Monomythography of an Art Form: A Prelude to Considering “The Only Living Boy”

The Greil Marcus-edited A New Literary History of America offers insight into the deeper cultural DNA of David Gallaher and Steve Ellis's The Only Living Boy.

This coming Monday, you can return to The Only Living Boy website and reenter the magical Hero’s Journey of Erik Farrell, protagonist of the online YA comicbook, as the story begins its second issue.

Written by David Gallaher and drawn by Steve Ellis, The Only Living Boy releases three new pages a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It chronicles the journeys of young Erik Farrell, a runaway who finds himself traveling through some bizarre mirror-world of Earth, where a dragon rules a fairy-story kingdom from its roost atop the Empire State Building. The Only Living Boy is written with such skill and dedication, it almost immediately makes you want to dispense with the nomenclature of “YA,” and call the production label by its full title of “Young Adult.” It’s not at all hard to see that both Gallaher and Ellis are dedicated to the project, to producing the story with a certain level of skill and craft. It’s equally obvious that The Only Living Boy can be read as a metaphor for growing into adulthood. But what catapults Gallaher and Ellis’s project beyond the ordinary coming-of-age fantasy YA (before we even get to discussions about the creators’ personal stories behind wanting to tell this story), is its deeply-rooted cultural DNA.

The Only Living Boy’s cultural DNA is a story about the period between 1900 and 1905, a period thrown into high relief in the Greil Marcus-Werner Sollers edited New Literary History of America. Skim the contents pages of the volume, and you’ll get a relative idea of how fraught the time was; chapter titles evoke the invention of the blues, Henry James’s return to America after an absence of two decades, the dedication of Emily Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” being affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Gertrude Stein’s moving to Paris. But, for the era bookended by the years 1900 and 1905, the cultural DNA of serialized YA comics comes shining through in two chapters, the first, the 1900 chapter dealing with L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and the second, the 1905 chapter, dealing with the debut of Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. The former chapter deals with content and cultural fixation of YA storytelling, while the latter deals with the serialized format, both focus deep issues in the cultural modes of The Only Living Boy.

In his essay, “The Wizard of Oz,” Gerald Early examines a strange confluence between America’s really coming into its own culturally (as hinted at in the 1903 chapter, “‘The Real American has Not Yet Arrived,’” and as perennially revisited by Scott Snyder in American Vampire), and the sociocultural “birth” of a new conceptualization of childhood. Early writes:

Baum’s turn-of-the-century book ushered in what Swedish sociologist Ellen Key called the Century of the Child. Notwithstanding latter-day critical interpretations, Oz was and very intensely is a children’s book and is much more engaged with debates swirling around the nature of children’s literature than with anything else. At the same time, Oz ushered in the American Century. It tried very hard to be an American book in its sensibility. Indeed, Baum was determined to create a children’s literature made exclusively of American objects, images, and ideas. In 1901 he published a collection of tales called American Fairy Tales, in which every tale is set in the United States.

And later:

The fact that Baum gave Oz a geography and a regional preoccupation resembling the United States—and the humbug character of the Wizard, a P. T. Barnum-type confidence man—has led readers over the years to read the book explicitly as a story about America. Henry Littlefield broke fresh critical ground when he argued in 1964 that the book was a pro-Populist allegory about the monetary crisis of the 1890s… Many interpretations of the book are inventive, even occasionally incisive. But there is no evidence that Baum intended his book to be read in such a way, and it is clear that he did not write the book as an allegory. The idea that children’s literature must be read as some sort of encoded adult literature is an insult to both the literature and the audience, as it assumes that this is the only way that children’s literature can be important. Baum would have been appalled by such prejudice.

In “The Comic Strip Wakes Up,” Kerry Roeder writes:

New York City at the turn of the century was a metropolis teeming with novel and spectacular visual experiences. City dwellers navigated a new social landscape: advances in the speed of public transportation, combined with overcrowded streets, transformed notions of both time and space. The stresses of modern life led people to seek comfort in new forms of leisure, from the amusement parks to department stores and nickelodeons. Among the most popular diversions were the daily newspapers, whose eye-catching deadlines, graphic illustrations, and rectilinear columns mirrored both the chaos and the order of New York’s urban fabric. The weekly comics in the newspapers’ Sunday supplements supplied both light entertainment and an opportunity for readers to grapple with the new experiences of modernity.

And again, later:

Hogan’s Alley was not the first (comic strip); earlier comic panels and caricatures, widespread in Europe, were presented in broadsheets, comic albums, pictorial papers, and satirical journals. American newspaper comics were distinguished by the use of color and recurring characters, which enhanced their popular appeal. Comics proliferated throughout the nation as newspaper barons competed with each other for readers and printing processes were refined , resulting in eye-popping color supplements in most major city newspapers. The comic strip’s portability and ephemerality were ideally suited to the early twentieth-century urban American. Despite—or perhaps due to—their accessibility, comic strips were devalued by cultural elites from their inception. Resisting neat categorization, they represent a delicate marriage of words and pictures, as well as art and commerce.

Following the course of Erik Farrell’s journey through a blasted, post-apocalyptic fairytale landscape, these two issues of format and content are brought into sharp focus. Like Baum with Oz before him, Gallaher wrestles with the last vestiges of the Victorian Era conceptualization of children as adults in miniature who lead secret lives in The Only Living Boy. Like Baum, Gallaher’s verdict seems to recast an opportunity for an authentic kind of fictive childhood. Erik’s journey is very much a child’s journey that faces a threshold of childhood’s end.

At the same time, Gallaher and Ellis wrestle with the “the delicate marriage of words and pictures, as well as art and commerce.” In that The Only Living Boy remains available on the website, the comic re-evokes that same “portability and ephemerality” of the original comic strips, while at the same time introducing new experiences that mirror the world around present-day readers (like the mouse-overs that provide creators’ commentary for each page), or the free-to-the-web, purchasable-as-collection business model that allows for donations as much as relying on patronage.

But more than anything, Gallaher and Ellis’s work on The Only Living Boy takes us into uncharted territory, where we ourselves must begin to overturn the various shibboleths of ‘90s era comics criticism. It provides us with an artistic monomyth (or Hero's Journey) for comics as a medium. Must we, The Only Living Boy asks us to confront, continue to hold as true that comics can only be relevant and meaningful if they’re “not for kids.” It’s harder and harder now not to simply discard that formulation—the idea that one kind of social acceptance must at the price of butchering a longstanding and productive part of the art form. And harder still to imagine those fateful words being uttered in a Frost/Nixon like showdown, “But you know, politically the pressure on me to let them go, that became overwhelming. So, I did it. I cut off one arm then I cut the other and I'm not a good butcher.” I can hear ‘90s Comics Maven now: “The pressure on me to let childish things go, that became overwhelming. So, I did it. I cut off one arm then I cut the other and I'm not a good butcher.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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