Aug 19, 2019

Revisiting Vertigo: Neil Young's Greendale and the Relevance of Activism

Just a little over a month ago, DC Comics announced their decision to shut down Vertigo, their "alternative" imprint that was a true game-changer for the comics industry. Quite frankly, I thought of it as a mercy killing, as Vertigo had long been only a shell of what it was at its peak, hindered by, it seems, an increasingly tighter corporate structure and contracts that paled in comparison to other publishers when it came to things like ownership rights and creative freedom. Still, Vertigo remains relevant, and will always remain relevant, because it opened the door for comics to explore a wider variety of genres and tones.

One of my absolute favorite Vertigo books is Neil Young's Greendale. In 2003, legendary rock musician Neil Young released an album called Greendale, which Wikipedia describes as a "10-song rock opera." It focuses on the story of the Green family, but especially Sun Green, a young student who feels very passionate about the illegal drilling for oil in Alaska. The story is about her political awakening.

Greendale was made into a stage play and a movie. In 2006, a comic book adaptation was pitched to Joshua Dysart, and in 2010 it was released. It is one of the most beautiful comics I've ever read, and was one of the first comics I ever reviewed on this website. But even back then, I asked myself the question, "Is this relevant?"

Sun Green has preternatural powers that enables her to climb any surface, to herd any group of animals to go where she goes, and to have some semblance of power over nature. It sounds like the plot of a superhero story if you just describe it like that, but the way it's executed is more in line with magical realism than myth. What it does have in line with superhero stories, however, is that once her powers start having negative effects — including, it seems, producing an arch-nemesis that ends up causing the deaths of multiple people in her life — she starts questioning herself, doubting her purpose, and fearing for the future. And it's only when she heeds the advice of her grandmother that everything falls into place.

"Fight the way you always dreamed of fighting. Be the rain."

So Sun does decide to fight in the way she dreams — she becomes an activist, and becomes a face for the fight against major corporations and drilling for oil.

Is it relevant?

The album was released in 2003. The book came out in 2010. It's now 2019. The very specific cause that Sun Green fought for was a hot button topic in the early to mid-2000s. Writer Joshua Dysart has even said, on record, "I thought about that the whole time I wrote this book; is this an irrelevant book? Is this a book out of time? I don’t know.  I can’t answer your question.  It’s something I wrestled with; I constantly was altering the language in the book throughout the writing in the hope of making it timeless. I just don’t know."

"Hope has always been the tone of youth."

I would argue that it is still relevant, and more, it will always be relevant. The causes people fight for may change. We may be more passionate about equal rights, female rights, and LGBT causes now than we are about environmentalism, but the passion remains true, and the message of Neil Young's Greendale will always connect to a young reader struggling to find their place in the world. Be the rain. Fight the way you've always dreamed of fighting.

Vertigo may be over, but its place in comics history is etched in stone. Stories like Neil Young's Greendale may seem less relevant on the surface, but the importance of its theme is likewise etched in stone. We need to find the ideals we're passionate about, and we need to fight to make that a reality.

Plus, the art is by Cliff Chiang with colors by Dave Stewart, and it's just really pretty.

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