Tim Lane Explores "The Lonesome Go"

Tim Lane has been published in the anthologies "Mome" and "Hotwire Comix," in the pages of his own comic book "Happy Hour in America," and he is a regular contributor to "The Riverfront Times" in Saint Louis, where he lives. Most comics fans know him for his first book, 2008's "Abandoned Cars." Fantagraphics has just released his second book, "The Lonesome Go," a collection of new and old comics.

"The Lonesome Go" takes its title from an old folksong about traveling by freight train. That theme of wandering and restlessness plays out over the stories in many different ways whether Lane is telling stories about contemporary homeless encampments, or haunting, surreal stories that take place in strange corners across America. The book jumps from one style and approach to another throughout the course of the book and Lane sat down with CBR News to talk about the book and his many influences on the book, from Raymond Carver to the Temptations.

CBR News: I liked your book "The Lonesome Go," but I had to check my notes initially to make sure I had the title right and wasn't missing a word or two.

Tim Lane: The term comes from an old folksong. I use it in the first story. It's from an old folksong about freight train traveling. I guess "hitting the lonesome go" isn't a popular term anymore.

It works, though, because it gets at this sense of motion which plays out in almost all of your stories in one way or another.

I'm trying to equate the history of travel -- both spiritual as well as physical travel -- from the past, the hobos of the '30s and the turn of the last century, with culture today. Originally the book was going to be called "Folktales," but at the last minute I decided to go with "The Lonesome Go" instead. It's all very inspired by folk music and folk songs.

I don't know about influences but I kept thinking of Raymond Carver and that school of "dirty realism," which was a contemporary take on those ideas and themes.

Absolutely. Raymond Carver is a huge influence on my worldview. Now I can see Raymond Carver-esque scenarios developing right in front of me and do my best to escape Raymond Carver moments. I think I am heavily influenced by his writing style, but I don't like strict realism like that. I like the fantastical and surreal. There's an ongoing story in "The Lonesome Go" called "In Another Life" which is really influenced by this movie by Todd Haynes called "I'm Not There."

The Bob Dylan movie.

Right, the Dylan movie. I think what he was trying to capture with Dylan is really accurate to Dylan, but I think it's really accurate to a lot of us. I think we have many selves and at certain times in our lives we're different. I'm very different now than I was at the age when I was actually traveling through California. For a large part of my life, I remember very distinctly feeling that when I looked at the mirror, I didn't quite see the person that I imagined. That's why I find autobiography really difficult. I'm never quite the character that works for the story so I co-opt somebody who looks more like it and then change the story to flow with the feel the story is taking. Have you ever read Celine? Celine's books are considered autobiographical but he takes allowances and uses a lot of creative freedom. I subscribe to that. I don't subscribe to a strict sense of autobiography because frankly I think the subjective plays a big role in how I experience life. And if you just tell the story as a bunch of facts, somehow it takes the breath out of the story a little bit -- for me anyway.

Some people can do a really good job at it. I marvel at people like Crumb or Joe Matt who can do autobiography so well. Or John Porcellino -- he's one of my favorite cartoonists. I think you just have to be blessed with the gift to be able to do that. For every one or two who's really dynamite at doing that, there's a bunch of people like me who would fudge it up. I just couldn't pull it off. With autobiography I like the idea that Todd Haynes is playing with there. That Dylan is many, many people in his life.

You have an author's note in the middle of the book, which was interesting. I have to bring it up, though I'm not sure how much you want to say about it.

I know what you're talking about. I felt it necessary to draw attention to the fact that "In Another Life" and "The Belligerent Piano" were stories that related to one another. Initially I thought I'll make a sequence of panels that will somehow make that more evident, but then I thought no. I don't want the book to be any bigger, frankly, and I just didn't want to belabor the point. Also, I felt like there was something almost just tongue in cheek about the whole idea anyway so I decided to write what I wrote. You could see it on one level as just an attempt to draw a link between those two stories and on another to play around with Kurt Vonnegut-esque goofiness. I had just read "Breakfast of Champions" and was like, that's awesome, I've got to try that. [Laughs]

The book plays around with certain lines and certain aspects. You jump between stories that run over the course of the book with standalone stories, there are short stories, the comics. The pieces are united by a sensibility, but they're very different.

I feel really anxious to experiment with words and images and how words and images can play off one another. The sequences which are called "The Motorcycle Chapter," I specifically was interested in a collage/sketchbook/journal kind of approach. I don't know if you know the artist Peter Beard but he has incredible sketchbooks and journals. What I love about juxtaposing of all these fragments is that there's a story to be read, but you absorb it more than you read it linearly. It's not a chronology. I wanted to play around with that. Plus, I really like the intimacy of sketchbooks and journals. When you pick up somebody's sketchbook or journal there's such an immediacy to it and rawness. I wanted that with those chapters. That's one way I was playing around with how words and images might come together.

The Temptations cut-outs, those are just a picture and I think a kind of presentation can itself bring to mind a whole universe of imagery and thought. You think of the '60s. You listen to old Motown music -- especially that early Temptations stuff -- and I find myself going, "Wow, was it ever really possible when there was a time in history when people were so innocent?" Of course they weren't, but popular culture sure did a good job of making it seem that way. Even now when I hear the Temptations, there's something so beautiful about the way that it sounds, the way their voices come together, but I can trick myself into believing something so innocent too. Pictures like that -- in the guise of toys -- can in its own way be a kind of story, but you make that story up. I also just love The Temptations and I wanted to draw those guys. [Laughs] At the end of the day, that is what it boils down to. I love the Temptations so I'm going to do a diorama of The Temptations. Then there's the prose pieces. I just like to play around with the way you can take various mediums, writing forms, drawing forms, and put them together and see if some story can be gleaned from them.

You have the ads for American Standard Air.

Those are just my homage to advertising. [Laughs]

I said that they were united by a sensibility and I wouldn't say that the sensibility is light-hearted, but your approach felt light-hearted.

That's good. I would say that's true of a fair amount of the stuff in there.

Even though the stories are quite dark and not light-hearted.

Yeah. There is optimism. There is humor. I don't want to work myself into a depression I can never come out of. So make a Temptations diorama and have some fun! All that stuff is pure reverence on my part. I'm not trying to be ironic. I really love the Temptations.

The book isn't ironic or distancing.

I don't like irony at all. I remember when I was in my twenties, there were a lot of great alternative comics out there, but the zeitgeist of that time was really ironic. It was also laughing at the people around you. I never felt comfortable with that sensibility and so no, I don't do anything ironic. I have too much appreciation for the fact that we always have to live. Who wants anybody making fun of you? You're just trying to do your best. I'm just trying to do my best. What's there to make fun of there? Sure we're all goofy, we all do things that are ridiculous but I would rather be laughed with than at. And vice versa, I would rather laugh with someone than at them.

You're influenced by crime stories, I'm guessing, and the good ones aren't cynical or nihilistic. That's a cheap way out. The good ones resonate because they're not those things.

The best example in my mind is James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity." You've got to relate to that guy on some level. Sure, no one wants to end up there, but there's always the hint in the back of your head -- for me, anyway -- that that could happen to any of us. It just takes the right circumstances. What's that great line from "Chinatown?" "Under the right circumstances, we find we're capable of anything." I think that's true. That's well put, it's easy to be ironic and cynical and laugh at, rather than see what you have in common with people.

The best stories know that. They know you can crack all the jokes you want, but it won't change what's happening.

It's not going to alleviate your situation and it's not going to disassociate you from the things going on the world. We're all a little stuck in the mud.

You mentioned before we started that you do a lot of work for "The Riverfront Times" in Saint Louis. How much saw print there or elsewhere and how much of this is brand new?

The "Hopeville" story, all of the "The Belligerent Piano," the stuff that's weekly strips, the "In Another Life" stuff -- all that ran in the Riverfront Times. That was an incredible opportunity because as a fan of comics, just to have been able to do a weekly strip was so much fun. I don't think I could ever do a daily, but that's such a tradition in comics. It was fun, for just a little while, to dance on that ground and be a part of that legacy and tradition. The infographics about freight train hopping techniques of the 1890s and the Harley Davidson were in "The Believer" magazine. The other two infographics, the missile crisis one and aliens in Missouri, ran in "The Riverfront Times." They were pretty supportive. I've tried to produce as much as I can in my comic book "Happy Hour in America."

I love that title. I'm sure you get that a lot.

Thank you. I actually haven't. I'm glad you do, because I've always liked it. A fair amount of stuff ran in there. It's hard to produce those things all the time. I teach at Washington University, I freelance illustrate, and I'm scrambling to cobble my own living together. I don't have time to just exclusively work on comics. I wish I did. Hence I've got to try to get this stuff out through other sources so I can try to make a little bit of money. This book took six years.

It's nice to hear that "The Riverfront Times" doesn't just have a comics section -- which is no longer a given -- but works a lot with local creators.

That's been my experience. Alternative weekly newspapers, at least in the towns I've lived in, do try to support their local artists. I think that's a great thing about them. If you work for national or international publications, you're just one among god knows how many millions who just want to get their foot in the door. They don't have the same loyalty that a small town place would. If St. Louis is a small town. A medium town?

"The Lonesome Go" is available now from Fantagraphics.

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