THE "GREENDALE" PROBLEM; OR, SOMETIMES "AVATAR" HAPPENS AT VERTIGO, TOO
Remember when James Cameron's "Avatar" came out this past winter and it made a bazillion dollars and yet some of the people you hang out with probably told you that, no, in fact the movie was not great at all? Or people on the internet told you? Or someone, at some point, tried to burst someone's bubble and say, "You know what? That 'Avatar' was bad…"? That definitely happened. I can tell.
In my circle of acquaintances, it seemed that the "Avatar" reaction was divided along these lines: people who knew a lot about narrative and/or cared enough to ever talk about things like structure or character arcs or dialogue, well those people tended not to like the film all that much and didn't mind talking about all the things that failed, even though they would admit to some spectacular special effects even if the spectacle "didn't have much meaning." People who didn't spend their free time studying structural poetics or ever talking about movies or stories in analytical terms - they tended to love the movie. They experienced the film, they inhabited it, and it worked for them.
I didn't hate "Avatar." I was in the camp of gently mocking it for its ridiculousness, and I couldn't help but pick apart its flaws as I was watching it, but I believed in the world it created, even if it was for only a couple of hours in a darkened theater. It felt like a manufactured, derivative world, but it also had a kind of innocent purity too it. A simplistic vision that had a kind of primal appeal, and I could enjoy it on that level. And as a spectacle, it was unmatched during this past year until "Toy Story 3" came along. (I'm not joking about that, by the way. Did you see "Toy Story 3"?). So, "Avatar." That impressive-looking piece of work that failed in so many critical ways, yet had a childlike sense of wonder about itself, even with its dark themes.
Vertigo has one of those this season, and it's called "Neil Young's Greendale."
For an original Vertigo hardcover with such an impressive pedigree, "Greendale" comes in an unassuming package. It looks humble, like something from a smaller press - or something faux-humble, like it's a project launched from the back offices of "McSweeney's," with it's etched lower case lettering on a brown cover, the colorful Cliff Chiang tableau in the center as the only clue that this is something comic booky.
I suppose its humble look is the opposite of the gaudy promotion of "Avatar," and it would seem that all that introductory material at the top of this column was nothing but misdirection. But, no, "Greendale" may not look like a James Cameron Happy Meal tie-in movie blockbuster, but it does share something with that movie at its core: an often-unbearable earnestness. And like "Avatar," it's that earnestness that sinks it as a story worth paying attention to for anything beyond its visual panache.
And as I said, "Greendale" does have a pedigree worthy of note. Josh Dysart has done plenty of good work at Vertigo and in the Mignola-verse at Dark Horse. He's a skilled writer, and one that has proven himself willing to put far more into his stories than anyone would reasonably expect. His notes and research and personal travel for "Unknown Soldier" are astonishing, considering it could easily have been just a contemporary spin on a war story.
The artists on "Greendale" are even bigger superstars in the comic book world. Cliff Chiang has spent the past two years devoting himself to this graphic novel, and he's been missed. The occasional cover or pin-up or "Brave and the Bold" #33 haven't been enough exposure to his work over the past 20+ months. Chiang's clean, precise, evocative and beautiful style look nothing like James Cameron's blinding visuals in "Avatar," but what Chiang brings to "Greendale" is a distinctive, crisp, appealing look that gives the book instant cache. Neil Young wanted Chiang, and only Chiang, to do this graphic novel, and it's no surprise that he would have. It's also no surprise that Young thought Chiang would be the perfect fit. He's not, but I'll get to that in a minute.
The color is by everybody's consensus pick for best-colorist-ever, Dave Stewart. Stewart has a history of changing his approach to fit a project, and with "Greendale" he goes with an aged, weathered look. Almost nothing in this book is white - even the gutters between the panels or on the edges of the pages look like tea-stained beige. The color palette is muted, the colors desaturated. Except for the color red. The red - in the jacket of the mysterious, devilish stranger, or in the occasional splashes of blood - is bright and vibrant and almost painful to look directly at, particularly juxtaposed with the earth tones of so much of the book.
The "Greendale" story, based on Neil Young's concept album of the same name, is where the problems start, and because the problems start at the narrative level, they permeate the entire book, even when some of the moments look absolutely spectacular.
I've heard some of the Neil Young songs from the album, but I'm certainly no expert on his take on the cast of characters who inhabit the fictional town of Greendale. I've never seen even a minute of Neil Young's film version. My evaluation of the story comes entirely from this Dysart/Chiang/Stewart adaptation. And like "Avatar," it's the earnestness that rips out its own heart.
In the Vertigo "Greendale," the story centers on the teenage Sun Green. It's her character that we follow throughout, even if the narrative meanders back and forth through some of her extended family. Because this story may follow Sun Green, but it's really about the entire Green family and their struggles over the years. Except it doesn't pull that off. The rest of the Green family, so helpfully charted on the endpapers of the book, are little more than texture in the life of Sun Green, even though the book misguidedly spends too many pages exploring their superficial concerns.
Their concerns shouldn't be superficial - they deal with life and death and drugs and murder and art and nature and all the things that really do have weight in the world - but because they are presented as sidebars on a Sun-focused story about a young woman who really, really, really cares (I mean she really cares, man) about saving the world, the entire web of the narrative becomes increasingly thin. When the entire story builds toward a scene in which Sun climbs atop a statue wearing eyeblack and carrying a bullhorn to raise her voice in protest, it loses all its integrity. Not integrity in the sense that it doesn't believe in what it's saying, because it is clearly as achingly sincere as you can imagine, but integrity as in: the ship of the story has a giant gaping hole in it, and that hole is the thin cliché of a character that is Sun Green. Her teenage earnestness and hopefulness and simplemindedness even in the face of great personal tragedy around her may be the core of this story, but it's a core that's as insubstantial as a dream diary written on unicorn stationary.
This is also a story that has magical spirits of the forest - flapper grandma Ciela Oaks now inhabits the verdant lands as a kind of female Swamp Thing, but leafier - and it has a kind of Stephen King-ish Devil character who wanders through Sun Green's life and wreaks death and despair upon the world around her. This Devil-man even turns her boyfriend into a goat, but it's okay, because even when the goat boyfriend breaks his back in the forest, at least leafy, magical Granny Ciela is there to comfort him.
The supernatural parts of the story seem out of place until you realize that the whole thing is Sun Green's story, and her super-simplistic worldview would contain magical healing Grannies of the forest and evil strangers with red eyes who can turn into goats and that meat is murder and Alaska needs to be saved along with probably the whales and the baby eagles and all the puppies in the universe. Unfortunately, we're stuck with Sun from cover to cover - mostly - and she not only doesn't begin to see nuance in the world, she is reinforced to believe that her optimism and goodness and, yes, earnestness is the right and proper way to live her life. Sun "wins" in the end because she taps into the power of her ancestors and even if the entire world is against her, then she can at least know that she's fighting the good fight.
She just needs a big magic tree of life and maybe a handicapped guy from another planet to teach her how to love and it would be "Avatar," but with less exo-suits, dragons and explosions.
But earlier, I mentioned that Cliff Chiang isn't the perfect fit for "Greendale." Even if the story is over-earnest and simplistic and fundamentally silly, how can Chiang be a bad fit for anything? I mean, he's really good, right?
Yes, Chiang is really good, but he's not right for "Greendale" because his style is the embodiment of hopefulness and earnestness. His characters exude beauty and innocence. It's in his line. Even when he draws the Devil in this comic, it's a Devil that looks like he might not be so bad after all. Chiang, like Cameron Stewart, or like Mike Allred, can draw the hell out of sincerity, but that's rarely a good choice. Chiang is a better fit for a story that has a bit of an edge to it. His clean-line style makes for a strong juxtaposition of effect in a story like that. Think Mike Allred on early Milligan "X-Force." Think Cameron Stewart on "Seaguy." Chiang's pages in "Greendale" look immaculate, even if Dave Stewart tries to sully them up - and appropriately so - with some muted colors. But when you have oh-so-sincere-looking characters doing things with the utmost sincerity, it becomes sickeningly sweet. And the conflict loses its power. And without conflict, you have a story of the Pollyanna of the protest movement. That's just not enough. It's not a book with substance in the end, no matter its pedigree.
Sometimes I've compared comics to music. I've talked about the lyricism of a story, or the rhythm of a comic's pacing. I've written about some comics as if they were pop songs, and others as if they were ballads. But in the case of "Greendale," even though its based on a cycle of Neil Young songs, we don't get any music - we get an essay: "My Crazy Mixed-Up Family, and How I Learned to Stay Positive," by Sun Green. Everyone involved deserves better.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan