Exploring 'The Great American Mythological Drama' in HAPPY HOUR IN AMERICA

Tim Lane
Credit: Tim Lane
Credit: Tim Lane

Since 2003, Tim Lane has self-published his anthology series Happy Hour in America – but all that’s about to change this week, as Fantagraphics releases the new volume of the series that examines “The Great American Mythological Drama.”

Explaining Happy Hour in America is a little tricky - it’s a homage to old-school comics storytelling with tales of crime, isolation, and suspense that are also specifically grounded in American popular culture. The new issue examines movie legend Steve McQueen - from a What If?-type tale of a movie star in self-induced exile to a more action-packed story about “Kid McQueen” that comments on his iconography.

To help introduce readers to Happy Hour in America, Newsarama talked with Tim Lane about the book, its move to Fantagraphics, his plans for the future, and much more.

Newsarama: Tim, for those who haven't experienced it yet, tell us a bit about Happy Hour in America.

Credit: Tim Lane

Tim Lane: Happy Hour in America is a traditional comic book I’ve been self–publishing since 2003. Although Fantagraphics has published my graphic novels, this is the first time they’ve taken on publishing Happy Hour. It will actually be issue #7, but, since it’ll be the first published through Fantagraphics, it’s being called issue #1, volume 2.

I’ve always been a big fan of the traditional comic book, and became interested in comics from an early age because of them. Later on, when I was in my early twenties, it was the medium that returned me to comics through pamphlets like Eightball, Love & Rockets, Black Hole, Optic Nerve, and others that were coming out. Those early alternative comics were very inspirational.

Nrama: How did the book come about?

Lane:  Originally, it was intended to be styled in form very much like the comics I liked so much as a kid - the reprints of EC comics that were coming out back then, such as Crime SuspenStories.

Nrama: How did you come to work with Fantagraphics on it, and what's the collaboration been like?

Credit: Tim Lane

Lane: I started working with Fantagraphics through the anthology,Hotwire. Eventually, they published Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go, and committed themselves to the publication of my next graphic novel, Just Like Steve McQueen.

I had been trying to get them to publish Happy Hour for years before they finally took me on with Abandoned Cars. It was a big deal to me to get Fantagraphics to publish my work; they had been the publisher who had been producing so much of the work that inspired me. So, as far as Happy Hour is concerned, it’s been a long time coming - over 10 years.

As far as the collaboration process with Fantagraphics goes, it’s been excellent. Both with Happy Hour and my graphic novels, Fantagraphics has been incredible about making sure that the vision of the cartoonist is realized. They are very constructive in their advice about the aesthetics, and very helpful when it comes to suggesting the best materials to work with - things like cover stock and paper stock, color usage, etc.

Credit: Tim Lane

Nrama: This is something you talk about in the book, but what, for you, defines the "Great American Mythological Drama"?

Lane: The Great American Mythological Drama is something I’ve written a great deal about, and am frankly still trying to wrap my head around in its entirety.

It isn’t specifically or exclusively about the proverbial “American Dream,” but my work tends to deal with characters who are living on the underbelly of it - the ones who have been raised in the shadow of its presence, but find it unattainable. 

I’m also very interested in the multitude of inherent paradoxes that permeate American culture. On some level, I guess I write as a way to try to come to terms with various American myths, what they mean, where they come from, and where they’re going.

Credit: Tim Lane

Comics - in the form of the traditional comic book - are a part of that myth and is a fitting medium to explore that landscape. I also think the traditional comic book offers people the opportunity to become exposed to sequential or visual storytelling without having to pay a fortune to do so.

Nrama: Something that's personally interesting to me about your work is that it's very compressed. There's a lot of words, a lot of story crammed into each page, and that's very different from this age of decompressed, drawn–out storytelling that's very typical in comics. Is this more the result of necessity (i.e. a limited amount of space) or is it something more purposeful, or a little of both? What do you feel are the distinct advantages of compressed storytelling, and what are some of the challenges that come with it?

Lane:  I think if there’s a compressed quality to my stories, it results from a few things. One is that the biggest artistic inspirations in my life have been prose writers and poets, so words mean a great deal to me, especially as a way of elaborating on the interior lives of characters.

Credit: Tim Lane

The second, which is probably wrapped into the first, is that I’m still learning the nuances of visual storytelling. I expect - or rather, I hope - to always be learning. Part of that is learning to tell stories that are less dependent on words.

Up until recently, I almost always wrote stories as prose pieces first, then broke then into visual narratives. I still do that, but more and more tend to work out stories visually. But it really depends on the nature of the story I want to tell: Whether it depends on the use of words or not – whether I feel interior monologue is necessary or not.

I really consider myself most invested in the art of the short story in comics. I can’t explain why this is necessarily, I just instinctually gravitate toward the short story and the impact of a variety of shorter narratives developing into a tapestry of stories that have certain themes in common.

Credit: Tim Lane

It feels a little uncomfortable trying to explain these things, though, because I don’t want to work myself into a box; there are plenty of things I’ve tried in comics that contradict what I’ve just described.

One of the things that attracts me to the traditional comic book is that it can serve as a launching pad for all kinds of experimental ideas. And one of the things I love about comics is the democratic nature of the form: It invites and celebrates all kinds of voices and styles.

As for any trend toward decompressed storytelling in contemporary comics, I couldn’t say much about that. I think every cartoonist - or maybe it could be broadened that to say every artist, regardless of their medium - has to find his or her own way of being sincere in communicating the splinter in their brains.

Credit: Tim Lane

Nrama: We're in an era right now where a lot of concepts about American exceptionalism are being challenged, if not redefined, along with many preconceptions about success, entitlement, masculinity, and our own history. At this time, what do you feel are the most fundamentally appealing elements of the "Great American Mythology"? What do you think we need to learn to move past or let go of, and what do you think is worth embracing?

Lane: Hell if I know. I don’t see myself or my work as advocating for or arguing against anything in particular, at least not on a conscious level.

My creative process always begins with an instinct I have faith in to lead me down the creative or spiritual or whatever path I’ve been traveling on all my life. Trying to figure it out on an intellectual level always comes later - and the intellectualizing of it always seems to fall short in its explanations or interpretations.

My work, if I could try to sum it up as candidly as possible, is a kind of personal exploration into the culture I was steeped in; an attempt to try to make heads or tails of it. I don’t really feel qualified to declare what should stay or what should go.

Nrama: Tell us a bit about your writing and research process.

Lane: Research is deeply important to me, and it’s the most inexhaustible part of my storytelling process. From reading as much as I can to just keeping notes on my daily experiences as frequently as possible, there’s no end to the research.

Credit: Tim Lane

It has been as important as the hours at the drawing board, especially recently with the interpretive biographical graphic novel about the actor Steve McQueen I’m working on. I was only alive for the last decade of McQueen’s life, so research plays a very important role in the development of the book and the believability of the drawings.

I’ve worked enough with material that deals with historical subject matter to know that my interpretation of an era during which I’ve never lived can only be viewed through a lens distorted by an imagined reality, no matter how intensively research the era might be.

But I guess that doesn’t make things too different from an era through which one has actually lived; we all interpret our surroundings subjectively, and with opinion informed by our life experiences.

Credit: Tim Lane

Nrama: And why should people pick up your book?

Lane: I tend to read material that somehow speaks to me, and in which I relate to the voices speaking in that material - the dialogue opened by the artistic instincts of its creator invites you into it. 

I guess I’d say that the people who should read my work are the ones who can relate to the conversation I’m having in my work.

Nrama: What are some books/creators you’ve been enjoying lately?

Lane: Outside of the material I’ve been reading for the McQueen book research, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the work of Sam Shepard for about the last three years. Right now, I’m reading and rereading his early plays. I’m trying to devour everything I can about him. I was first turned on to him through a book of correspondences between Shepard and his lifelong friend, Johnny Dark, called Two Prospectors.

I knew who Shepard was, but hadn’t really engaged in his work. Something about the voice that came through in his letters really clicked with me, so I started reading his short story collections, then moved on to his plays. I’ve been going ever since; mining the fields of Shepard’s work. But I’m lucky because I have a lot of friends who are much smarter than me and who are avid readers; there’s never a deficit of new stuff to dig into.

Nrama: What’s next for you?

Lane: The main thing I’m working on is the McQueen book, but I’ve got a few other projects I’m working on to. That also accounts for the importance to me of Happy Hour: It offers a place to publish both the work for McQueen, as well as other projects, and also one–off stuff that might not get to see the light of day otherwise.

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