In cartoonist M. Dean’s recent book from Fantagraphics, I Am Young, she traces moments in the lives of her characters through the music that defines those moments and sometimes captures the passage of time. Specific songs sometimes become life vests, while other times symbols of emotional separation. Dean has prepared a Spotify playlist from the music featured in I Am Young, along with other picks that fit the story, embedded below before the interview.
Dean lives in Brooklyn, where for the past several years she has worked on her continuing webcomic The Girl Who Flew Away.
You had done a few of the stories in the book originally as minis. Did you plan the thematic cycle of stories that became the book from the beginning, or was that something that happened after you did these earlier stories?
I think it actually started happening by the third story, ‘Strange Magic.’ I was like, oh, I’m starting to see a theme, a relation to all of these, so I might as well keep going because like some other ideas I have I want to do.
When I was even first conceiving it as a whole book at all, like I already saw the way the ones I had done had been connected on day one, a musical thing set up. I’m really annoyingly methodical. I plan ahead way too much. It’s a thing from very early on. I don’t know if that’s detrimental or not, but that’s how I’ve always worked.
Were there any autobiographical parts in the early stories?
Kennedy one was the first one of the minis before there was a book and I guess only autobiographical in the sense that I think we’ve all had like really bad friendships in middle school and high school.
And what about the music you used in the early stories? Did they reflect your taste at all?
Yes and no. Some of them, the music that was focused on in the story, let’s just say was something that seemed appropriate for the theme of the story or the character. Some of them, like I really like Electric Light Orchestra. That’s actually purely me. But yeah, it’s kind of a mix. I’d say more of them, I like them, but then you get into the later Beatles albums where they’re all doing solo careers and I haven’t listened to those and I don’t want to because they don’t look good. It’s mixed really.
So you’ve never heard any of the Beatles’ solo albums from after they split up?
I’ve heard like some of the better ones like Imagine and some George Harrison solo work and those John and Yoko albums, but as far as like Paul McCartney or Ringo go, it’s kind of like, hmm, you did a couple of good singles. But I can’t imagine their albums appealing to me. Not to throw any shade on them. I like good music.
One of my favorite stories in the book is ‘Alvin,’ about the young black guy who loves Chuck Berry and lectures people about the black experience in regard to the oldies music they like. I’m curious about the conception of that.
I had some spark of inspiration. I think honestly sometimes you get ideas from stupid sources but there’s the basis of a good idea there. But I think we were watching Napoleon Dynamite, which is set in Idaho something. All these kids are so white. You have these demographics, so what do you expect, but also hearing stories from my partner and my mom. My mom grew up in a small town in the 50s and her school, her whole town, had one or two black families, so just thinking about that experience. My partner grew up in Austin, which is a bigger city but there’s still a lot of school segregation today, so it’s like, how do you feel when you’re the one person of color in the all-white school. And then just the way white people act and respond to you too.
Obviously, I’m also a white person so it’s my understanding from listening to other people ’s perspective, not my personal experience, but it feels like the topic as a whole was something you don’t see very often? I like to reach out and question those kinds of scenarios, ask why they exist and how they affect people because they come from bad places usually have bad effects on people. So that’s really the origin of that.
The Chuck Berry part ties it all together in the sense that white people have so much more nostalgic for the 50s than anyone else because they weren’t being beaten by police?. I think that this came later because it tied it all together and I felt like I wanted Chuck Berry or another big single black artist to be one of the musical icons or whatever you want to call it. That’s because it felt like it was getting a little powdery in there
It also captures something about being young and enthusiastic about something and trying to express that to other people without driving them crazy.
That’s definitely for me something that’s very relatable, being really into something that doesn’t seem that niche or weird but no one else understands it at all. My partner and I both feel that way, constant many, many levels of feeling disconnected from your peers for reasons that seem kind of shallow. I know a lot of times my stories come from these personal feelings of just whatever feeling I have. They develop more from there obviously but, I do like to leave all that space for interpretation because personal relation expands the world of the story. I’ve been reading all the different reviews of a book and it seems like, I guess naturally, everyone gets a different thing out of each story or the book as a whole.
Music evokes autobiography in so many creators, it’s like a knee-jerk reaction, but I’m fascinated that you use it to tell other people’s stories. How much of you is in there?
I’ve always understood writing as being a place where like every character you’d make or write is a little bit of you, your own personality, your own experience. And like I feel like for me that happens naturally if it’s an important character. In my webcomics, I feel like both the quote-unquote villain character and the protagonist. In all these stories I’ve seen myself reflected in even the mean friend or the friend that’s been exploited. I feel like I don’t even have any control over it, but I think about the complexity of human character and personality. I’m trying to develop that in a fictional character. I only have myself as a reference.
All the characters end up being you in certain ways.
Exactly. I wouldn’t say if you like knew me personally you’d say, oh, that’s her, that’s exactly what she’s like. It’s like your perception of yourself, how you overly psychoanalyze yourself. It’s good reference material looking at your own neuroses.
When it comes to you yourself, what music means the same to you as it does to some of the characters in your stories? Music that defined points of your life or carried through in a narrative way? Do you have your own versions?
I have maybe one or two examples, but I had baby boomer, rocker parents, hippies, whatever. I was, I want to say forced, but … yeah, a little bit forced to listen to all their music. So naturally I now have the soul and mind of a 64-year-old woman, so I like music from the 60s and 70s and then just because I’m curious and that stuff also gets repetitive and boring, I’ve always reached out and searched for new things, to learn about. There have been times when I’ve gone back to look at music from the 20s or like the first recorded music orI’ve looked at nineties music and things like that. Not anything modern because I’m a horrible nerd I guess.
But other than that I feel like a lot of people have as they go through phases where you’re really into something and you remember that, it stands out to you. Like when I first moved to New York, I was really into Sonic Youth for a while and then after that, I got really into the Carpenters and the Electric Light Orchestra. I still really like them now but wouldn’t say I’m as obsessed with them as I was then.
So I think some of the stories really reflect that kind of momentary phase of obsession. Teens are especially very prone to that, but I don’t think I’ve had a lot of musical experiences that are more narrative than that or at least not something I want to get into right now. It just gets too personal and I don’t need to cry on the phone.
When you mentioned not being into the modern stuff and being the type of person who looks back at music in an exploratory way, is that one of the reasons you feel distance from your contemporaries?
Yeah, a little bit. I grew up being a really quiet kid. No one talked to me and I didn’t talk to anybody. So I think I just naturally have this state of distance. Not to say it’s good or bad or anybody’s fault. You know, mental illness will do that to you.
How do you listen to your music? What sort of formats do you go for
It used to be iTunes and I would buy everything. Now I do a mix of Spotify and YouTube just because I’m trying to find new music and new interesting things to listen to. If you already have it, it’s not new or interesting anymore. YouTube and Spotify have these shuffle algorithms if you give them a chance. So sometimes I’ll find something. I’ve been really into Latin American garage rock lately. That’s one of the things I love, how other cultures interpret the American Cultural Lens. It’s a small, part-time interest I guess.
And you can go down rabbit holes.
Definitely. We also have a decent record collection that we use on special occasions. Or if I need to listen to something that’s in the collection, we already have it so I might as well use the object we have.
So you said you went through a Carpenters phase. That wasn’t just in the story you wrote, that actually happened to you?
Oh yeah, I got really into them a little bit because they sound really great when you have headphones on.
And for what it’s worth, Richard Carpenter was actually a decent producer, so it sounds really great. And Karen Carpenter is a really good singer. I think also it led directly out of the Sonic Youth thing because I know Kim Gorden was really obsessed with Karen Carpenter and I was like, oh, I’ll listen to them a little bit. Even though I thought they were super corny, actually she’s a really good singer. If you’re feeling sad, listen to this sad lady.
So you bonded with their music.
Yeah, exactly. I do feel like my tolerance has gone back down to a normal level, but I still really like and respect the Carpenters, despite everything.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.