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“I’m Glad to Have the Benefit Now of Existing”: A David Lasky Interview

ROBINSON: There are still a couple scenes where you have some type of image that’s at odds with the text. I think about the first recording scene where you have the horn entering from behind the curtains and poking at them menacingly in the foreground through the entire scene, and there’s hellish colors that suggest that they’re heading for some kind of trouble, whereas the actual text is all just people trying to get them to play. Something about the visual adds a kind of friction to the text of the scene. I see that as kind of a Lasky-ism, or whatever. [Laughs.] How did that come about? Did you have to fight with stuff like that with your editor when you were taking about what to include, and how many pages do you have?

From The Carter Family

LASKY: Well, just addressing the horn and the colors — this is a very odd drawing of the horn coming through the curtains. It’s based on how the recording setup would have been an acoustic recording horn and they used a lot of curtains just to drown out outside noises. So the horn really would’ve been coming out from some curtains, but an expert on the history of recording said, “I think that the horn’s just way too big in that drawing.” But, I left it, because I wanted the horn to look menacing. A.P. and Sara are simple farmers who have never seen anything like this. It’s totally out of their realm of experience. So, I’m kind of drawing it through their eyes, and that’s not out of ordinary, I think, for old comic strips to exaggerate certain things. The red color was Frank’s choice. I though it was a little too red. I showed it around to people, including you and Helen [America], and you both really liked it, so all right, let’s go with the red.

ROBINSON: Was it strange to have a collaborator?

LASKY: Well, I’ve worked with collaborators before and I really enjoy it, but I’ve never collaborated on something this big for this long. Usually I’ll collaborate with somebody and it might last a few weeks or a couple months, but this was a really strange situation for me. It definitely helped me get a work of this magnitude completed, whereas up till now I hadn’t done a graphic novel, and the idea of something this long was intimidating. Neither of us thought it would last so long. It became kind of grueling, but it was essential for this book to have somebody else working with me and somebody who really understood the subject and the concept, and Frank knows more than I do about old music and old comics. We had small differences of opinion on different things throughout the book, but on the whole we were on the same page about what this book should be.

ROBINSON: There’s a tendency in this book for characters to be very upfront with their motivations and for the secondary characters do an awful lot of explaining of themselves and explaining of the situation. That’s something I hadn’t really seen in any of your work before, and I was wondering if that’s a function of the compression, the amount of things that you needed to fit in. I mean, take even the frontispiece of the book.

The frontispiece to The Carter Family

I stared at this image for about five or ten minutes, thinking about it. It’s just this wonderfully specific, but also mysterious image. And then I realized that it’s explained in one of the text bubbles on the first page. It seems like maybe this book has a little bit less faith in a reader than a lot of your comics do.

LASKY: I think some of that is probably Frank’s writing style, but a lot of it as you suggested was part of the condensing process, whereas in something like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Alan Moore will have something visually happen over the course of a few pages and just let the reader observe and figure out what’s going on. We didn’t have that luxury of showing A.P.’s mother in a sequence with the lightning striking the tree, and A.P. being born, and A.P. growing up, and they realize this child is a little different, and maybe it was from the lightning. We have to fit it in to an endpaper and then a word balloon and then proceed onward with the story. At times I really wanted to change the course of the book and just have this be like book one of three and tell a third of the story inside this page count, so that we could really expand the narrative, but the story we have is kind of a three-act complete novel. It’s real-life material that just happens to fit in to a three-act structure and, as tempting as it was to want to expand the story, I thought, “This book has to be complete in and of itself.” If we just had Act I, people would think it was boring to get to the end and nothing really terrible has happened to the characters yet. [Robinson laughs.] And I thought, “They would never give us a chance to do a book two if book one was just like, “Here we are and everything’s fine.” So, the page count that the publisher allowed us became just another constraint that we had to work with. The way the characters explain things is definitely different from how I normally work, but it’s not out of the ordinary in the context of old newspaper comic strips.

ROBINSON: Right.

LASKY:
Little Orphan Annie is constantly having monologues about everything that’s happening in the story, and I think in comparison to Harold Gray’s writing we’re a bit more sophisticated. [Laughter.] ’Cause Annie just tells you everything– more than you wanna know. [Laughter.]

ROBINSON: It’s a strange situation, for someone like you who’s skirted the edges of copyright a bit, to have made an entire book where the protagonist is someone who took such advantage of the lax copyright laws of the time. There’s no question that the descendants of A.P. still have copyright, thanks to Disney and thanks to the perpetual copyright police, on songs that were demonstrably written by other people, sometimes within A.P.’s lifetime. Or in other cases, on more communal songs which were passed on from person to person. These guys made a career and a fortune as interpreters of other people’s songs. But thanks to current copyright law, you guys can’t even quote from those songs. So you’re in this odd position where your protagonist is a person who benefited from living at a time when copyright was becoming more codified and structured, at the same time that you are kind of punished or limited artistically by that same codification. Did that … is that a question? [Laughter.]

LASKY: Well definitely A.P. Carter was working in a very different time from ours, and the Carter Family were one of the first country music recording acts. There was no term “country music,” even when they were recording. It was called old-time or hillbilly. It was just something coming into existence. And he was going around, mostly hearing these songs orally from people he knew or people he’d meet, and I think he didn’t always know if they were copyrighted.

The copyright laws were a lot looser than they are now. There was no definite way of doing things, and their producer, Ralph Peer, was a very savvy businessman and saw the importance of—at least if they thought they were the first to record this song—putting a copyright on it and building a catalog. And that was, I think, the beginnings of what the music industry would become, where the songwriter’s work is protected by copyright.

At that time it was kind of a Wild West of songs just being out there and people having dual copyrights on the same song, and maybe not even knowing it. It was a different world, and I think we have to forgive them and to a certain degree not judge them through 21st-century eyes. I was talking with Beth Harrington who was making a documentary about the Carter Family, and we talked about the subject of the Carters finding songs and do they really own these songs? Are they entitled to the copyright? And should they be considered great artists if they were just taking other people’s songs? She’d boil it down to: Nobody was really doing anything with these songs. They would’ve ultimately just disappeared. They were old corny Tin Pan Alley songs that were really forgotten at the time. A.P. and Sara and Maybelle arranged them and made them commercial products, and really lasting commercial products that people still love today, and that wouldn’t have happened with these songs otherwise. I think a large degree of credit is due to them just for creating something, taking some found material but making something really special out of it.

ROBINSON: I guess you can’t blame them for it, because it’s not them that did it, but now the law is such that people today can’t have the same kind of relationship they did to the same material. You are prevented from having a sequence that has lyrics from one of the songs in there unless you’re willing to pay money to people who are blood-related to people that arranged them. Why is that? The actual words —

LASKY: And pay money to people who aren’t even blood-relate to anyone having to do with it. It was a little frustrating, but ultimately I have to say the copyright laws exist to protect songwriters, to protect comics artists and other creative people, and while I disagree with what Disney’s doing to extend copyright well beyond any artist’s lifetime, I think it’s good that there is copyright. A lot of these new thinkers propose in a digital age, let’s just get rid of copyright. If I couldn’t have a right to my own work I don’t know if I’d want to share it with people. [Laughs.]

Ralph Peer and A.P. Carter sign a contract. From The Carter Family

ROBINSON: But it’s not a neither-nor proposition. I mean, is there any reason to extend it past the life of the person who made it?

LASKY: I think maybe a few decades past their life so that maybe their spouse could survive, or their children could survive on royalties, but when you get into multiple generations… Or something like Disney just wanting to retain ownership to Mickey Mouse, basically, or DC Comics wanting to hold onto their characters, that has nothing to do with anyone’s family members benefiting, it has to do with business people wanting to own intellectual property. It has nothing to do with them, except that they make money from it. It really pisses me off sometimes. [Laughs.]

ROBINSON:
Well, I know this is an issue you’re gonna be rubbing up against if the collection that you’re working on compiling includes Ulysses, because it’s making a minicomic is one thing, but the Joyce family is notoriously protective.

LASKY: With the minicomic, no one from the Joyce estate has ever contacted me. I see it as I guess a parody, and as far as I know, there’s no passages of text directly reproduced, though it does use the title of the book and the characters and situations. It’s similar to a Mad magazine parody, except that Mad usually changes the title to something goofy-sounding. Mad did a parody of the Watchmen movie, and it was like reading the Watchmen comic book all over again, but written really badly and drawn really goofy. [Laughter.] It was like, “Can they get away with this?”

ROBINSON:
And parody is the one fair-use principle that’s been upheld consistently in court. When we did The Wire book, lawyers advised us to call it a parody in the indicia because that’s the principal that’s upheld consistently.

LASKY: For the record you should say it is a parody. [Laughter.]

ROBINSON: It’s a parody. [Laughter.]

LASKY: And a very good one, even though I haven’t read it yet. [Laughter.] Yeah, I think the Joyce book falls under parody and there is a disclaimer that certain details were left out. [Robinson laughs.] And I think there’s some guys doing a direct adaptation of Ulysses on the Internet, and I think that’s a good signal that the book is maybe gone completely out of copyright at this point. I haven’t really looked into it. But they seem to feel that their lawyers have told them this is doable, so I feel a little more confident about putting the Ulysses book out there.

ROBINSON: We hadn’t really mentioned your other James Joyce-related stuff too, but I really admire the second Boom Boom issue too. That’s another one where the concept itself is a significant chunk of the enjoyment.

LASKY: The title on the cover is “The Origin of Ulysses”, and it’s a biographical story of James Joyce writing his masterpiece Ulysses, because I wanted to know, as a young artist at that time, what does an artist do in their life while they’re making their great work? ’Cause I was gonna do it as a straight-ahead biography with a David Lasky drawing style, but I wanted to do the cover in a Jack Kirby style. [Robinson laughs.]

It was the summer after I graduated college, and I was on a road trip with my friend Bob, from Virginia to California, all this time just sitting in a car, and somewhere in the Southwest the idea of Ulysses as a comic book came into my head. Then I thought of some of the cheesiest literary adaptations, done by Marvel comics in the 1970s, where they did things like Moby Dick and The Island of Doctor Moreau, but didn’t really make any attempt to draw them in a style that fit the material, but took the Marvel comics artists and had them draw them in kind of a Marvel style, if I’m remembering correctly. Then I thought of Jack Kirby’s Black Panther, which is a great stylistic comic, and what if they had Jack Kirby at that time also do Ulysses? So a few years later I was in Seattle, we’d meet up with other young cartoonists, and we’d all talk about what we were working on, and I was talking about this with Ed Brubaker and Tom Hart and Jon Lewis and various people, and talking about the Jack Kirby cover, and they would say, “Oh, you should do the whole book in a Jack Kirby style.” No, that’s too much work; I’m not going to do that.

The cover from Boom Boom 2.

Then I got a call from Ed one morning, and he said, “Dave, Jack Kirby died, he just died.” We were all stunned. He’s a huge influence on us. “Dave, now you have to do your book completely in a Kirby style.” [Robinson laughs.] And okay, yeah I better, as an homage to Jack Kirby. Rather than do it in a ’70s Kirby style, I realized that what really sticks in my head are images from the Origins of Marvel Comics book, with the origins of Thor and Fantastic Four and the Hulk, and I wanted to put those images somehow into this story. It was a funny idea, and it turned out to be really difficult to actually do convincingly. I remember the last few pages just being so difficult, like: I have to tell this part of James Joyce’s story and I have these pages to choose from and none of them quite look right for what I have to do. But I made it work, and people who are familiar with Jack Kirby’s origin stories must love this book, and people who aren’t just scratch their heads and have a hard time reading it, I think.

ROBINSON: Does that fit into the same conceptual category, do you think, where the idea and the fact of its existence are almost as valuable as the comic itself?

LASKY: Yeah, but beyond the idea and doing it, you have to do it well, and there are a lot of headaches. I wanted to tell the story of James Joyce accurately and respectfully, and hopefully make it so that people who didn’t know Jack Kirby could still get through the book. I think it’s one thing to come up with these goofy ideas, but the actual doing it and doing it well is also really important, because if someone sees this funny idea but then they read through it and it falls flat, then, “Oh … too bad he didn’t really follow through with this.” And, I really try hard to follow through.

ROBINSON: You should tell that to the four million people who bought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. [Laughter.]

LASKY: I haven’t read that.

ROBINSON: Yeah, well probably neither have they. They just have it on their shelf. [Laughter.]

So, where are you at with the book right now? Do you feel relief at it being done, and you’re kind of swimming in the pre-release press?

LASKY: At the beginning, I was just really relieved to see the book, that it looks so great. And all summer I’ve been waiting for when the book actually comes out, and that’ll be another plateau. Do people like it or not like it? That’s what I wanna see. I just wanna see what happens, and I’m encouraged that most people who are seeing it are really liking it, and I hope that’s the case with the general public. Not just my friends, but people I don’t know. [Laughter.]

ROBINSON: Which is not a lot of people in comics, right? [Laughter.]

LASKY: So yeah, I’m excited and just waiting for the book to appear.

ROBINSON: Was there any difficulty for you about putting words in the mouth of real people?

LASKY: Yeah, these are people from a time and place that’s really foreign to me. Even though I’m from Virginia, I’m from the opposite end of the state, from the 1970s and ’80s, and these are people in Appalachia in the Great Depression, and I relied on Frank a lot to get everything about the way they speak as accurate to the time and place, but initially he was too accurate and he was using jargon and types of speech that made it impossible for me to understand what people were saying at times. “Frank, this book has to be accessible to 21st century people. Can we make some compromise on how people are talking?” Eventually, we came to a good middle ground where they’re speaking in the way they spoke, but it’s very readable.

ROBINSON: It was interesting to me that you guys decided to go with the vernacular spelling, because that’s definitely out right now in terms of the past couple decades, but I guess it’s a fairly common tactic in the newspaper comic strips that you’re …

LASKY: Yeah, I think that’s what Frank was following what he knew from newspaper strips. Yeah, I was not as into the phonetic spelling as him, but there is definitely a strong history of that in newspaper comics, so I went with it. The other thing with having the people speak was that so much of their life is undocumented, and what we know comes from oral history from their children, their children’s memoirs or from interviews with Sara and Maybelle when they were elderly. But we don’t have an interview with A.P. Carter. No exact quotes, so we’re basically fictionalizing in the service of what we know really happened. In some places Frank and I would meet and we would say, “We have to somehow express this thing happening,” and we’d go back and forth and do maybe a little skit amongst ourselves and then take parts of the dialogue we spoke with each other and say, “That can go here.” Throughout the process Frank would refine that dialogue and make it more to his liking, and make it more fluid. There were certain parts that might be more controversial just because we don’t know what happened, so we’re creating sequences ourselves, and it really is a kind of historical fiction based on the real people in their lives.

That sequence where A.P. talks to the producer, when they tell Leslie Riddle, “We wanted to get you credit but we couldn’t, but we got you an artificial leg.” Because he was a one-legged man, and that way it compensated him for what he had given to them. The truth of it is we know from an interview with Leslie Riddle that they used his songs, and they gave him a prosthetic leg and he was grateful, and they felt like family to him. We don’t know whether A.P. Carter tried to get credit for Leslie Riddle. We invented that, and the reason I think it had to exist in the story was that we know A.P. was a very kind and generous man, and we know that Leslie Riddle had a prosthetic leg from the family, and I had to resolve it, like, “How does this extremely generous man take credit for his friend’s song and not feel some kind of pangs of conscience about it? So we fictionalized– and maybe A.P. had talked to Ralph Peer about songwriting credit, maybe not, but for the purpose of this story we needed something like that to happen just to explain A.P.’s dilemma.

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3 Responses to “I’m Glad to Have the Benefit Now of Existing”: A David Lasky Interview

  1. ant says:

    That Wookie painting is great.

  2. R. Fiore says:

    They prefer to be called Sasquatches.

  3. Pingback: Comics A.M. | DC Comics’ digital move into the ‘mainstream’ | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

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