LJ Talks to Scott Chantler | Graphic Novels Preview 2020

Scott Chantler, creator of the Eisner-nominated family memoir Two Generals and the epic frontier adventure Northwest Passage, offers the new biography Bix, about famed Jazz Age icon Bix Beiderbecke.

Scott ChantlerScott Chantler, creator of the Eisner-nominated family memoir Two Generals and the epic frontier adventure Northwest Passage, offers the new biography Bix (Gallery 13: S.&S., May), about famed Jazz Age icon Bix Beiderbecke, swinging onto shelves this spring. With an unconventional cartooning style, Chantler tells a story readers will at once hear, see, and believe.—Douglas Rednour

What first got you interested in the life and music of Bix Beiderbecke?
I’m a casual jazz fan, but I don’t think I was aware of Bix until the Ken Burns documentary series Jazz first aired 20 years ago. Bix was one of the characters with whom I could most relate. Then, about a decade ago, I began thinking about doing a project that would try to visualize musical rhythms in a meaningful way. Jazz seemed like a natural fit, and Bix was the first musician I thought of as a subject on which to hang that experiment. 

You tell the story of Bix’s life in a nearly wordless narrative, literally mirroring the jazz concept of improvisation with the panels. What inspired this approach?
I arrived at it organically, but sort of backward. I’ve always thought of my work in musical terms; the rhythm of a story is hugely important to me. 

For example, my graphic memoir Two Generals, which followed my grandfather through the first 16 months of his involvement in World War II, had a very precise, staccato, military rhythm, which served the story well. But while I was working on it, I began to speculate about what the opposite of that would be. Something very free—or that played that freedom against a more restrictive and oppressive visual “beat.” This led me to jazz, which led me to Bix.

You mention in the introduction that parts of Bix’s life are known as fact and other aspects as apocryphal tales. How did you choose among these disparate components of his complex story? 
One of the most important things I learned when writing Two Generals is that history is pretty subjective. Written records don’t always agree, and two people who were witnesses to the same event might have two very different recollections of it. And, of course, there are all sorts of agendas to navigate. You do your research and try your best to get it right, but there are a lot of judgment calls required. In the end, you have to know your subject matter well enough to be comfortable making those judgement calls.

With Bix, there was a lot of mythology to sort through, as well as the more factual stuff. There are pieces of Bix lore that I know drive the Beiderbecke family nuts, and I’ve included a couple of them here, for different reasons. One bit I framed as part of Bix’s deteriorating mental health—and it almost doesn’t matter if it happened or not. Bix was a notorious liar, and delusions were also part of his withdrawal symptoms. He’s anything but a reliable narrator. So that gave me some cover.

The classically refined cartooning style causes some of the Jazz Age details to fade into the background and the universality of Bix’s struggles to come to the forefront. Was this your intention?
Yes, basically. I wanted Bix’s creative struggle to feel universal, and also to play up what was modern about him. There’s so much about his story that would reverberate into the rock and roll era, and beyond. I wanted to create a convincing 1920s America, but not beat readers over the head with it. Because the point is this story could happen in any era, and has. And continues to happen. 

If you could recommend one song of Bix’s that everybody should hear, which would you choose? Did you ever consider including a song list to accompany the text?
At no point did I consider a song list. For the purposes of my book, it’s just not that important what Bix’s music actually sounded like; all you need to know is that he’s doing something different and creative. I wanted it to feel universal. This could be any artist, in any genre or art form.

That said, I hope people will check out some of Bix’s music, if they’re curious. 1920s jazz is old enough to sound pretty alien to our ear, especially for the uninitiated. The two songs most important in the story are “Singin’ the Blues” and “In a Mist,” so I’d suggest starting with those.­

This article was originally published as part of the Douglas Rednour's Graphic Novels Preview, "Picture This" (LJ 4/20)

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