Although some songs and albums has less straightforward “story” than others, all music has the ability to capture moments in time – be it seconds, minutes or a lifetime. With the album “Greendale”, Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse crafted an intimate portrait through music of small town America and the stories it had to tell. The 2003 album has already spawned a film adaptation, and now that fictional town and its inhabitants live on in a new graphic novel from DC/Vertigo coming out this week in comic book stores and nationwide next week.
Tuesday Newsarama spoke with Greendale writer Josh Dysart and now today we turn to the project’s artist, Cliff Chiang. For years, Chiang has worked at DC Comics, first as an editor and then as an artist, illustrating titles such as Human Target, Beware The Creeper, and Green Arrow & Black Canary. For Greendale, Chiang holed himself up in his studio for his longest uninterrupted comic project to date; honing his style and technique and crafting a unique design for the book from the art on the pages to the feel of the pages and the book itself.We recently spoke to the artist about the project. Newsarama: Cliff, were you familiar with Neil Young’s album before learning about the comic project?
Cliff Chiang: It all kind of happened at the same time. I wasn’t familiar with the “Greendale” album before this project came along, but as soon as I knew I was working on it I watched the film, listened to the music and read Josh’s script.
Nrama: What was the process like for you to figure out the look and feel of Sun Green and her family?
Chiang: A lot of it was pretty organic and comes straight from the story. To start off with, I read the script multiple times to get a real feel for the story, to the point at which I know the story by heat and can really hone in on what emotions need to be brought out and what the reader would need to feel at any given moment. The character designs themselves took about a month for me. I sent those in and Neil approved them pretty quickly.Nrama: Did you get the opportunity to speak to Neil during the process of doing Greendale?
Chiang: I know Josh spoke to Neil quite a bit while writing the script, but by the time I came on to draw it the script was done. Neil knew it was in my hands – he wanted me from the beginning, as I was one of the first artists whose work was shown to him. Originally I couldn’t do the project but later on things cleared up so I could.
Anyway, once I started drawing Greendale I had very little contact. Actually, I’m glad I didn’t – Neil gave Josh and I the freedom to interpret the story and give our own spin on it. It’s great that he respected us as artists. He was really respectful of our work, and I appreciated it.
Nrama: The idea of adapting an album into a graphic novel sounds like a big challenge. How’d you balance not being just a comic version of the album but telling the larger story?
Chiang: It was a tricky thing to do. The “Greendale” album really isn’t that linear – Josh did all the heavy-lifting story-wise in terms of really fleshing out a world and storyline for Greendale and making it feel like one cohesive piece. And once I was onboard, it was just about making sure the look of the book and the storytelling had a real sincere, authentic feel that would be very much part of Neil Young’s style – both his musical style and his outlook on life.
Nrama: You said earlier that when you sat down to draw it, you had both the “Greendale” music album and the film Neil did to help inspire you.. but was there anything else that either directly or indirectly influenced the work you did on this book?Chiang: There were a lot of things I was thinking about when working on the book. I knew based on the album and the art book that came out with it, that our Greendale graphic novel didn’t need to be glossy and slick; it needed to feel organic, old and warm – like an old t-shirt. I thought it would be great if we could print it so it looks kind of old – with no real black & white – so I asked our colorist Dave Stewart to knock back stuff to make that happen. I also asked to add coffee stains and spatters, like you’d find in an old book. As you’ll see from the interior of the cover, we wanted to evoke an old family photo album feel. I didn’t it to have a dustjacket – I wanted something more traditional and weathered.
Nrama: I’m holding a copy DC just sent me in my hands right now, and I can attest to the time spent into the book design here.
Chiang: It was a great job all around – we were able to design it all, down to the cloth used on the cover. Some of Neil’s earlier albums would play with texture, with tissue paper and other stuff as a part of it that would deliberately fall apart eventually. That was also an inspiration behind it.
Nrama: How long did it take you in total to do this project?
Chiang: This book took a long time – about a year and a half, then a couple more months for design stuff before and after the book was done.Nrama: Over on the Standard Attrition forums, I read where Josh stated that you and him worked together to find solutions for “problems in the script that were seeded way back in the conception phase”. Can you tell us about the collaboration between you two?
Chiang: Even though the script was already written by the time I got on-board, as with anything the script was never set it stone. There were some cases where we needed to adjust and massage things; spots where we felt like we could clarify certain things or really push certain scenes. There were a couple places where we swapped the order of pages to change the pace and feel of certain scenes. Josh was great to work with, and really patient with all my questions.
Nrama: I’m not as up to Neil Young on I should be, but even with my limited knowledge I noticed more than a few Easter eggs for fans out there. Was this something you and Josh had worked out, or something that came along when you were drawing the pages?Chiang: There were certain things we wanted to have, such as Josh’s idea to have the Strange to look like Neil, and for Jed Green to look like a really young Neil from the late 60s/early 70 s. So that was a fun way to bring that in – bring Neil in literally to the book. While drawing, I thought it’d be a good idea to give nods to people familiar with the “Greendale” album and his work as a whole. For instance, Sun Green has a cat that doesn’t play a large part in the story, but there is a panel of that. Another instance is in the end; there are a lot of cars depicted in one of the final scenes, and with Neil being such a huge car enthusiast, I made those cars be the ones from his collection like the electric car he’s working on, and even the hearse Mot which he used to drive while in Canada. The song “Long May You Run” is about that car. I knew that would mean something to Neil, and mean something to his fans.
Nrama: Speaking of people, doing a graphic novel based on a Neil Young album is bound to put you in front of a whole new audience… it’d be like Neil Young doing a comic I think. What was that like for you – that first initial premise --- of doing a comic based on a music album?Chiang: to be honest, my first instinct when I heard about the Greendale project was that it was a licensing thing. As I learned more about the project, I saw how pure it was. Neil has a vision for this story coming out in as many mediums as possible. He gave us a lot of creative license. I think what intrigued me about it as well was the potential to bring in a different audience; fans of Neil’s music who hadn’t read much comics. But it works both ways – a die-hard comic fan could jump into this without knowing a bit about Neil Young and enjoy it and possibly be interested in more of his work. For fans of Young’s work, there are some allusions to some familiar things that will bring more meaning to the book, but it’s not absolutely necessary to enjoy the book.
Nrama: I have to ask, did you have any hardcore Neil Young fans to use as a sounding board as you worked through the project?
Chiang: Actually, our editor Karen Berger is a long-time fan of Neil’s. Being such a huge Neil Young fan, I knew that if anything felt “off” that she would let me know… but luckily that never happened. You know, at the same time, there are friends of mine who are Neil Young fans but I never really brought it up with them. As much as I wanted it to be influenced by Neil’s work, I also wanted it to be the work of Josh and myself as well. In the end, I think you can see a bit of all three of us in the book – Neil, Josh and I.