested in the magical history of the United States. There's a very, very strong thread of folk superstition that is part of the very fabric of this country. The most easily explained example of that is horseshoes above doors and things like that. I've always been really, really interested in that. At the time I was asked to pitch this, I was reading exerts from European witch trials and was interested in a lot of the information I was getting from that stuff. So, I pooled all this together. This is sort of my own interest - the place of the female inside of perceived culture and their relationship with nature. It very easily fell into place inside of the stuff that Neil was talking about.
From Vertigo | Comics:
Sun's always been different. There's been talk that the women in her family have all had a preternatural communion with nature. And when a Stranger comes to town – a character whose presence causes Greendale to, well, go to hell – she'll find herself on a journey both mystical and mythical. To face the Stranger, she'll unearth the secrets of her family in a political coming-of-age story infused with its own special magic.
From interview with Dysart in Wired.com By Scott Thill:
“I’m a huge fan of Neil,” said. “He comes from an era when music was considered an instrument of social change. To ask him to be something different would be asking a bird to take a bus south for the winter. But his work speaks to the humanist arc. First and foremost, his songs are about the politics of being human.”
From Vertigo: Graphic Content » Blog Archive » Josh Dysart talks NEIL YOUNG’S GREENDALE:
When I was ten my mom bought me my first record player. That night I started digging through her stacks of vinyl that lay scattered around the living room. I wasn’t discerning. I had no idea of what I was looking for. What was on top was what got played. And that’s how Neil Young’s Harvest came to be the first album I remember dropping my needle on.
The songs on that album were a glimpse into the loving, suffering, and complexity at the heart of the adult inner-life. I was fascinated and awakened. So it was a wonderful twist of fate when 25 years later I found myself on the phone with Karen Berger saying, emphatically, “yes!” to the Greendale project.
Neil Young’s Greendale, a concept album about a young political activist and her family in a small northern California town, has been a rock opera, a movie directed by Neil himself, and an art book. It captures his feelings about the war, the news media, the environment, the role of family and small-town America and the inherent power of youth. It’s sprawling, rocking, down home, sad and hopeful.
But our book’s also different from the album. With Neil’s notes and approval at every stage of the process, we were able to avoid simply copying a work that already existed in several iterations. We wanted to find something new inside of it. And so our GREENDALE is more of an American fable than a rock ballad. But hopefully, when you read it, you’ll still hear in your head the music that drives it and feel the loving, suffering, and complexity that Neil Young’s work has communicated to generation after generation of music fans… just like me.
The inconvenient truth of Greendale is that Sun Green was right. Just be the rain.
Printed on 100% recycled paper (40% post-consumer waste), the book itself strives to be green along with its earthy tones. Available on Amazon.com. (Thanks! You'll be supporting Thrasher's Wheat!)