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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 08/29/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: Comic artist CLIFF CHIANG offers an insider's tour of Neil Young's 'Greendale'

By Michael Cavna

(Images courtesy of Vertigo / DC Comics

Comic artist and editor CLIFF CHIANG is accustomed to working in the action stories of Human Target and The Spectre and Green Arrow/Black Canary. So when legendary rocker Neil Young came calling, personally asking whether Chiang would be interested in drawing the graphic-novel version of his deeply human "Greendale" "rock opera" story, it felt like an entirely new direction.

Chiang was intrigued by "Greendale," a tale of a young woman (Sun Green) who's learning to hone and harness her personal political voice. He was interested in creating a look to match the story's Pacific Northwest setting. Plus, as Chiang himself says, how do you pass up an opportunity to work with Neil Young?

So the New York-based, Harvard-trained artist invested himself deeply, for nearly two years, in bringing this story of seaside-town supernaturalism, folksy narrative and political conviction to full-color, muted-earth-tones life. The result, released this summer, is a poignant and beautifully lush graphic novel that Chiang says leaves him with a certain "sense of accomplishment."

Comic Riffs caught up with Chiang -- who is appearing at this weekend's Baltimore Comic-Con -- to talk technique, choice of tools and the challenge of trying to make some of your characters look conspicuously like Mr. Neil Young:

MC: Was this an especially challenging project since "Greendale," as an album, was written years ago -- during the early part of the Iraq war? Even as a narrative, it's laced with Neil's politics and response to the Bush era.

CC: First, it's hard to take a very heartfelt story about coming of age and [about] finding your voice and finding the strength to have confidence in your beliefs. It's also a trickier thing with the politics. With Neil's politics, you can't dillute them. But we didn't want the story to focus so much on that that it would be strident and brash. We wanted to keep the appeal broad enough. ... If some [readers] didn't share the political views, we wanted them to appreciate the real humanity of the characters. And the message: No matter what you believe, you can't remain quiet. ...

I was also afraid that the anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment would come off as being dated. It was a different [national] dialogue back then. The interesting thing is, we're still in Afghanistan. The seeds were sown then. And for the environment to become such a huge issue [with the BP spill] is almost spooky. I didn't think something like that would happen. There's a renewed focus.

MC: How did you arrive at the artistic style for "Greendale"?

CC: I'm always changing my style. Each book requires a different look. Sometimes I get to take a personal direction that's appropriate for the story. I try to push things within a range. Some are rougher, some more expressionistic, some are slicker graphically and call for a prettier drawing style that I can do. Some have a more classical vibe, and some are in between. I don't like to be pigeon-holed.

MC: And what tools did you use for "Greendale"?

CC: All that stuff is done by hand -- there's a certain immediacy to having tools and paper. There's a little bit of lag on the Cintiq [tablet]. ... I do all my coloring on PhotoShop -- it's good and bad: It helped refine my color, but I do miss the texture and organic quality of the traditional. So I'm between -- between classical tools and digital.

MC: So I'd heard that Neil [Young] wanted you enough for this that he waited for you.

CC: It was really flattering. Neil has a reputation for being pretty uncompromising on creative endeavours, so the fact that he was so adamant about my working on it really opened my eyes. I hadn't read the script till after I got an e-mail [from him]. ... I was flattered. ... It's go such humanity. It's not something you often see in comics, and it's so plot-driven -- it's not [for example] a superhero story driven by pyrotechnics. This was purely character, so it was a nice change of pace. Besides, at the very leat, I couldn't pass up an invitation from Neil Young.


MC: When did you become involved in "Greendale"?

CC: He reached out to me in early 2006, but I already had projects lined up, so I didn't get started on the project actively till Super Bowl 2008.

MC: And how was it working with the legendary [editor] Karen Berger?

CC: We have a great working relationship. She said she had this dream project. She's great and she's working so long that it's really such a natural thing for her these days. With "Greendale," she read it and knew very much what it was all about. ... She also has a very light touch, which can be the mark of a great editor.

MC: So how did you decide to have several of the characters have at least a passing resemblance to Neil?

CC: It was Josh [Dysart] who came up with the idea of having the Stranger look like Neil. Then he wanted Jed and Sun's father to look like Neil. I tried to make them feel like weird caricatures of Neil. They certainly embody certain characteristics. With the Stranger, I wanted him to look like Neil these days, with the hat and suit -- this guy who's confident but a bit of a trickster. It was fun to cast Neil in these parts and make him malleable. I knew a lot of people [reading this book] would be Neil fans and having these characters in there ... acknowledges the fan base -- this book for them, too. ... We also had Neil's [real] cars appear in the funeral procession. It was the significant to have Neil's first car be the Hearse.

MC: Can you speak to the creative approach to incorporating magic into the story?

CC: Karen and I both [thought]: Vertigo has a tradition of using magic as a narrative device. ... We had the freedom to get into more supernatural stuff. It's interesting that a lot of the ideas were put there earlier by Neil ... although they are not explicit on the album. So we wanted to blend magical realism with a fairly folksy tone, so it's very gently supernatural.

MC: And what about the decision to have the cover look recycled instead of glossy?

CC: I designed the cover to look like an old book. ... I wanted this to feel old and organic. I didn't want pure black, but [rather] dark-brown tones, to give it a real lived-in look.

MC: You really capture the real-life look and light of the Redwood Empire. Have you spent much time there?

CC: I have Google to thank for that. I haven't seen much of California north of San Francisco. ... While doing the researc, I was trying to find the right town and the right feel, to make sure it felt like Greendale. While looking for the right Pacific Northwest town, I ended up settling on Ferndale. I did a lot of research of its Victorian structures -- having stuff like that added to the age and timelessness of this small town.

MC: Your palette of earth tones -- greens, beiges, even muted blues -- adds to that effect.

CC: It was a combination of all that -- of wanting the book to feel a certain way, of not wanting it to be a standard cartoon-y look but instead using a more sophisticated palette. Dave Stewart is such a great colorist and the colors he used are really pleasing.

MC: So did you communicate much with Neil during the creative process?

CC: I haven't spoken with Neil since that first e-mail. Once I came aboard, Josh [Dysart] had the story figured out. Neil was so happy with what he saw that there was less contact than I would have liked. Bu he like what he saw and let us do our own thing. It was meaningful becuse it have Josh and I the opportunity to put on our stamp on "Greendale." It was like doing a cover version -- this book is all three of us together.

MC: How long did you work on the book?

CC: About a year and a half. I've worked on more pages on Human Target. But "Greendale," just being one volume, was a completely different creative challenge -- rather than doing 22 pages at a time as part of a series, there were 150-odd pages there right in my lap. ... It was an opportunity to set up something, to think: What would the reader be feeling [and how] to control the reading experience.

MC: So how did it feel, having completed this lengthy work of passion and collaboration?

CC: was such an incredible experience -- from the difficulty of it to length of time, which was much more than I thought it would be. There's such a sense of accomplishment, I can't compare it to anything I've ever done.



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By Michael Cavna  | August 29, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Comic conventions, Interviews With Cartoonists, The Graphic Novel  | Tags:  Baltimore Comic-Con 2010, Cliff Chiang, Dave Stewart, Joshua Dysart, Neil Young  
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