Frank Young and David Lasky: Don't Forget the Carter FamilyA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
One of the more remarkable graphic novels of 2012 was The Carter Family: Don't Forget this Song by David Lasky and Frank Young. This book explored the life and career of the famous Carter Family, one of the most seminal musical acts in country music history. And while the book does a great job of depicting the Carter Family's music in print form – accompanied by a CD containing a collection of rare Carter Family recordings – the book also is wonderful in its evocation of an older, lost America. I had a great time talking with Frank and David on a cold fall day in a coffee shop in Seattle, and I think you'll really enjoy hearing the passion that these two men have for their work.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I'm very interested in what it meant to create a novel about people living in a very analog society while we all live in a very digital world. Was it hard to project yourself back into that world where distances were far, communication was difficult, and it took a long time for things to happen?
Frank Young: I was born in 1963 and I sort of came in on the tail end of that. I vividly remember, even 50 years ago, how much slower the world was then. I've always been interested in things of the past. Even as a little kid, living and growing up in the Deep South, I'd see things that looked ancient, like they had been there since the Palaeolithic Era and it just gave me the sense that there are threads of the past all around us.
David Lasky: A big part of making the book was research and getting into that world because it's different from the world that I grew up in. I grew up in Virginia, but in the opposite end of Virginia from this book: the Washington D.C. suburbs.
The town we moved to for my teenage years was McLean, Virginia. In 1978, when we moved there, there were still some farms and old houses in town, there was a big pumpkin farm and by the early to mid-'80s all the farms and rural aspects were gone. It was all town house villages and strip malls. I think I saw the last bit of what the town had been disappear, like the last little bit of an ice cube disappearing.
My experience was slightly different from the Carters’. I'd never been to their end of Virginia, that corner that's right on the Tennessee border. I ended up travelling there with my dad in 2002, to get a sense of the place. It's still largely untouched; there are some trailer parks, but no condo villages. It was great to just have a pretty good sense of where these people made their music.
I was lucky to do that one trip. Frank and I weren't able to travel in our research. We did a lot of library research. We had to search through a lot of books. A friend of mine lives in the Chapel Hill area and she did some research into an archive at UNC, which has a lot of the Carters’ papers, many of the old papers they had, and that was really valuable.
But to really get into that pre-20th century world, we had things like the Foxfire book which was made in the '60s where old-timers showed college students how you build a log cabin by latching the logs together, patching up the gaps with clay or cement or whatever you have on hand. I love that there was documentation like that so I could draw a log cabin and it would look sort of how it's supposed to look and not be some city comic artist's guess at what a log cabin looks like, which is what you usually see in comic books.
CB: You mentioned that people have been really responding to the book. Do you think that part of why people liked it so much is that you were able to resurrect this lost era so cleanly?
Young: I think that above and beyond the power of the basic story itself, I think it gives the reader a window into a very different world that has pretty much vanished. Like David said, you can still go places in the Deep South and find the occasional spot that looks like it's more or less untouched from a hundred or two hundred years ago, but then you look 15 feet to the left and there's a cable TV truck or a Taco Bell. It's an illusion; you have to have blinders on to fool yourself.
The world changes; that's unavoidable and we're seeing a lot of it in Seattle right now; where a lot of the mid-20th century architecture is getting knocked down to make way for the new stuff.
CB: There's something very romantic about the story of the Carter Family, how these people are subsistence farmers who are just very lucky to get discovered and it turns out it changes their lives. It's a story that really could never happen today in the world of Justin Bieber being a giant star because of YouTube for example.
Young: You know, in an alternate universe I would love to see Carter Family homemade YouTube videos; A.P. adjusting the camera.
CB: How much research did you do into these people as people? They're very vivid on the page; they're drawn with words and with pictures with very straightforward simple lines.
Young: We had some invaluable background pieces. A.P. and Sara's daughter Janette wrote two books about her home life; those gave me a really strong sense of who A.P. Carter was in general, and some insights about Sara Carter.
It was a challenge because both people remained kind of mysterious figures; there was a certain core quality of them both that I think is ultimately unknowable, but at the same times they're very real people who were both driven and determined and didn't make the best choices but…
CB: Who does?
Young: Yeah, exactly.
CB: Well A.P. particularly is driven; I mean his drive for a great music career cost A.P. his marriage. It cost A.P. his family really. This book is not quite a historical biography as much as it is a…
Lasky: A dramatization.
Young: But it's as steeped in facts and historical incidents as we could possibly get. The character of A.P. Carter stands out a bit from a lot of characters that I'm writing about. Even though I had the whole story laid out in front of me I still felt a great deal of pain for A.P. He was so blinded by the lure of music that he was a haphazard presence in his home and family life.
Lasky: As we were starting to do our research, just by serendipity, a full scale biography of the Carters was released called Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? by Mark Zwonitzer and, Charles Hirshberg. That was a definitive biography that they took from the memoirs that the children wrote and from interviews and other sources and this made one compelling narrative out of it all. It was largely told through oral histories.
It's an interesting read, but it's not quite the dramatization that our book is. It has a much broader field where it tells the story of the original Carters and then the story of the Carter sisters, the second generation. It tells a much bigger story than we're telling. Really we honed in on A.P. Carter and his wife. We have a little bit of Maybelle, the third member, but really our story follows A.P. from birth to the end of his career and I think that he was the most fascinating and most mysterious person in the story. He was kind of a tall, lanky guy like Frank Young here and it felt like he felt a lot of empathy for A.P.
Young: Yeah, I couldn't help identifying with A.P. When I was living in the South I had the feeling that I was kind of an odd bird, that I was a very talented and affable person, but that I stood in a different place than a lot of other people. I even did some of the things A.P. did, like I was fond of walking along the railroad tracks which ran all through Tallahassee. Largely for pragmatic reasons, because they were terrific shortcuts that I could take home.
CB: Maybe why A.P. did it too.
Young: Yeah. I can understand why A.P. chose that route to do his thinking because it's a very ordered kind of walking: you're walking, you're casual but precise and you have to make sure not to trip over the ties and you get into this rhythm. It's a great recipe for daydreaming as long as you're aware of oncoming trains.
CB: That's a pretty important aspect of it, yes.
Young: And the idea of somebody that's so smitten by something… In a sense, a devoted comics reader can understand this because that person is smitten by the form of comics and that most of the time if you start to talk to somebody about it, they'll get that walking dead zombie eye look. These same people can hurl sports specifics at you until the end of time, but if you start talking about…
Lasky: "Who was the best Jack Kirby inker?"
Young: "I don't know, how about them Seahawks? Their quarterback's got a great throw."
CB: I bet you felt that in Tallahassee, especially.
Young: Yeah. There were a few people; always in a small town you will find a small number of like-minded kooks. There was a guy I knew in Tallahassee who is obsessed with the comic strip Polly and Her Pals by Cliff Sterrett and it was really hard to have a conversation with him without it getting steered to the direction of Polly and Her Pals in about ten minutes. But those conversations enabled me to develop an appreciation for that artist's really wild stylization.
CB: We all have our obsessions.
Young: So getting back from that almost-detour, I think you do have to get inside a character like that and have empathy for them. I think the normal things of the world were important to A.P. He was a competent person in many ways. He was an excellent carpenter and obviously knew how to do a lot of practical things. But the hook for him was these melodies that he heard all around him. He had no idea where they came from, how old they were or if anyone else really knew them.
CB: A.P. really seems to come alive -- all three of the Carter Family singers seem to come alive -- when they're playing music. They seem like almost completely different people when they're performing, which is an interesting metaphor for almost any creative person. One of the things that struck me about the book is how interesting your takes were on the music is. In such a static medium, how did you approach creating the impression of music on a page?
Lasky: Originally we thought that their lyrics were in the public domain and we had written long passages of people singing, parts of songs or sometimes whole songs. Then we found out the lyrics were not in the public domain and, to make a long story short, we decided we'd do the book without lyrics or use song titles and I would find ways to visually show what's going on with the music.
Young: I remember being so crushed at the time, when we learned we couldn't use the lyrics. But now I am so happy; to have just had passages of people singing song lyrics, as opposed to the really ingenious visualizations that David came up with, would have been really mundane. I give him utter, 101% credit for coming up with this brilliant work-around. It's more than a work-around; it's an improvement.
I think there is something visual about music. I think we get mental images from music and I think that's what I'm talking about.
CB: Yeah, exactly. There's the duet where they…
Lasky: Squiggly, word balloon type things coming out of their mouth as they start to sing, but then they come together to form the shape of a heart.
CB: I thought that it's just so clever and interesting.
Lasky: It is just, siting at the drawing table, messing around, till something works, and I was really inspired by Megan Kelso, another Seattle artist who over the years has challenged herself to put music in her comics. She knows it's the hardest thing to convey and she would find different ways of showing music that set an example for me like, if we can't use lyrics I'll take that challenge and try to bring that sense of music alive.
CB: There's a page where the two of them are dueting together and their words become a rose.
Young: Yeah, that's in chapter four.
CB: That's just such a wonderful scene. It's so ingenious. That's absolutely something you could only do in comics because it's only in comics that you would need to create something like that. In a novel you could use words to evoke it. It's an interesting challenge. So it's a wonderful creation to come up with these ideas, these ways of conveying the music.
Lasky: I had no idea if it was going to work so I'm glad you liked it.
CB: Yes, I did.
Lasky: I just came up with it and then showed it to Frank.
Young: I was terribly excited by it; the first time he showed these concepts to me it was just like getting hit by a dresser drawer falling out of the sky. "Holy crap, this is really something I've never seen before!" And it works so well. I think it’s of the things that really inducts the reader into the story.
CB: What I thought was interesting is that you have a lot of mid-range shots with characters squarely positioned in the panel. This book has a very strict, full kind of rhythm to it and then you break it with this completely different imaginative image; you go from the real world to something imaginative, rather than breaking you out of the flow of the book, an image like this brings you closer to the book.
Young: And I think it shows, in the case of A.P. and Sara, there's not a better way that you could indicate what a bond music was for them. I think it remained even after their divorce. There was a power of just the three of them singing and playing together that, on their own, they couldn't get.
CB: Right, cause later in the book when they're singing alone it just doesn't have the same spirit; it's a lot, maybe better, cleaner, but not nearly as moving.
Young: In the book, there’s a chapter where they're working on songs. We really wanted to show in that chapter -- based on what we knew, what had been documented about how they worked -- we wanted to give a sense of what rehearsal would have been like.
A.P. comes in and out of the performances. He generally lets Sara lead the song. She was the greatest vocalist, arguably in country music, I think, one of the top three certainly, she's always leading the performances and Maybelle does some wonderful harmonies.
A.P. just kind of drifts in and out; I don't think anyone else could get away with doing that and have it work, but it's part of the magic of those recordings. It's such a humble thing to have a performer on record just thinking, "Oh, I'll just chime in when it feels right..."
Lasky: He was basically the leader of the group, but he was kind of a leader who arranged everything. He'd write a lot of the songs and then step back and let his wife and her cousin, two women, be mostly the sound of the group. Early on, when we talked about it we realized he probably knew, "These are two geniuses; I'll let them do their thing" and part of his role, in the 1920s was to be the man and represent the group. Two women on their own maybe wouldn't have been noticed.
Young: He very much played the role of the provider for the Carter Family. He went out and found the songs and thought about how they would best work for Sara. He sat down and arranged them and they built on what he did.
CB: I love the scene where he goes to buy a new tire for the car because they don't need him: "The women will sing just fine without me."
Young: It's hard to imagine anyone doing that. When you think of some of the bold personalities like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, it's hard to think of one of them saying, "Oh, you ladies go on ahead and sing without me."
CB: Yeah, have either of you read the Johnny Cash graphic novel biography, I've Seen the Darkness?
Young: I haven't yet read it, I confess. I kind of didn't want to; I was afraid to read it. It's like when I'm composing music, I'm afraid to listen to music because something will leak into what I'm doing unconsciously. It’s the same with comics
CB: OK. Well, I was going to ask about that book because that is almost the opposite of this book; I've Seen the Darkness is very dark so that Johnny Cash's passage, from darkness to light, from his drug addiction to his salvation with the Carter Family, makes an interesting counterpart to this book.
Lasky: When we were planning the story arc we worked hard to keep Johnny Cash mostly out of it because once he's in there, the story becomes about him.
Young: And I think there's a whole other book which we talked about. We're rolling the idea around about the story of Johnny Cash and Maybelle's strong-willed attempts to rehabilitate him. And then she really comes into her own as a personality after the original Carter Family. She became what A.P. had been to the Carter Family; she was in charge of a group that included her three daughters and had to find material and bookings. It's kind of funny. She had to step completely into the provider role.
Lasky: I think after being a junior member of the original Carter Family she enjoyed taking the reins.
Young: And she retained that incredible humility; I've seen many videos of her playing live on country music TV shows from the '50s and '60s. She'll play this remarkable solo piece of music and she's just looking down. She's not giving any of the showbiz like, "Hey, I'm great." She's just kind of the original shoe-gazer; she's just focusing entirely on her performance and not on the attention of the world outside her.
CB: So you guys have obviously been fans of these musicians for a long time. As far back as your trip in Virginia in 2002, were you thinking already about the book at that point?
Lasky: Yeah, I don't know if I was thinking about the book that early, but Frank and I created a template story at that time. I’d grown up in Virginia, but I didn't know about them until I moved to Seattle in the '90s and started listening to the Rounder CD’s, and eventually was surprised to learn that they were from Virginia. But it made sense because their sound sounds like real country music to me.
So on a trip back to visit my dad in Alexandria, I said, "I want to rent a car and go down to southwest Virginia and see where this family came from because I'm going to draw a comic about them." And he said, "Well don't rent a car, I'll just drive you." So we did a road trip for a few days and it really enhanced my understanding of the Carters, but also enhanced my love of the music. There's a performance space there, in Maces Spring, called The Carter Family Fold, and every Saturday there's a performance of old time music. We were there on a Saturday and saw it. It was one the great experiences of my life.
CB: Wow, really? That might be the thing that's the most compelling about these people. They're completely authentic, from an era before there really was PR and image creation. They are truly who they are and were popular for being who they are.
Young: They weren't trying to put on airs or be posers.
CB: Just the opposite, right?
Young: We have a humorous chapter in the book where a photographer comes, presumably from New York, to take publicity pictures of them -- this really happened -- and he insists on them dressing up in their sloppiest work clothes. They want to be seen as just good, humble, honest, successful people and it really rankles them.
I knew a lot of the songs, growing up in the Deep South, but it wasn't until the 1980s, when I was trying to find an escape from Reagan's America and started getting interested in old country music. A friend of mine named Mike Ogden had a couple of albums of the Carter Family and he said, "Frank, you've got to listen to these; they're a little different, but they're really something."
I can remember the first song by them I ever heard was a recording called "Little Darling Pal of Mine", which is probably one of their most archetypical performances. It’s still the one that I still use [to demonstrate]: "If you like this you will love the Carter Family."
Even though I've grown up in the Deep South and heard a lot of the more slick, commercial, later country music, this performance had something almost alien about it; it was so removed from the world of the early 1980s that I knew, but I immediately fell in love with this music and it was only so much of it available at the time. You had to really dig around.
Lasky: When I first heard their music it was the early '90s and the big country hit was "Achy Breaky Heart" and it just drove me crazy. I heard the Carters on a TV documentary about country music and right away, their sound was like, "Oh yeah, now that's really country, not this stuff that's on the radio these days." And the more I learned about them, the more I understood why they sound so authentic, because they really came out of the 19th century or earlier in the way they lived and the way they played music. They were playing music in church and after working the fields. It wasn't, "We're going to get a hit song" or "we're going to be stars."
Young: It's just playing music because of the love of playing music and the sense of community.
CB: And the tradition of it too; it was what everyone did, it was in the air, the way that things were.
Young: And it worked out so beautifully, that they made their recoding debut right at a time when record labels were not seeking to sweeten the sounds of the world performers; they recorded plain.
Then it was a combination of radio and records, enabling musicians to hear other peoples' music. Radio, especially, was a powerful tool because the same performance got everywhere and it was the first of a wave of things that kind of homogenized America, that we really feel today. We all see and hear the same things at about the same time and there's really very little that is just beholden only to our area or to a few people we know and live with.
CB: Yeah, I think we all kind of feel that lack of authenticity. The United States is becoming a very homogeneous country, more and more in the last few years, especially with Twitter and Facebook being so ubiquitous. My day job is to work with companies all around the world and calling Australia is as easy as calling California on my computer. That used to be this incredibly remote place that was impossibly far away from us.
Young: I remember my mother making a long distance call to England, to talk with my grandmother on my father's side. This would be in 1972 or 1973, and it was a big deal. It was like in the movies where the operator called us back when the connection was ready and it seemed to take all afternoon and then you heard this distant, faint, barely audible voice.
CB: And then the phone charge was incredibly expensive.
Young: Oh, yeah. There was a lot of complaining around the house about that phone call, but I'm incredibly grateful for all the things we have today, like Skype and FaceTime and all this, but it's all in context, I guess. It's understanding that these things don't have to threaten one's own authenticity. They are a daily part of our life now.
CB: I actually think that's part of why comics are so resonant these days. They are one of the few art forms that just one or two people create and you can still present it completely unadorned; even music tends to go through a filter in some ways, but words and pictures on paper, there's no other technology that's really necessary to make the book.
Lasky: That's something that really appealed to me when I was coming out of college and was interested in things like filmmaking, which was just horribly expensive in the 1980s. Comics just required me and a pen and paper and I could afford that.
CB: You did zines back in the day. I think I had your Ulysses.
Lasky: Oh, wow. That was my first success and made me realize that I should keep going with this. I tapped into something that people liked.
CB: So did you do any work on the computer on the book? I imagined that you colored it in PhotoShop.
Lasky: Frank did the colouring and yes, we used Photoshop. We used the computer for small fixes like enlarging thumbnails and then tracing with the lightbox. We didn't do any actual drawing on the computer; I tried to do everything with an old pen. We really wanted to create a 1930's comic strip feel, so using nibs that I had bought on eBay was key to the look of the artwork. I wasn't going to the store and buying a freshly made nib. I wanted to use the older, better made materials.
Young: And in the coloring and the dialogue, I felt a great deal of respect for the classic newspaper comics of this period of time and really wanted to emulate that. Almost all the coloring in the book is kind of flat pastel colours. Later in the book we have a little bit of almost airbrushing, just because newspaper comics at that time were doing that. Later in the book you start seeing a few more close-ups.
CB: It's a very subtle transition through the book that I didn't even notice until I started flipping through it. Was that a conscious part of the way you created the art for the book?
Lasky: Somewhat conscious and somewhat unconscious. In planning the book we talked a lot about the look we wanted that would be most effective to tell the story. We both agreed that is should have a look like classic comic strips from the '30s and whatever time was being recounted in the story, the teens, twenties, thirties. We especially liked Gasoline Alley and Little Orphan Annie. Those came out of the mid-west, but they still express the world of the Carter's because they came out of the mostly rural America of the time. We also talked about Li'l Abner which is more from Appalachia but a bit more dismissive, where people are in many ways depicted kind of disrespectfully.
Young: Li'l Abner was an example, especially in the writing part of what not to do. None of these characters were figures of fun. Some humorous things happen in the book, but preserving the dignity of these people was paramount to us.
CB: The dignity and yet the complexity of them as well.
Young: Because as I said earlier, there are things about A.P. and Sara that I think I will never know. That is very compelling because we're human beings. We like to figure things out and when we come across something that isn't cut and dried, and easy to figure out, at least I certainly do, I tend to kind of fixate on it, "There's got to be a way to get in here."
I think we got in somewhat and I'm grateful for that and I'm also grateful for the fact that there's still a sense of mystery about these people that I think the book conveys.
CB: I think you both used that phrase several times, "mystery about them." It's interesting, after living with these people rather for a year or two, they still are mysterious to you.
Lasky: Three and a half years.
CB: Three and a half years, oh.
Lasky: I think they worked hard to be mysterious. They didn't do interviews with the media. Most of their listeners didn't even know what their relation was to one another. The listeners just knew this is a family or I think they often thought A.P. was the father and Sara and Maybelle were his daughters, just because he was so much taller than them.
The Carters just wanted to make music. They didn't want people to know about their private lives and for good reason because there were aspects of their lives that they felt were embarrassing and didn't want them to be aired.
CB: Their lives were complicated, like all of ours are.
Lasky: A lot of researching and learning about them was just trying to pull back the veil that they had put up to kind of hide who they were. The Mark Zwonitzer book that I mentioned was kind of a bombshell, 50 years after the fact, because it revealed publicly that there had been an affair, and that Sara had been unfaithful to her husband. What we heard was that everyone in the family, of course, knew about it but just never talked about it. So the information was out there, but it had never officially been in print, until the Zwonitzer book.
Young: And that's a very Southern thing; family secrets that, by mutual agreement, are tiptoed around. Certainly in my family there was a lot of that and I would upset older people in my family, as an adult, just by wanting to know what happened. I'd say, "I don't want to embarrass anybody, I don't want to offend anybody, I just want to know what really happened." It’s remarkable how terrifying an experience that was for my older relatives. There are still things about my family that I don't know and I've just kind of accepted that I never will because it's a very Southern thing, this tight-lipped secrecy.
CB: I don't know if it's a Southern thing or not. I have college aged kids and there are things we never talk about. There are things I love talking about with them, but aspects of my life or my relationship with my wife, I just don't have a need to talk to them about, I guess.
Lasky: That's true. It's also generational. I think the early 20th century generations didn't have Dr. Phil and Oprah. They were not accustomed to the idea of confessing.
Young: They were not the me generation.
CB: No, definitely not. Although A.P. spent a lot of time following his art, very personally.
So it sounds like the reception to this book has been fantastic; it's doing extremely well.
Young: I had the experience of completely losing my perspective on the project and then slowly getting it back. At the end of the project I felt, “We're doing something really good; something that has value to people and to ourselves." So it's wonderful to know that people are getting something positive out of it, that it's affecting them in a good way.
CB: It seems to have caught people's imagination; you had a hundred or so people turn up at the Seattle event. That was well-attended.
Lasky: Right about the same time it was mentioned in Time magazine and that just blew my mind.
Young: Yeah, I looked at that magazine today and it's still like, "There's our names in Time magazine, good gracious."
Lasky: What Frank said about losing perspective, I went through that in the final months. I worked on this project for almost four years, but by the end I was working so hard to finish it and had this feeling like, "I don't think this book's any good, but I'm going to give it my all." Then we turned it in and you wait several months until you actually see a copy of the book and by that time, it was like in September we got our first copy, I was just amazed at the job the publisher had done on the design and the production.
Young: The printing.
Lasky: It was just beautiful. I couldn't believe this was the book I had been working on. “Wow, it actually came out pretty good.” I'm really grateful that we had a great team backing us and that all my fears, come to think of it, were mostly my own issues and not based on reality.
Young: Same with me. I learned a lot about myself in this long-term collaboration; things about my personality that are good things and things that are bad things. It's sort of like there's a little bit of therapy along with comics making.
It's certainly about just opening yourself up to another person and not being afraid, that's still one I've got to work on but I'm aware of it and I hope I've made progress in that area, but David is great to work with.
Lasky: We never expected it would go on this long.
Young: Many times in the book would be getting at a point where something wasn't working. Then we would just sit down and talk about it and think about it and this really beautiful solution would come up that I don't think I could have come up with alone. Moments like that just made me realize that there's almost this third person, in a collaboration between two people, almost like in harmony singing you sometimes hear a third voice. It's sort of like that third voice of the combination of two people that is a magical thing about collaborating.
Lasky: Throughout the project we would say we were collaborating or creating something that neither of us could do on our own; that was totally true. I think Frank brought a lot of emotion to the characters that was not something I would normally put in my comics. I just wanted to make the story as believable as possible.
There were times we would butt heads with Frank wanting to make it as emotional and entertaining as possible and me wanting to be as accurate and believable as possible and we would find the middle ground that worked for us both.
Young: It's like two great tastes that taste great together, to reduce it to a commercial jingle.
CB: How would the Carters have sung that jingle?
Young: Much better than the anonymous singers that do it. David, I don't know if I've publicly expressed this to you before but I'm going to go on the record now. You helped me understand how important it is to be true to your subject. I know that there's a very impulsive streak to my personality , but you had a very positive effect on tempering that and making me see when was the right time to use that and when wasn't.
Lasky: Thank you.
Young: Thank you sir.
CB: I wanted to make sure to mention how wonderful all the stage settings and props are in the book.
Young: There's one scene with our little nod to the first issue of Action Comics.
CB: Where Superman is lifting the car?
Young: Because we just discovered that their car was green, which is the same color and it's the same model car, same year, same name as the car Superman destroyed in that first issue.
CB: And the right year right?
Lasky: Yeah, 1938.
Young: So we could not…
Lasky: We mimicked the colors from that cover in this panel.
CB: Oh, that's fantastic.
Lasky: That's why that panel is a little bit brighter than everything else around it. It's “Superman colors”.
I was talking earlier about how this book was consciously and unconsciously influenced by newspaper comics. At first the plan was for me to directly imitate a famous comic strip every chapter or so. One chapter would look like Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie and the next chapter might look like Polly and Her Pals. Our editor Charles Kochman asked us, "Why are you doing this imitating comic strips?" and our idea was to show the evolution of early country music as we are showing the evolution of early comics in America.
It was kind of a James Joyce kind of thing, but after the editor asked about it, I realized, "Yeah, this is a lot more work than I really want to do." So I talked with Frank and we settled on my drawing in a style that's comfortable for me, but informed by the comic strips of the era.
So on the very first page, it's set in the 1890s and I'm looking at the Yellow Kid, from Hogan's Alley; not directly imitating it, but strongly suggesting it, in the colors, in the tones that suggest those early Hogan's Alley strips. As the book progresses through time, I'm just looking at newspaper comics, usually looking at the anthology Comic Strip Century. By the end, set in the early 1940s, I was looking at Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, which I think was at its peak during World War II. I wasn't imitating it, but I was just getting a sense of what comics looked like visually at that time and letting that form the last few pages of the book.
Young: Here's another one of our comics references. This is one of the pages in the book that I'm proudest of because it just used the way we look at comics to tell a story. We had this idea of sort of setting up little bits of the beginning of the Bristol Sessions in the form of daily comics strips.
I found a daily Seattle Post-Intelligencer from the late 1920s and so when I was writing the scripts, I wrote them in the style of the strips that were on that page and David just beautifully translated it.
Lasky: The reason we came up with it is, the Carters learned about the Bristol Sessions from a newspaper ad, at least that's how the story goes. So we reproduced the ad, but then next to it is a comics section that happens to be about other characters hearing about the Bristol Sessions and Frank made a rough draft of every strip and told me, "This is in the style of Bringing Up Father, this is in the style of Orphan Annie."
Young: Gluyas Williams or George McManus.
Lasky: We weren't overtly telling the reader, "Yes, we are looking at old comics."
CB: You got to throw a little bit of experimentation in the midst of this very traditionally told story.
Lasky: Normally I'm a much more experimental cartoonist, but I was really restraining myself to give this book a feel of the olden times. It was fun to have little moments where I could be a little more experimental. There's also a section where the color disappears from the book and we're looking at basically daily strips.
Young: It was a way to cover a period of time where some important things happened, but because we had this irrefutable page length and some of these could have been individual chapters. But there just wasn't space so it was a chance to at least represent these moments.
CB: It's got to be one the most interesting montage scenes I've ever read. By having them be their own discrete pieces it's almost like the old movies where the calendar pages would be thrown off or something.
Young: And I had a lot of fun coming up with the arch-punny titles like old daily comics would have.
CB: You got to throw a little more of your personality in there. You didn't have to be completely sublimated to the style.
Lasky: With what we talked about with the music, showing visual interpretations of the music, it gave me a chance to experiment more than I thought I would. But I also had to think, "Would this experimentation have reasonably happened in the 1930s or 1920s?" I ran them all past Frank because I didn't want to get too 1990s or 2010s with it, because I felt that if I was being too much myself it would take the reader out of the dreamy feeling of being in the 1930's.
Young: But thank goodness there was enough formal experimentation in the newspaper comics of this period, like the Sunday Gasoline Alleys, where Frank King would do it in a woodcut style one week and do these elaborate, almost abstract geometric patterns.
CB: I've never seen those Sundays. I've seen the daily strips which are incredible.
Young: The Sundays, they stand alone from the intense, very laconic narrative of the dailies. In a sense they’re Frank King showing off every Sunday, almost like a magician like, "Here's one you haven't seen," but it works. It's this magic moment where you have this formal experimentation going on in a mass market, very popular, very commercial thing.
Lasky: I first encountered all those Gasoline Alley Sunday pages in Bill Blackbeard's Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics when I was about 18 and they just blew my mind, as I was just starting to get interested in drawing comics. It was very exciting to pay homage to those strips. They’re some of the best comics ever made.
CB: I'll have to find those, then.
Young: And I've been getting a belated education in the really, really early years of the newspaper comics, even like pre-1910, there's a surprising amount of, I think, very naïve experimentation. Unmistakably the form itself was so new that there weren't really a lot of rules and there were people that had a creative and artistic blank slate. They could do things that you look at, in the century later and think, "Wow, this guy was on the ball, he has something to say, he wasn't just drawing six panels of buffoons slapping each other." I guess the saddest thing about what remains of newspaper comics today is that, with the exception of a couple of comic strips, you don't get a sense of surprise.
Lasky: They have such tiny images.
CB: Thanks for a really insightful interview!