Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Poor Valley

The Carter Family comes from an area in SW Virginia called "Poor Valley". I was surprised to learn that there is also a "Rich Valley," where the soil is better for farming and people are generally more affluent.
One of the original concepts Frank and I had for this book was to show some of the events taking place in a comic strip called "Poor Valley" that would be based on the classic newspaper strip "Gasoline Alley". Though our art will definitely be influenced by "Gasoline Alley" (among other things), we have recently decided not to use a "Poor Valley" logo in the book as it would impede the narrative flow. But you can see it right here, right now, in this art sample we created during the initial planning process.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

From Words To Pictures: The Process Begins

I thought I'd lead off today's post with this stunning detail from a piece of art David did for our book proposal. I think it helped seal the deal. David's sense of humanity in his figures always moves and impresses me. His figures--and even his landscapes--have that breath of life to them; that something extra that creates an instant engagement with the observer.

I'm braggin' on you, David.

We spent the last workweek breaking down our outline of Act One of the graphic novel.

To start the process, via Photoshop, we created a template for doing "thumbnail" roughs. One trip to Kinko's later, we had a nice pile of printed pages with miniature comics page layouts, ready to go. Just give us a #2 pencil and we're in business!

We sit on opposite sides of a long table, with our library of reference books-- and an electric pencil-sharpener--close at hand. Quietly, with an occasional glance across the table, we translate our densely-worded outline into workable visuals.

The thumbnailing process lets us know if our ideas work, or if they need more (or less) to them.

For me, doing the thumbnails is a way to warm up to drawing again.
I have chosen to focus mostly on writing in the past 15 years. What little drawing I have done has been mostly doodling or sketchbook material.

These thumbnails are rough-and-ready drawings. Their goal is to account for what will embody each panel of each page. They're often almost stick-figures. Yet these little drawings can be surprisingly rich.

Many of David's thumbnails are things of beauty. I have seen sequences of our book suddenly come to life in his evocative sketches. It's exhiliarating to realize that, little by little, this book is becoming real and certain.

I have newfound respect for the common #2 pencil. My first thumbnails were done with the Papermate SmartWriter 0.7 mm mechanical pencil. Its soft leads are extremely smeary. I'm left-handed, and hold a pencil in an eccentric way, so it's impossible not to smudge the soot-like leads of these pencils.

I turned to one of David's humble OfficeMax #2s, and the smudge factor decreased dramatically. The lead is just right.

One more note: it amazes me how quickly a day zooms by when we're doing these thumbnails. I think that's a sign that I like what I'm doing! I feel grateful to the universe that we're embarked on this project.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A.P. meets Sara

The Carter Family really begins when A.P. Carter falls in love with Sara Dougherty. He was out selling fruit trees in SW Virginia and came across Sara singing the song "Engine 143." It's been said that he could hear her voice before he even entered the yard of the house in which she was singing. He spent a year courting her, and in 1915 they were married. Sara was 16 years old.

This is one of the samples Frank and I worked up for "Don't Forget This Song;" a depiction of A.P. hearing Sara's voice for the first time.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book Making

So this past week, Frank and I continued work refining our outline of the book, and thumnailing certain sequences to see how they might work out visually. I brought a camera in on Friday because I was making a photo diary of my day, and we each took some shots of ourselves at work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How I Discovered The Carter Family

Many people who know the work of my collaborator, David Lasky, may not recognize my name. It doesn't help that I have a rather common monicker. There are a lot of Frank Youngs in this world.

This particular Frank Young is proud to be the co-creator of this graphic novel. I have been an admirer of the Carter Family's music since the year 1984.

Along the way, I've been the editor of The Comics Journal, had hundreds of articles published in newspapers, magazines and literary journals; I've edited for newspapers and magazines as well.

More recently, I wrote several installments of Justin Green's late, lamented "Musical Legends" strip, from the equally moribund Pulse! magazine. (They're collected in the Last Gasp trade paperback that gathers Green's first-rate work on the strip.)

I have also been a writer and editor for Dana Countryman's Cool 'n' Strange Music! magazine (where I interviewed guitar wiz Les Paul), and I've sold gags to Topps Chewing Gum's iconic "Wacky Packages" trading cards.

As well, I've written several kids' non-fiction books, been in an instrumental band called the New Albanian Riots (check out our MySpace page!), and written a couple of yet-unpublished novels and some yet-unproduced screenplays.

Like David, I live in Seattle, Washington. I moved here to work for Fantagraphics in July, 1991. I must like it here; I haven't moved since.

Back in '84, I lived in Tallahassee, Florida. I wrote full-time for a long-gone "alternative" weekday paper called The Florida Flambeau. That paper was my training ground as a writer. I probably got most of the bad writing out of my system in the 11 years I worked for the "Flam." I was 17 when I first wrote for the paper, in 1980.

In 1984, my friend Michael Ogden first brought the Carter Family's music to my attention. I was on the verge of a discovery of country music, from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. Prior listening obsessions--Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, in my high-school years--had prepared my ears to travel a bit further back in time.

Mike Ogden had a cassette of a German RCA International collection of Carter Family music. Imaginatively titled 20 of the Best (Catalog #:NL 89369), this album, in cassette form, made a huge impression on me.

The "Bristol Sessions" recordings were avoided. Otherwise, this LP hit the high spots of the Carters' 1928-1934 Victor recordings. Injudicious "room tone" fake reverb had been added to the original recordings. Otherwise, they had no overdubs; nor were they abhorrently remixed in fake "stereo" (the fluorescent light of recorded sound).

This music, at first, struck me as even rougher than Bob Dylan's first recordings. (Dylan's 1961 debut disc was my prior standard-bearer of rustic-type music.) It was something of a shock at first. I couldn't believe that a recording as raw and rural as "Little Darling Pal Of Mine" could have ever existed. (I had, obviously, not yet heard the music of Charlie Patton.)

The songs hooked me first. "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" reminded me of Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad" (for obvious reasons; Guthrie helped himself to "Hardy"'s melody for his Steinbeck-influenced epic). "Lonesome Pine Special," "I Never Will Marry," "Lonesome Valley," "The Church in the Wildwood," "Lulu Walls," "Kitty Waltz," "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" and "Wildwood Flower" also grabbed me.

In time, the performances began to break through, as I acclimated to them. Sara Carter's voice, with its harsh regional pronounciations, revealed itself to be a vessel of passion and intensity. The quavering tones of A.P. Carter fascinated me. It reminded me of the quirks of character actors from the early talkie movies.

Maybelle's guitar playing sealed the deal. I had just begun play the guitar at that time. I was capable of no more than rudimentary chordal strums. Maybelle's conflation of lead and rhythm guitar parts fascinated me, as it has many other young musicians.

After several years of bedroom woodshedding, I was finally able to decode and learn a few Maybelle guitar lines. To this day, I still can play a mean "Wildwood Flower," "Cannonball," "John Hardy" and "Jimmy Brown."

In 1986, I finally found a vinyl copy of the 20 of the Best LP. Vinyl Fever, the local record store of choice, had a copy that a Flambeau music critic had special-ordered but neglected. I spotted it behind the counter and asked if it were for sale. The clerk was disgusted enough with the writer, and his massive "hold pile," that he gladly sold it to me.

Soon, I dug up some of the handful of other Carter Family LPs that were available. There wasn't much on the market then. Some of it was cassette-only. Some of that, in turn, had been murdalized by fake-stereo conversion.

I wanted it all. A pair of LPs from the ACM (Anthology of Country Music) label introduced me to some of the Carters' superb Depression-era discs. As of yet, I knew almost nothing about the Carters. Songs such as "Lonesome For You," "March Winds Gonna Blow My Blues Away" and "One Little Word" only added to my fascination with their music.

"One Little Word" struck a frisson of childhood memory. My grandmother often sang that song to me in my very early years.

She was born in Louisiana in 1901, and worked as a schoolteacher in the Appalachian region in the late 1920s. Of course, she would have heard this music. I also recall her singing "Keep On The Sunny Side."

Through "One Little Word," I felt an immediate connection to the Carters and their region. It really struck me that this song had lingered in my grandmother's memory, and that she had sung it to me as a kind of lullaby. A curious choice for a soothing song--yet it worked.

That I lived in the Deep South--in an area that still retained strong traces of the 1920s and '30s--helped me acclimate to the Carter Family's music. It seemed to come out of the architecture, out of the woods and the sky and the old roads.

As I got to know it better, the Carters' music became a kind of map to the old South, to the last traces of it that remained. Those final lingering strands are all gone now. I'm glad I became aware of them while they could still be glimpsed.

As David and I begin our hard work on Don't Forget This Song, the richness and vibrance of the Carter Family's music continues to inspire me. I hope we can do their story justice. The narrative of their lives and career is as fascinating as their best music. I am honored to be a part of bringing this story to the medium of the graphic novel.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Frank Young and I are proud to announce that we have begun work on "Don't Forget This Song," a graphic novel that tells the story of country music's first family, The Carter Family. We first came up with the idea of making a c0mic about the Carters back in 2002, and created a "pilot episode" which appeared in the anthology Kramers Ergot (No. 4). We had hoped a publisher would ask us to make more Carter Family comics. A few comic book publishers did express interest, but shied away from the cost of color printing.

I went back to college to study graphic design in 2003 and 2004, then fell into a bread delivery job. It seemed the Carter Family idea was destined to be yet another interesting "could have been but wasn't."

Jump to early 2007, and my visit to a cold and snowy New York City. My cartoonist peers were all talking "book deals" and "agents." I felt like I'd been living in a cave. I began to ask myself why I didn't have an agent.

I began to think about the Carter Family project again, and devoted the rest of the year to finding an agent and creating a book proposal. Fortunately, Frank Young was still willing and able to collaborate on the book. With the guidance of agent Bob Mecoy, we got a few good reactions from editors and finally a "yes" from Abrams. I'm thrilled to be working on a project for the publisher of "The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics," an essential book for anyone who loves comics.
Check back in at this blog to read anecdotes about the Carters and other musicians, posted by Frank and myself, and follow the progress we're making on "Don't Forget This Song." We'll be hard at work for the next 10 months...