When you head on over to the comic shop today, feel free to enjoy a trip on down to “Neil Young’s Greendale” courtesy of writer Joshua Dysart and artist Cliff Chiang, who adapted the the Grammy Award winning music legend’s world famous album of the same name into a brand-new 160-page graphic novel from Vertigo Comics.
Released in 2003, the 10-song rock opera “Greendale” explored themes of environmentalism and corruption through the lens of the Green family and the other residents of the titular small seaside town. The politically charged album expressed Young’s own personal thoughts and feelings on the changes of the world post-9/11 and the dangers big oil corporations place on the environment. A fan of Young’s music while growing up, Dysart found himself tasked with working with the “southern man” in bringing the concept album to the comic book page.
Although the new graphic novel retains the various ideas of the album, it also incorporates a few more supernatural elements into a story focusing specifically on the character of Sun Green. In the title, the young Sun ends up seeing her entire world go to hell in more ways than one when a mysterious stranger comes to town, forcing her to unearth secrets about herself and her family’s strange connection with nature itself.
Dysart spoke with CBR News about the adaptation, which is released into comic shops everywhere today, hitting book store shelves next week. The writer discusses the difficulties of adapting sound into words, bizarre timing in releasing a book with subtext on the dangers of big oil during one of the biggest environmental disasters of our generation, and his own personal interest in Mother Earth.
CBR News: “Greendale,” your adaptation of the album by Neil Young, is hitting comic stores today. There are some obvious variations from the album in that there’s a supernatural element to the graphic novel’s story – so, how does one go about adapting a music album as opposed to adapting a movie or book into a comic?
Joshua Dysart: First, let me state that it’s not just the album – there’s also a stage play and Neil Young also directed a movie based on it. There’s also an art book, and our adaptation actually takes from the album and art book. So, I didn’t actually add the supernatural elements – those were already present in the art books. As for how one goes about adapting it, it’s an organic process where you just use your storytelling skills to feel out to the best of your ability. I don’t really know what to say beyond that. There’s wasn’t a system or mechanic in place. I just kind of struggled day in and day out to find some semblance of a singular narrative. [Laughs] The album is a concept album, theoretically, but essentially, what it is, is that each song is a short story. So, to find a through line to bring everything together and to hope that there’s some semblance of an ending in the way that we traditionally expect things to end is a struggle. It’s just something you pace back and forth about and pull your hair out about until you’re done.
Well, we do know you worked directly with Neil Young on this, talking with him back and forth about creating the story. So, that helped save some strands of hair, I assume.
Yeah. Essentially, the deal was when I was asked by Karen Berger to pitch an idea, Karen had some thoughts on it and Karen brought to my attention the art book that I just mentioned, and Neil also had notes to whoever was going to end up pitching the book. So, I took all these notes and cobbled them all together into a pitch and sent them to Neil and Neil okayed that. And then I met Neil backstage at a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show here in L.A. – it was awesome – and discussed it with him and he got really excited. Then we worked it in stages. I would write a little, he would get the scripts up until that point, return back with notes and then I’d write a little. Cliff did the same thing with the art. And then we’re done.
What’s it like working with Neil? I understand you were a big fan of his growing up. Not only you, but your family, as well. What was it like meeting him? Were you calm and cool or freaking out a bit?
I’m rarely star struck, actually. I believe that even if you are in awe of somebody, you have to act like you deserve to be in the room and keep your cool. But definitely the first time I met Neil, especially because it was backstage and Crosby, Stills and Nash were there and Neil’s whole family was there, it was definitely a little overwhelming. There was about five to ten minutes of me being speechless and unable to do my dance. But he’s such a personable and real guy that it all kind of dissipated pretty quickly.
I guess that makes the creative process a lot easier as well.
Yes, it does. He knows what he wants. He knows what he likes. But there was also space for me to debate him and when there were creative decisions, he would occasionally let me talk him out of stuff. He was a good collaborator.
You mentioned that this draws from the art book, which introduces the supernatural elements to the book, but what can you say about the story and how it differs from the album?
The album is about all these desperate lives in this town. Sun only has two songs on there that are really about her. It’s also about Officer Carmichael and his wife, and it’s about Jed and Earl and grandpa and how the media invades their life and stuff. I hope we sort of took all those themes and managed to find a way to put them in there. Now, when Neil approached us, what he first wanted was an environmental super hero fighting these evil oil corporations. And, I don’t know, I felt that was a little too on the nose for me. I definitely agree with the political sentiment there, but it was just a little too much. So, we worked to submerge that inside of a narrative that I thought was a little bit closer to what I really loved about the album. And he was totally fine with that. I think in the long run he really appreciated that approach.
It’s kind of funny, in a sad way, considering what’s going on right now in the Gulf that this idea about environmentalism and oil corporations…obviously, there’s no way this could have been predicted, but the timing is crazy.
You know, it’s amazing because the entire time I worked on this project, the book takes place in 2003 and on the surface it’s chained to those events. We worked our ass off to make it timeless. When I first wrote the first draft of Sun’s speech atop the eagle at Power Co, it was really on the nose as far as 2003 and what was going on. But I continued to tweak it until I could make it about a larger, more poetic arc about the human political machine. Now, here we are, my biggest fear being it’ll be a totally irrelevant book because it’s an entirely different political landscape and boom! An apocalyptic thing happens in the Gulf. The timing is crazy. It’s really, really interesting. So, in the middle of this disaster, we’re putting out a 160-page graphic novel about the dangers of oil dependence and energy consumption. So, I guess we did one thing right at the very least. [Laughs]
You mentioned before that the album focuses on various characters in the town. That said, will the graphic novel be focused on Sun or will we be seeing it from the perspective of all these characters?
It’s Sun’s story and there’s very few scenes that Sun is not in. But I’d like to think that we put enough Easter Eggs inside the narrative that a person familiar with the album will see the goings on around it. There’s just not enough space, so we don’t get to cut away to Officer Carmichael’s wife and deal with her grief. It’s a really important story and it’s an interesting story and that character is an interesting character, but what we get instead is Sun at the funeral and Officer Carmichael’s wife turning around and giving Sun a look. People who know the album are going to know who that is and know what that’s about and hopefully that will satiate the desire for that. But there is a sense of “there’s a life around the town that we’re not clued in on.” Our camera just follows Sun. We definitely had to close in on one character.
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.
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.
So, it basically spurred on your own personal interest in the project? I mean, besides working with Neil Young who you were a fan of, as a writer it allowed you explore areas you enjoy writing about.
Absolutely. I have spent my whole career to date working on other people’s ideas. And for better or for worse, the one thing I have done to keep myself sane is make those ideas my own. Consequences be damned. [Laughs] Sometimes, it didn’t go over so well – such as my infamous run on “Swamp Thing” – and something it went over really well – like the critically acclaimed “Unknown Soldier.” This is no different. I can’t just be expected to come in a be a service writer. It’s just not who I am. So, when all this clicked into place so easily, it was all really satisfying.
Looking at this project, in a way, it’s about adapting music into a medium with no sound. How does one go about doing something like that?
I am unable to vocalize what one does when they go through that process. It’s a matter of internalizing that music for yourself and finding a tone and a voice that captures that. It’s something you bang on until it’s done. You just keep working on it. The only successful way is for the creator to internalize that music and hope that it seeps back out through voice and tone. There’s just no other way to attack it. It’s an interesting exercise. Here we are in a medium with no motion and no sound, which is one of the things that I really like about the medium, and you’re trying desperately to find in your voice a common thread between you and the music.
To close out, you mentioned you don’t want to be a service writer, and I’m definitely not saying you should just do that, but you’re doing “Greendale” and you’ve done a similar thing with Avril Lavigne before. I’m wondering if there’s other musical operas you’d adapt. Like, David Bowie’s “Major Tom” – how is there not a comic about him, who’s been in countless songs?
Actually, Major Tom would be pretty awesome. [Laughs] The Avril Lavigne comic was basically to pay 11 years of back taxes, essentially. I’m actually really proud of that comic, but I wish somebody else had been attached to it. This is a different story, obviously. This was an opportunity that was put in front of me that I really couldn’t pass up. So, from here on out it would have to be, like, Iggy Pop or something. A “Devil Makes Three” comic book. [Laughs] I don’t know. I would have to be completely involved with the music, like I was with Neil. I don’t know. I don’t want to just have that thing that I do. I don’t want to be a one trick pony. After “Unknown Soldier,” I’m really going to try and duck war comics for a while, you know? I’d rather not do the same thing over and over again is what I’m trying to say.
How hilariously insane would it be that after saying that, David Bowie or Iggy Pop somehow stumbles across this interview and gives you a call to do a story for them?
And you know what? It’d be very difficult to say no. [Laughs] You don’t say no to David Bowie. You say yes to David Bowie, that’s what you say. The wings of fate. I’ve never been in control of my own destiny, for better or for worse, so we shall see what happens.
Look for “Neil Young’s Greendale” in comic stores today.