Microinterview with Brad Neely

Ken Burns
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This issue features a “micro-interview” with Brad Neely. Neely has created many consistently hilarious animation miniseries, including I Am Baby Cakes, The Professor Brothers, and China, Illinois, which have appeared on Adult Swim and at SuperDeluxe.com. Neely is also known for Wizard People, Dear Readers, a spoken DVD commentary that reinterprets the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Currently at work on a novel involving the American Civil War, Neely used the micro-interview format as an opportunity to answer a handful of classroom-discussion questions taken from the website for Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War.

–Ken Burns


KEN BURNS: Consider the events leading, directly or indirectly, to the Civil War. Was slavery the main issue for the war’s beginning? What were other contributing factors?

BRAD NEELY: Oh, if only it were as I feel when I imagine. If it were that the entire evil South was a sort of Mordor with sweaty colonels and fanning pharaohs happily, knowingly practicing evil. If that Lincoln slid into power and right away pulled a Moses on everyone by immediately sending our dashing, moral, and nourished boys in blue to free the esteemed and respected people from their chains.

It’s a seductive perspective that sees the cause as moral epiphany. In my simpler heart this was our American Iliad with Grant and Lee as Achilles and Hector reversed. Before the war, kids talented in the violent arts were sent to our national Hogwarts: West Point. And later, when the war had bloomed into its pageant, those ex-bunk-mates would square off in practical battle on either side of the good-and-evil line. Yes, Jefferson “Starship” Davis led everyone astray with his high, twangy rhetoric. And, yes, he dressed up like a woman and rode around in trains. Oh, the personalities! Burnside blazed his trail in grooming fashions. Sherman wore his girdle of Mars. Bedford Forrest led his apocalyptic horseback death squad like a tranny Valkyrie, surprise-attacking churches and schools, his teeth like nails and his diction awful! Yes, all the real men camped together across the variegated American Eden. All the heroes flowed and were covered with thick ichor, baring their teeth at the sun, blasting holes in the enemy’s unrepentant bodies.


KEN BURNS: Why is the Civil War often considered to be the first modern war? Why were the casualties of the war so terribly high?

BRAD NEELY: This was the first American war that really got turned into art, and that is as modern as it gets. Sure, we had the Revolution, but the amount of fiction based on the Civil War outweighs it by tons, I’d guess. Maybe. This was our first seriously photographed war. Visual cues, however subjective, really help turning facts into story much easier. You know, everyone wonders if a book will survive being adapted into a film. And everyone snickers when a film is novelized. Do we worry as much when our past is turned into history? Or when history turns into biopic? How about this for an answer to the second question: Since 1492 a lot of blood from natives, Latinos, and blacks went into the land, right? Well, I like to imagine that the powerful whites of America wanted to even that out with blood from the poor whites just in case it was important on a magical or invisible level. You know, like ghost-seed or primal ownership rights. Plus, there was tons of unforgettable arborcide.


KEN BURNS: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are known as the two great generals of the Civil War. What traits did they exhibit? What personality traits make a good leader?

BRAD NEELY: A good leader must be excellent at murder. Their life force must be malodorous like a cheese that hurts while it seduces. Their power levels must always be fun to speculate upon. A good leader wears his uniform in a new way, hiding his fingers in the chest seam or never using the sleeves of a shoulder-laid jacket. Women must fear him as much as their inability to control their own flesh at the point of his sword. An average, shitty man must watch how a leader sits on the horse and be able to read everything about that leader yet know what they’ve just read might possibly be too deep to comprehend. God. Grant and Lee. So many laurels rest upon their dead old heads that they look like they have green Afros. Now, Lee was the good guy on the bad team and Grant was the shitty dude on the good team. But I am in love with Grant. I really, really love little Ulysses. Round and round he went like his namesake. Oh, that poor little asshole.


KEN BURNS: Do your students agree or disagree with Lincoln’s idea that in a constitutional democracy no section of the nation is free to break away—that to attempt to leave is rebellion?

BRAD NEELY: I don’t really have students, Ken, but I live in Texas and we really want to be freer down here. Somebody in the past stole this land fair and square and now we want to turn it into something much sweeter. There could be floating Alamo Palaces, something else, and something else. Have you even seen our governor, Ken? He is really, really handsome. He looks like a cowboy who owns a car lot full of spaceships. He looks like his handsomeness will know what to do in a fight or in a fuck. He looks a little blurry because all the women in parallel universes are crowding his face with their asses. I think a guy like that should be allowed to diss the Union. Sometimes the squares need to be shocked into understanding a newer cool. The South sure did. And you know, I think Lincoln did what he had to. When your grandma is a sick hoarder it’s a natural urge to just torch the house and let the rats burn with the trash. But: What about the dog? The kids? The sleepers? We gotta take the time to clean out the shit, preserve what we can, and get the home livable.


KEN BURNS: Why do we commemorate wars?

BRAD NEELY: So that we might celebrate! So that we might lift our hearts in song and story! With hecatombs! Hey, Ken, let’s hang out next Halloween and we can both dress up as Grant! It seems to me that in order for the past to survive at large it must be converted into an interesting story. There’s just no avoiding it. Our minds can do no better. It’s a horrifying thought to consider that life might be larger than our ability to consider it, and even more awful to think that our concepts of life over time are incomplete, fictionalized outlines suffering from the conflict of subjective interest. So, in the meantime, I’ll be happy with how we imagine it. Everyone in the 1970s said “groovy” and “far out.” Well, everyone in the 1860s talked like this:

“Are you testing my mettle, you microbe?”
“You haven’t any mettle to be tested. But if you did I would put it through a rigorous exam!”
“Forsooth, a squabble!”
“Fuzz his nuzz!”
“I shall fuzz thy nuzz, you coxcomb!”
“Tear his jacket!”
“Gads! Cram his soul far down!”
“Call off your man, you heathen!”

I can’t remember where or when or by whom, but I am going to go ahead and just say that Ulysses S. Grant once said, “There can be no pure history.”

I see no way to disagree.

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