Book Club #6: Neil Young’s Greendale

For the sixth installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us decided to read Neil Young’s Greendale, a graphic novel written by Joshua Dysart and illustrated by Cliff Chiang that loosely adapts the concept album of the same name.

If you want to get a jump on our next book club, we’ll be going back to our Marvel roots and reading Thor Vol. 1 by J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel. We’ll be discussing that sometime in June, and more details will be forthcoming.

Today, though, we’re going to start our discussion of Greendale by sharing an e-mail exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Greendale cover

Jennifer: I proposed Greendale for this month’s Book Club, with the hope that it would be as much of a pleasant surprise for others as it was for me. This was a book I picked up on a whim after finding an unwrapped copy in a Barnes and Noble. I didn’t know the concept album it was adapting (or Neil Young’s music in general) and I didn’t know Joshua Dysart’s work, but I knew I loved Cliff Chiang’s art and wanted to at least flip through for the prettiness. That idle curiosity soon morphed into reading the whole thing in the bookstore and falling absolutely and unexpectedly in love, leading me to buy a copy for myself, rent the film version Young made, and recommend the book to pretty much everyone I know.

This is a pretty personal story for me. The female protagonist, Sun Green, is almost exactly my age, and the book takes place during her senior year of high school at the start of the Iraq war. So I’ll preface all of my comments with the disclaimer that my reaction to the book is intensely personal. I’m not sure if this story works as well for people who weren’t at this place in life at this exact time. For that matter, I’m not sure if this book works as well for people who don’t have long blonde hair and close family ties and the death of a grandfather in their recent experience. This is the kind of book that hits home for me very specifically, and in some ways serves to define my generation (much better, in my opinion, than something like The Social Network did). I’ll be curious to see how my co-bloggers, and our readers, reacted to the story through more objective lenses. If nothing else, this discussion might prove just how individuated reader positioning can be.

There’s a lot to talk about with this book: politics, adaptation strategies, coming-of-age-narratives, magical realism. But since we usually spend more time talking about writing in these discussions, I wonder if we might change things up a bit and start with a discussion of the thing that initially drew me to the book: Cliff Chiang’s artwork. Was it as much as a draw for you as it was for me?

Sun dancing amid swirling flowers.

Caroline: I will happily talk about Cliff Chiang’s artwork. He’s one of the first comics artists whose style I learned to recognize — from Green Arrow/Black Canary, I think — and one I’ve always been drawn to. There’s something so warm about his work. It might be an animation-influence in the style, but he draws people who are cartoonish and expressive at the same time. I think particularly of a — how shall I put this? — divisive Brave & the Bold issue scripted by J. Michael Straczynski. It’s the one where Barbara Gordon goes out on the town with Wonder Woman and Zatanna, shortly before she’s shot by the Joker. I think that, if I had just been going by the script, I would have sided with those who hated the issue for reducing Babs’ life to a single tragedy. Chiang’s visuals, though, brought so much dimension to these women, letting us see them as strong in some ways and vulnerable in others, that I treasured it for that reason alone.

Chiang is so good at bringing out those sorts of layers in superhero stories that it seems a little grudging to admit I’ve wondered if superhero comics are the best use of his talent. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see all kinds of styles in superhero books, but Chiang’s work is so striking that I have been wondering what else he can do. After reading Greendale, I want that even more. The visuals are absolutely key to this book, from the character designs — which I gather are largely based on the film actors, but don’t look photoreferenced — to the landscapes to the layouts. To be honest, I wish this book had trusted the visuals more, since a lot of the text and even the dialogue seemed superfluous. I’m sure we’ll talk about the relationship of art to music later on, but it seems to me that the best way to transfer songs to the page is with more images and fewer words.

A sequence of panels from Greendale

Sigrid: Well. I really, really liked the art. Chiang is pretty amazing, but let’s also not forget the impact of Dave Stewart’s colors and Todd Klein’s lettering. I would happily support these guys, all four of them including Dysart, working on projects together in the future.

That said, I could not relate to or get into the story at all.

Jennifer, I think you are right — this may well be a story that one has to relate to the experience of events at the time. I get the sense that you felt about this comic the way I felt about reading Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front, a history of the Riot Girl movement. I was THERE and those were my people, and I was the right age at the right time in the right place. Greendale is none of those things to me, personally.

Which gives me, what, exactly? A story about magic environmentalist women whose menfolk admire and worship them and never understand them? This struck me a little bit like Manic Pixie Dream Girl on steroids. I think the story is intended differently, perhaps — is intended as a coming-of-age story for a powerful young woman who will change the world. But I didn’t get a huge sense of agency off of Sun Green. She struck me more as a person whose life is the confluence of greater powers swirling around her, knocking her this way and that.

Which, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that story. It merely isn’t my cup of tea.

Jennifer: While I agree that Sun spends a lot of the story being buffeted about, I think ultimately the story culminates in taking her life into her own hands, using those forces in her own way, for her own benefit. It struck me as a tale of someone taking BACK the agency denied them — she literally gathers up her previously-subconscious powers and fights back the devil himself, twisting him up in vines and starting a crusade. She gains strength from her family (significantly, the women of her family, matrilineal power/legacy that we rarely see in Western comics), but she doesn’t disappear like her relatives did — she decides to do real things, on earth, and is willing to be arrested for it. And since the narration is from her ghostly female relative, it’s even less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, because it’s a story told from a female point of view about a female character. The male gaze is inevitable in a book constructed entirely by men, but it struck me as profoundly feminist and profoundly a statement of female agency.

That said, if you didn’t get that from the story, I acknowledge that it might be an issue with the storytelling.

Sun Green leads a revolution with a megaphone.

Anika: I agree with Jen. Sun is the active character in the book and it’s her existential crisis that is resolved by the end, so she doesn’t fit the definition of MPDG as I understand it. And I, like Jen, really liked this story and really related to the subject material. In fact, I ended the book saying “I want to do that.” I want to dress up as a Soldier for the Environment. I want to protest both the man-made environmental decay and the three (!!!) wars this country is currently engaged in. And the underlying war on terrorism. I want to make noise. I want to fight.

But because of that — because I want to believe I CAN be like Sun — I didn’t like the mystical stuff. I know, it’s weird. But it was too fantastic for me. I realize it would be a wholly different story and probably wouldn’t work without the devil and speaking with dead people and the omens. But I’d prefer it that way. Maybe if all the mystical stuff was grounded the way the great-grandmother’s magic salve was? And at least can we not have the boyfriend turned into a goat? Just. Why?

I also found the cousin’s subplot pretty random and pointless. It seemed to exist solely to help the commentary by CNN at the end and thus looking back, it comes off lazy.

Sun's boyfriend as a goat boy

Jennifer: Anika, I think what you’re talking about makes for a nice segueway into a discussion of the adaptation issues. As I said before, when I first picked this up I hadn’t even heard about the album it was adapting, but since then I’ve seen the film that Neil Young made, in which the album plays over actors silently acting out the stories the songs tell. The film is honestly kind of tedious and full of shaky cam and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but I found it interesting to hear the album and see exactly where Dysart and Chiang used or changed Young’s original concepts to fit their narrative.

The storyline about Sun’s cousin that you mention, Anika, is a big part of the album, so I understand why it was still part of this story, and I think it worked well for creating an inciting incident/freeing Sun from her last ties of obligation to her family (her grandfather, etc.). But the concept album has no supernatural aspects whatsoever, beyond the vague symbolic devil presence — the complicated family tree and matrilineal superpowers are completely Dysart’s invention. I personally really loved those parts, and I thought they made the story much more ripe for visual interpretation than the album itself did, as the film proves. I especially loved Chiang’s depiction of leaf-covered Ciela. I’m curious, though, what everyone else thinks. Is the inclusion of fantasy elements a good idea in a comic book adaptation of what was originally an entirely realistic musical narrative? Do those elements hurt the story?

Caroline, I know you’ve at least looked at the lyrics, so I’m curious about your thoughts.

Leafy Ciela and other Green women

Caroline: Here’s a funny story. I love concept albums. I think they are awesome and ridiculous, and even when an album isn’t specifically sold as one, I try to think of ways to tie the songs on the album to work in dialogue with each other. I love the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera, which is an album about the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd (yes, really), and actually contains a song or two about Neil Young. When I gave my Fangirl Friday interview, I talked about wanting more comic book anthologies based on rock albums.

Basically, if Neil Young’s Greendale is going to fall in anybody’s wheelhouse, adaptation-wise, it ought to be mine. And — it doesn’t really. I haven’t watched the movie and don’t own the album, but I watched a live performance of it on YouTube. The music is pretty decent, if I don’t find it especially inspired, but I wouldn’t be miserable if you forced me to listen to this.

But then, I’m not a particular Neil Young fan. He’s one of those musicians that I recognize as an influence on a lot of musicians I love, but he’s not somebody I listen to a lot just for fun. He’s certainly not somebody whose albums I listen to on repeat while looking for excuses to drop lyric references into conversation. In other words, a fan, which in a sense is who an adaptation like this is going to be aimed at. A similar project based on the aforementioned Southern Rock Opera or, say, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska would have me enraptured, I’m quite sure.

Not that any of this has to matter. It’s possible to make an album-to-comics adaptation that stands completely on its own. I’m not sure that’s something fans would want, though. If I was a Neil Young junkie reading this, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t lyric-drops or Easter eggs. Yet those exact same things are probably going to trip up a casual reader who is asking, “Why the hell is that in there?”

Greendale album cover

I think this does tie in to the conversations about the subplots and about Sun’s agency. I enjoyed Sun as a character, and I saw her as someone who was strong and made empowering decisions by the end of the book. Did the “plot” of the book really lead her there, though? I’m not sure, and I think it’s because the narrative logic of an album and the logic of a work of fiction just aren’t the same. A lot of very good songs don’t even translate when you try to read them as poems, much less stories with satisfying arcs. The way the storylines wove together and the way that the mysticism influenced the characters’ actions in Greendale the comic book didn’t entirely work for me, as fiction, because the logic was more musical than novelistic. That doesn’t mean it was bad, it just seemed like either too much story (just let it be an anthology that doesn’t try to connect everything) or not enough (give me more A leads to B leads to C).

Maybe I’m splitting hairs.

Anika: This all makes sense to me. I don’t know the source material at all but generally the adaptations I like best are the ones that can live separately… I certainly don’t feel like I am missing something because I don’t know the music. But I probably would appreciate the things that don’t seem to fit because I’m Caroline’s casual reader. So yeah, it makes sense.

And Jen, you have a point that the mysticism adds to the visuals. And I agree with all of you that the art is beautiful. I don’t know. The goat-boyfriend really pulled me away from the rest of it. But I know that the realistic politics would pull some people out of it and it’s a draw for me. While I don’t know Neil Young well, I was raised on Bob Dylan and John Lennon and other political-activist-musicians. I grew up at, and now work at, a university where they teach that making a statement is the point of art. Our production of As You Like It was about saving the environment. Eurydice depicted youth ennui in an attempt to Get Out the Vote. Two weeks ago we put up a student compiled musical about the USO that overtly protested war. It was a senior thesis project, and my own senior thesis was a dance I choreographed and performed which explored the myth of Pandora and in it I gave her all the agency I could. She talked back to the gods and she smashed her box and the end was meant to be something like the end of this comic: Pandora leading feminists to protest just as Sun leads activists to Alaska to protest.

So this is my gaze. I often find calls to arms in art that may not even be intended. But it is intended here: “Sun didn’t say much that day that most people didn’t already know. But way back in 2003, people needed to be reminded of a lot of things they already knew.”. And I know I already mentioned it but I have to give another shout out to her paramilitary look. That is so me it hurts. I would wear that — I have worn that — to protest, to make a statement. And it’s not to mock (I’m anti-war, not anti-soldier). To make the point that I, like Sun, am willing and ready to fight.

Sun in protest clothing.

Jennifer: Man, Anika, I want to hang out at your colleges! And those are all points very well taken. For what it’s worth, the goat-boyfriend was probably my least favorite part of the comic, too — I’d forgotten all about that aspect and was kind of looking at it sideways when I reread it in anticipation of our discussion. It really doesn’t seem to fit at all!

Still, whatever our various reactions, I’m glad most of us found something to take home from this book, be it politics or music or reflections of life experience. And I hope our readers have more to add! If you read Greendale along with us, feel free to share your thoughts and spark discussion in the comments below. There’s always more to talk about!

  • Caroline

    I realize now I didn’t answer the question about fantasy elements — I think those were definitely part of the musical logic I mentioned, but not in a bad way. Then, I like songs with the devil as a character. It may be a Southern rock thing (and you know Neil Young is a pioneer of Southern rock; there’s no Skynyrd if you don’t have Neil Young first. I may be having the wrong conversation.)

    There’s no truth to the rumor that I’ve already started scripting my spec OGN based on “Nebraska.”

    Great book choice, Jen!

  • Caroline

    (Also, it’s funny, but I can totally picture Jennifer in the dancing scene, and Anika in the paramilitary one. I’m not sure who I am in this book. . .hopefully not a goat person.)

  • Caroline, you can be Sea! The commanding independent brunette who mystically inspires others to follow her.

    Does Neil Young COUNT as Southern rock? Isn’t his whole thing that he yells at the South? And isn’t he Canadian + Californian? (This is what little I know.)

  • Caroline

    Oh, Neil Young’s not Southern Rock, but ‘Alabama’ ‘Southern Man’ is sort of a sine qua non of the genre. If you don’t have that, you don’t have ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ etc etc. (Listen to ‘Southern Rock Opera’! Patterson will tell you all about it!) So ‘precursor/avatar’ was better than pioneer. I mean, honestly, I don’t think you have Southern rock without The Band, either, and they’re also Canadian.

    I AM SO SORRY, THIS IS NOT ABOUT GREENDALE.

  • Well, I think it’s important that he’s Canadian because it means we can blame Canada for anything we don’t like about his music/this book. 😛 (Said with affection toward my many Canadian friends!)

  • Caroline

    You’re right. Canada is way too busy housing imaginary girlfriends to have any influence on popular music.
    (I hope somebody says something about the book soon before we go too far down this rabbit hole.)

  • A totally random note, but since I have spent far too long thinking about Sun Green, it occurs to me that she is essentially Dawn Schafer from the Baby-Sitters Club. In innumerable ways.

  • Margot

    Disclaimer – running on very little sleep so I make no promises of coherency.

    Well, I’m not blonde and I’ve got short hair at the moment, but I DEFINITELY also seriously identified with Sun. And I agree with Jen and Anika – I don’t think at all that Sun was a MPDG – this is her story, and her finding her sense of agency was the defining arch of it.

    I actually liked the magic – but then again, I love fantasies. I’m not entirely sure how it worked, but it was an interesting element.

    Also, the artwork was gorgeous, and that needs to be pointed out. Because seriously. *adores*

  • Monica

    I think the addition of magic to a setting that was extremely identifyable to me was what made this story so compelling. I’ll agree that some of the elements didn’t quite come together, but because this was a broad look at a family and how that family shapes it’s youngest daughter, I didn’t mind that there were loose threads and superfluous elements.

    It’s true that there could have been less naration. The gorgeous art – and especially the expressive characters – could have carried more by itself.

    I was a bit daunted by the family tree on the inside cover of the book. I have a hard time keeping track of large casts, so it worried me. But I didn’t really have any trouble, and I really enjoyed the glimpses of Sun’s female relatives. I want the story of them rescuing sailors like pro-active mermaids. I loved that page. And I loved Sun’s great-grandmother. She was a bit over-the-top, but it worked.

    I wasn’t that bothered that Sun’s boyfriend was turned into a goat. He drank mystical poison, what else should happen? I’d like to think that the kiss he recieved at the end brought him back to life, and that he’ll reunite with Sun in Alaska. I do think it was necessary that Sun forge her own way to Alaska, so he had to either step down or be brought down. And I did worry for Sun’s emotional resilience when he was targeted by the devil, so that worked for the story.

    Caroline, you mentioned The Band, so now I must mention how much I love The Last Waltz. I once wrote a House fanfic that featured The Last Waltz as House’s favorite film. I’m not even that into The Band, but if I had a TARDIS that’s one concert I would go to.

  • Caroline

    Margot — I think I agree with you. If this were the story of Sun told through Brown’s eyes, then she might be a MPDG, but it’s very much her story. (I also admit I sometimes LIKE MPDG’s, as characters; it’s the framing of the story that makes them a problem).

    Monica — I *love* ‘The Last Waltz’! There have been some times in my life when I’ve been in a pretty dark mood and playing that film repeatedly is the only thing that does it for me. (Confession: I don’t know that much about The Band either and I pretty much don’t even listen to the parts where they are talking. There’s just something magical about that concert and the way it’s captured). Also, ‘pro-active mermaids’ is totally a pitch for a series.

    I’m so glad you both read and enjoyed the book!

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