June: Neil Young’s Greendale by Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Neil Young’s Greendale is a graphic novel adaptation of the album of the same name by — you guessed it — Neil Young. If you’re a Neil Young fan and you’re reading this website, odds are you’ve already read this book. But if you’re not, it’s important to note that this graphic novel requires absolutely no knowledge of that album or of Neil Young in general. It only requires that you be a person who’s interested in the coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl tapping into previously-unknown power, brought to stunning life by Cliff Chiang’s art.
With this book, writer Joshua Dysart takes the basic ideas of Greendale, a concept album about the Iraq War, environmentalism, and a small California town’s reaction to it all, and turns it into a beautiful story about one 17-year-old girl, Sun Green, whose female family members have always held some amount of sway over the forces of nature. Sun is a girl who is deeply concerned about the world around her, an avowed pacifist and environmentalist who doesn’t understand, in 2003, why the whole planet seems to be going to hell. Meanwhile, things are spinning out of control within the small, close-knit circle of her family, and a mysterious devil presence is set on making them even worse. It’s up to Sun to realize exactly what kind of power she has and use it to combat those evils, both personal and global.
The book has a strong narrative, despite how meandering the original music is, and the people of Greendale, California all feel deeply real. The focus on matrilineal power is especially awesome, as Sun draws strength from her female ancestors, all of whom have distinct personalities. But the biggest highlight of the book is probably Chiang’s art, which is clean, soft, expressive, and simply gorgeous. The most mundane elements of the book shine under his pencils, and the fantastical elements positively sparkle. Even if this doesn’t sound like the book for you, I recommend flipping through it in a bookstore or a library just to check out the art.
But mostly I recommend this book to anyone who, like me, found themselves in high school in the harsh, confusing days of the early 2000s and wished they, like Sun Green, had the power to change the world.
Violence: A few moments of gun violence, including a murder and an attempted suicide, and a few scattered scenes of minor fantastical violence. But the protagonist’s pacifist beliefs mitigate the violence and definitively cast it in a negative light.
Sexualized Violence: None that I can recall. Even the devil character’s violence is completely nonsexual.
Gender: This is the story of a young woman coming of age and taking charge of her own inner power, as passed down matrilineally throughout her family’s history. It’s a profoundly feminist book about female agency.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test: The book absolutely passes, as Sun has conversations with various female relatives and a classmate with no reference to men whatsoever.
Minorities: Easily the weakest point in the book, especially given the California setting. This is largely because almost all of the characters are members of Sun’s (white) family, but all of the supporting characters are also white.
Parents May Wish to Be Aware: I would rate this book at least PG-13; there is definitely implied sex in addition to the aforementioned violence. But nothing is particularly graphic, and the moments of near-nudity are completely tasteful.
Review by Jennifer Margret Smith