Of Punk Rock and Trailer Parks - Talking to Derf

Derf on Punk Rock and Trailer Parks

Creature Feature
Creature Feature
What do punk rock and trailer parks have in common? More than you think.

The recently released graphic novel Punk Rock & Trailer Parks chronicles beginnings of punk-rock in Akron, Ohio. It features cameos by punk rock acts such as Klaus Nomi and Ramones, but the show-stealer of the book ends up being Otto – or as he calls himself "The Baron!". Far from the everyman you might see in most fiction, he is self-deluded, self-confident and selfless. He lives in the town of Akron, battling the small-town oppressiveness in the face of a growing underground scene. I

The book is created by American cartoonist Derf, who is most famous for his weekly alternative newspaper comic strip The City which debuted in 1990. His work has been nominated for several Eisner awards, and he's contributed to magazines and newspapers such as Playboy andThe Wall Street Journal. But we're not here to talk about that – we're here to talk about Derf's Punk Rock & Trailer Parks.

Newsarama: Derf, this book really captures the energy that was during the early days of the punk-rock scene. What was your experience with that?

Derf: I was a punk rocker. A full-bore, 1st-generation punk.

When you talk punk rock, it always starts with the Ramones. My first Ramones show was at a small club in Columbus, Ohio, in 1978. It was a transformative experience, even though my memories are a little blurry, since someone kicked me in the head halfway through the show, probably during Beat on the Brat. I remember stumbling out of the club after the gig with blood caked on my forehead, my shirt in tatters, missing a shoe... and a broad smile on my mug. I walked into that club as a curious bystander. I came out a punk rocker.

Today you'll hear a Ramones tune on a beer commercial, but back then the music was dangerous and totally underground. I try hard, maybe too hard, to get this across in Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. Radio wouldn't play punk. Clubs wouldn't book punk bands. Record stores refused to carry punk records... and if they did, it was separated from the "real" rock-n-roll by a protective buffer of Easy Listening or Country, so the Dead Boys wouldn't infect the Journey or Eagles bin. The music was spread purely by word of mouth and by enlightened hipsters passing cassettes and 45s to each other in clubs and alleys. Punk was blasphemy. "Turn that punk shit off!" that's what I frequently heard from my contemporaries, as they hugged their Springsteen albums for comfort. It might be the last, truly underground music.

I like telling stories that haven't been told. Outside of John Holmstrom... and maybe Gary Panter... there haven't been any punk comix. I also got to channel my inner music wonk, which was a blast. because, ya know, being a comix dork just isn't quite geeky enough!

The big challenge, of course, was to try to capture the sensory experience of music in comix form. There haven't been too many books that have done that successfully, mainly because, I think, they get bogged down with the music itself. That works in film, where you can actually hear the songs, but it gets boring fast on the printed page. Ten years from now there will probably be a microchip on every page that can download songs directly into the iPod surgically imbedded in your frontal lobe and a soundtrack will play as you turn the pages, but that's not the case right now. So rather than fruitlessly attempt to recreate the songs themselves on a comix page, I tried to capture the vibe of the punk experience... and used that in a pretty fast-moving and raucous story. You don't have to be a music nut, or know anything about punk, to enjoy this book.

NRAMA: This book centers on the punk rock scene of Akron, Ohio in the late 1970s. It feels real - it reads real- -- how'd you make it so realistic?

D: Oh, I come from a long line of Rubber Citians. The industrial imagery of that city is burned into my memory. And it's fantastic imagery, great fun to draw. I've always enjoyed penning crumbling Rustbelt cityscapes. I grew up in Akron, went to school in Columbus and I've lived in Cleveland for the past 25 years. Outside of three unhappy years in Florida (sun...ugh!) I've spent my whole life trudging the cracked sidewalks of grimy industrial towns. So I write and draw what I know. And when you do that, no matter how absurd the story is, your work will have an element of truth. And that, I believe, is the key.

I set Punk Rock & Trailer Parks in 1980 because I felt that was the crucial year of the era, and not just musically. There was so much going on. Reagan had just swept into power. It was the depths of the Recession that devastated the Rust Belt, more profoundly than the Great Depression, believe it or not. Akron recovered from the Depression. It never recovered from the Recession. The rubber jobs left. The factories were abandoned. The stores closed. It was like a neutron bomb went off on Main Street!

And it's surprisingly... or depressingly... relevant. What happened in towns like Akron and Youngstown and Erie and Flint back in 1980 is now happening everywhere. Blinded by greed and drunk from easy credit, we learned nothing from the Recession. So we get to repeat it. Enjoy!

As for the Akron punk scene itself, unfortunately I wasn't really a part of it. My punk years were spent in other towns. Akron punk was huge at the time, starting with Devo and Chrissie Hynde, then a host of other artists. So many, in fact, that Melody Maker called Akron the "new Liverpool." I know that's hard to fathom now, but it's true. It all revolved around this great club, The Bank, which was just that: an abandoned bank. The vault was still in it, behind the bar! That's where they stored the booze, and the large device used to water down said booze. It was this incredible metaphor for what was going on in Akron, the boom town gone bust, and a bank, a symbol of American capitalism, now home to this nihilistic caterwaul. It was truly one of the great rock clubs. But I blew out of town two weeks after high school graduation. I just HAD to get out of Akron. Before I left, I made a few timid forays into the punk clubs, but I was too young and too chicken. I've always regretted not being a significant figure in that scene. Certainly the opportunity was there, but I just wasn't prepared intellectually or artistically. I should have filled Akron with posters and flyers and record covers... but I didn't. My head was firmly lodged up my ass. Punk Rock & Trailer Parks is my attempt to re-visit that time and retroactively do what I should have done back in the day!

I researched the hell out of this thing to re-create the scene and The Bank, putting my otherwise useless journalism degree to good use! I spent months collecting photos and posters and flyers... anything I could get my hands on. And I interviewed quite a few of the old scenesters over beers or coffee, plumbing them for details, trying to nail the vibe of the place. It's not historically accurate, but I wanted to get it right, because very little survives from the Akron scene, outside of the records. CBGBs was in the media capital of the world, so there were dozens of photogs and filmmakers documenting what was going on there. That's not how it was in Akron. Most of the surviving photos look like they were taken with a cheap Kodak Insta-matic. There's only a few minutes of film. A few scratchy tapes of live shows. I wanted to create the definitive portrait of what it was like.

It's not a nostalgia trip. Anyone familiar with my work, knows I'm no sappy sentimentalist. This is a gritty, funny, bawdy, totally tasteless tale that careens along, full of twists and surprises. And when you shake this book, the rust just falls out of the pages.

NRAMA: The lead in this, Otto, is perhaps one of the most contagious new characters I've read in sometime. How'd you come up with Otto - aka Baron?

D: When I hunkered down to come up with my next project, I started by thinking about characters. I wanted to create one that I hadn't seen before. The geek is a staple of indy comix, but most of them are the woe-is-me, self-loathing type, miserable wretches leading miserable lives. I'm not a big fan of these dreary characters. What I hadn't seen was what I call the Egomaniacal Geek. These are the guys ruling the world today: your Steve Jobs, your Bill Gates, etc. So I started sketching and came up with Otto, a 6'8" lunatic who fills a room when he enters it, not just with his appearance but also with sheer force of personality. We've ALL known guys like this. After that, I just started piling on quirks. Otto, like all good characters, I imagine, spoke to me from my sketchbook and told me what he was and what he was into.

The Baron is a persona Otto invents for himself, originally as psychological armor, to build himself up in the face of the contempt of his small town contemporaries. And it ties in to his inborn narcissism. He's all bravado and bluster, but he's also thoroughly likeable. And when he backs into the punk scene, the strangest thing happens: he becomes The Baron! The very things that made him a freak in high school, make him a star in the counter-culture. His fantasy magically becomes his reality. And that’s how it works! The Ramones were hoods and weirdos growing up in Forest Hills. But at CBGBs, they became gods.

There are too many "everyman" characters populating graphic novels. They're dull. I was determined to avoid that.

NRAMA: You've explained the origins of Otto – what about the rest of the book?

D: Ha! It was a long, hard slog. I started with Otto... and the trailer park... and that's all I had. I've always been fascinated by trailer parks and thought one would be a great setting, where I could work in these small town whackjobs I had invented. But the book was going nowhere. I had this character I really liked and a few funny scenes, but I had no story, no conflict, no motivation. I was stuck. In fact, I set it aside and moved on to some other ideas. But I kept coming back to Otto every few months because there was just something so compelling about him.

Then in 2005 I got involved in a benefit concert down in Akron. A couple members of Tin Huey, which was one of the big bands of the punk era, although they're largely unknown outside of Akron, were having some health problems. A good friend of mine put together a show to raise cash for their medical bills. I did a poster and designed a t-shirt for the event. All these old Akron bands signed on to play, some re-forming after decades apart! The show sold out instantly and it was a phenomenal experience. The crowd, the music, the energy... it reminded me what the punk era was like, and specifically what the close-knit hipster community in the Rubber City was like. And when I was driving home late that night, I had my epiphany. Of course! I'll set the book in The Bank!

The last thing I added was the rock stars. I decided all these touring punk luminaries would wander into the story... the Ramones, Joe Strummer, the Plasmatics, etc. It gave the book some star power and, I thought, would make it a more interesting read than sticking in a bunch of Akron bands that no one had ever heard of.

After those brainstorms, the story came together in a rush. I wrote it all in a week.

NRAMA: But this isn't the first book you've written, it's your third after Trashed and My Friend Dahmer. Both were auto-biographical, while this one is not. In the opening remarks, you say that this book isn't "a true story… but it could be." Fiction it is, but how much of it takes from your old life?

D: Only the setting. The Bank is real. Nothing else is. I do make a Hitchcockian cameo in the book, as a local garbageman (an experience I so lovingly document in Trashed), but the book is not about me or my life. It's Otto's story.

I mined some of my concert-going experiences for inspiration, that much is true. At least I tried to recreate the energy of those shows. But most happened outside Akron. The only show in the book that did occur at The Bank was the Klaus Nomi concert. The Clash played Akron, but the show was down the street at an old movie theater, believe it or not, this incredibly gaudy theater with a ridiculous faux-Moorish interior and a huge pipe organ that rises out of the floor. It was the Combat Rock tour, too! That's right, in New York they filled Shea Stadium, but out in the boonies they played absurd venues like that. It's hard to believe.

What I've found however, is that many readers... and many of my friends from my youth... think it's true! I've been grilled about who this character really is and where this or that event really happened. I just went to my high school reunion and a bunch of classmates were pressing me on this. It's all made up! None of these people... outside of the rock stars... are real. None of this stuff happened... I guess I should be flattered that people mistake it all for truth.

NRAMA: You did this book while working on your weekly newspaper strip The City. How do you balance it all?

D: Actually, it was invigorating. I mostly worked on it in the evening, after a day's work on the strip. I have a laptop drawing board and I'd plop on the living room couch and work on the book while the family watched a DVD or bustled about. And I just plugged away at it, cranking out 2 or 3 pages in an evening. It's an 152-page book, so you can do the math there. And I cut about 20 pages of finished art out of the end product! And I re-drew the final chapter three times! I was like Coppola struggling with the ending of Apocalypse Now.

I remember when the books finally arrived from the printing plant. It's one of the great moments for any creator, seeing those boxes piled up on the front steps and ripping one open and pulling out a copy of the actual book for the first time. I picked one up and started leafing through the pages... and I was really kind of overwhelmed. I just thought "Holy shit, this was a lot of work!"

NRAMA: So.. how does doing longform comics like this compare with the weekly pace of The City?

D: I loved doing this book. It was a joy from start to finish. Working in newspapers these days is depressing, as the industry goes straight down the crapper. I equate it with being a rubber worker in Akron in 1980, actually. There's this air of inevitability and gloom. Newspapers are going to start closing by next spring. Some will survive, hopefully, but many will die.

Papers have shrunk comix so small. Hell, the papers themselves have shrunk! Some of these weekly rags are almost comic book size now. It's almost impossible to draw anything. When I started doing The City in 1990, most papers ran it the width of the page, 10 inches or so. It was great! I had lots of room to draw and write. It was the golden age of weekly comix. Today most run my strip half that size. I just try to make it legible. It's very frustrating. I love doing the strip, don't get me wrong, and I love newspapers. But clearly the future there is bleak.

So Punk Rock & Trailer Parks was a chance for me to just draw my ass off. I had all the room I wanted. I felt like I'd escaped from a cramped basement drawing cell and was running free in an open meadow with a pen clutched between my teeth!

I like the contrast between short and longform work, because it's a totally different creative process. And with Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, I went into it determined to challenge myself. I knew it was going to be my most ambitious work to date. I knew it was going to be fiction, something which I hadn't done before. And I wanted something that would really stretch me as a writer, and, particularly, as an artist. So I forced myself to draw these big cityscapes... and large crowd scenes... and action sequences, stuff I never draw in my comic strip. It's been hard going back to those four little panels, to be honest.

The City is gag driven. It's either political gags or absurdist humor. It's difficult to write and the ideas are painfully hard to come by. Punk Rock & Trailer Parks is character driven. Coming up with those characters was tough, but once I did, the story came very easily. You just stick those characters in a situation and the story writes itself!

NRAMA: I've read that while you make comics all the time, you don't read comics much. Why is that?

D: Well, originally I stopped reading comix and cartoons because I found them a distraction to my own stylistic evolution. When I started out, it seemed like I was always drawing similar in style to whoever I was reading at the time. It wasn't until I cut myself off completely from comix and "stewed in my own juice" for awhile that my own style began to emerge. It's a draconian policy, I suppose, but it worked for me and it's something I continue to this day. It's not like I recoil from a comic like a vampire from garlic... I'll look at them if they cross my path... but I don't seek them out.

I was a total comix nut from age 10 to 20. I bought everything on the rack and amassed a huge collection of Silver and Bronze Age books, everything from Ion Man to The Two-Gun Kid to In The Days Of The Mob. But to be honest, I go into a comix shop now and look at the mainstream titles and I think "I've seen this all before." Especially the super-hero books. I just don't feel like spending money on that stuff. Although, now that I think about it, I'd have been better off buying comix than socking away that money in my IRA. At least I'd have something to burn for heat this winter!

NRAMA: Since you don't read comics, where do you go for entertainment?

D: Movies and music, mostly. I'm a rabid film buff and we have a number of great art theaters here in Cleveland. And I still love live music shows. Not the big Ticketmaster arena events, of course, but rather the more obscure acts that come rolling through. Like any music fan, my taste has expanded greatly since my punk days. Last show I saw was the Silver Jews, who were fantastic. David Byrne was just here in Cleveland, as was Nick Lowe. Hank Williams III will be touring this winter. I'm psyched to see him again.

NRAMA: And finally, now that this book is finished - what's your next big project?

D: {Groan}

Twitter activity