Neil Young’s Greendale
Based on the album by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Written by Joshua Dysart
Illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Todd Klein
Published by DC/Vertigo
It doesn’t come up much in my writing here, but I’m something of a Neil Young fan. One might even say a Neil Young obsessive, if you consider that I have nearly every officially available release (missing only the entirely redundant Greatest Hits and one import-only EP).
The announcement of Neil Young’s Greendale, the graphic novel, aroused some conflicting emotions. Could the creators really get the point, yet still realize the full breadth of the album? Maybe as importantly, could they add anything meaningful to the experience? I’ve already spent time in Greendale via the concert show, the album and the feature film (directly by Young, with actors literally lip-syncing to the songs), so the book needed to bring something new to the table.
Greendale, the album, tells a winding narrative of the Green family, who live in the fictional southern California town of the title. Each song spotlights a different aspect of the family and community, rounding out a complex, nuanced and involved portrait of small town America and family life circa 2003. Major themes revolve around media saturation, energy consumption, anti-war sentiment during the building to the Iraq war, environmentalism and violence in American culture. Actually, scratch “circa 2003”, because it’s all still pretty relevant today.
Neil Young’s Greendale, scripted by Joshua Dysart and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, tackles all the appropriate themes, but does so in a more focused and concise manner, befitting a book rather than a song cycle. Dysart brings young Sun Green, eighteen and searching for her place in the world, to the fore. Sun plays a considerable role on the album, carrying the final two songs, but steps off stage for nearly half the songs. Dysart wisely opts to put her front and center from page one, and he keeps her there until the finale.
For readers unfamiliar with the album, it’s a great move. The narrative’s thrust is clear from the start, and seeing the world of Greendale through Sun’s eyes allows Dysart to dig deeply into the Green family history. Characters who never appeared on the album, but were referred to on the expansive Greendale website, rise to prominence in Dysart’s script, each supporting the themes he’s exploring in Sun Green’s coming of age.
Suffused with magical realism, Dysart conjures forth imagery only suggested by Young’s grooving guitar solos. Sun Green’s comforting connection to mother Earth plays nicely against the chaos erupting around her, in both her family and the outside world. For Young fans, Dysart moves a few pieces around to make the story flow more elegantly – Sun’s war protest comes early, for example, leading to a touching scene of one young girl perhaps moved by Sun’s field art – but he also gives new insight into the Green family and effectively samples several of Young’s better lyrics throughout the dialogue. Crossing paths with her grandparents, parents, cousin Jed, granduncle and officer Carmichael (oh, and the devil himself), Sun comes into contact with all the major characters from the album, as Dysart weaves their stories into Sun’s awakening social consciousness.
Hand-picked by Young for the job, Cliff Chiang handles the artwork, and to no surprise of anybody who’s read a book drawn by Chiang, Neil Young’s Greendale looks beautiful. Crisp, strong lines carry the story forward inexorably. Chiang’s character designs are very strong, instantly recognizable (they vary quite a bit from the James Mazzeo drawings in the album jacket, if you’re an album purist), and he shifts between the magical dream sequences and the mundane small town settings with aplomb. Simple, clear visual storytelling keeps the entire story accessible to potential crossover readership.
So it’s a comic book, or graphic novel if you prefer, based on a rock and roll album. Unusual origins, but the end result remains a terrific read. Neil Young’s Greendale is a socially challenging, politically conscious coming of age riff, exquisitely illustrated, smartly scripted, offering something challenging and something engagingly fun for both Neil Young novices and the most hardcore of aficionados. And it’s certainly a worthwhile addition to the library of any comic book lover.
(P.S. If anybody knows where I can get an affordable copy of the El Dorado import EP, I’d be much appreciative.)