Opus 125: NOUS R US (October 13, 2003). The Herb Block Foundation has created a $10,000 prize for editorial cartooning. The Foundation, endowed by the famed Washington Post cartoonist's $50-million estate, is charged with fostering editorial cartooning, and this prize is but one of its projects. Any editorial cartoonist published in U.S. newspapers or magazines or in the foreign edition of a U.S. publication is eligible. Judges for the competition are Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), David Remnick (editor, The New Yorker), and Lucy S. Caswell (curator, Cartoon Research Library, Ohio State University). ... Herb Gardner, a novelist and playwright who got his start in the art department of a New York newspaper and, before turning to prose, produced a weekly comic strip called The Nebbishes, died September 25, 2003; among his plays-"A Thousand Clowns," "I'm Not Rappaport," and "Conversations with My Father" as well as the surreal cult film, "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying All Those Terrible Things About Me?" ... Five big American confectionary producers have formed a new, joint venture to sell candy based on Disney characters. Jiminy Cricket gummies?
Marvel settled with Joe Simon, who was contesting the ownership of the character he created with Jack Kirby, Captain America; terms are undisclosed, but Marvel gets all rights to the character henceforth. And that will permit exploitation of the "deep value that this property brings to the Marvel Universe." Apparently, all such exploitation was in limbo pending the resolution of Simon's suit. So now we can expect a big blockbuster movie about Captain America, surely. ... Press releases last summer about Marvel's decision, first, to make Princess Di a comic book character (a mutant, to be exact), and then, soon thereafter, to abandon the plan, portray the honchos at the House of Ideas as being somewhat surprised by the public outrage their proposed project aroused. The cynicism of writer Peter Milligan was on rampant display, and while that may have been a factor in cancelling the plan, it was more likely the very idea that provoked the outcry. You'd think that editorial moguls who picked Princess Di because of her popularity wouldn't be so shocked to discover that she was too popular to be transmorgrified into four-color fame. Geez: where were these guys when she died? Not that it matters: clearly, the plan was to generate buzz, just like outing the Rawhide Kid. Intoxicated with their recent successes (or is it excesses?), these guys will stop at nothing.
The PR department at DC tells us, as of October 1, that Neil Gaiman's graphic novel (actually, a collection of short stories), The Sandman: Endless Nights, "debuted" at Number 20 on the New York Times Best Sellers List for hardcover fiction. Although it may be, as they say, "the first time ever an American comic book pubisher has earned a spot on the prestigious list," it's puzzling how the book could "debute" on a best seller list. "Debut" usually indicates a starting point; a best seller list implies some sort of on-going tally, an accumulating record of sales. The assumption is that a book on a best seller list must spend some time in the market place, thereby "earning" a place on the list by reason of the number of books sold. The "debut" here seems to be DC's arrival on the list, not Gaiman's novel's starting point on the bookshelves of the nation's bookstores. It may, as I say, be the first time a comic book publisher appears on the New York Times list, but Garfield books were there long ago: in 1982, seven of them were on the list at the same time. Unprecedented-except for Garfield, who, the year before, had three of his titles on the list.
Marc Weidenbaum, writing at www.readcomicsinpublic.net speaks somewhat disparagingly of Endless Nights, saying: "The stories are so deeply intertwined in the Sandman mythology, it's unlikely the book will hold much appeal to readers new to Gaiman's fantasy-world terrain. ... [It] is much less satisfying as a work of fiction than it is an art object: not only lavishly illustrated but also packaged and designed. What's disappointing about the graphic novel is how little it seems to have benefited from Gaiman's experience as a [prose] novelist." The itch that Weidenbaum is scratching, however, is not Gaiman's performance in Endless Nights: it is, rather, the industry practice of packaging the issues of a previously published limited series comic book between hardcovers and selling the result as a "graphic novel," implying that the product is a unified whole when it was actually produced as installments of a serialized tale. This practice, he says, was common in the 19th century, an assertion he deploys to suggest just how backward today's graphic novel publishing is. While it's true, as he says, that much of Charles Dickens' oeuvre appeared initially in serialized form in successive issues of magazines, it's not true, as he implies, that all novels were at first published in serial form rather than in stand-alone book form. Jane Austen's books, for instance-which preceded Dickens' novels-came out as books, not serial chapters; ditto Walter Scott's tomes, not to mention Daniel Defoe's. Despite Weidenbaum's apparent ignorance of the history of the [prose] novel, his point is well-taken: many of the so-called "graphic novels" on the stands these days are but re-packaged issues of comic books. Initially, playing this fast and loose with the term "graphic novel" may not have mattered much, but as more and more authors produce their graphic novels as single publications rather than as serial magazine issues, re-packaging the latter under the heading "graphic novel" does a disservice to the emerging genre. Given the advent of such works as Blankets and The Popgun War, the term "graphic novel" should be reserved exclusively for works created as "long form" comics rather than works conceived as installments in a serial publication. Admittedly, some of these serialized efforts were doubtless imagined as stand-alone long-form visual-verbal narratives but achieved publication in serial form because that was the most economical way to reach the newsstands or bookstalls. But the inaugural issues of, say, Captain America from the early 1940s should not be re-issued between hardcovers as a "graphic novel." DC's archival series make no such claims, and that's the way it ought to be. By the same token, calling the reprint volumes of Lynn Johnston's celebrated comic strip, For Better or For Worse, "graphic novels" perpetuates the deception. Those who decide not to buy Blankets because they didn't like reading reprinted newspaper comic strips are the victims of this ill-conceived marketing ploy-they and the cartoonists who are producing genuine long-form comics that rate the "graphic novel" designation.
Speaking of glitzy packaging, the covers of comic books have reached new heights of artistic excellence. Some are fully painted extravaganzas; others are just as elaborate, using collage techniques and the stylistic mannerisms of commercial art. In a day when all paperback novels seem content with typography for their covers, the comic book has become the refuge of the commercial illustrator. We're back in the 1940s and 1950s, tovarich-in those dear, dead days when exotic cover artwork sold the books. I have a stunning example of the maneuver: a paperback copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Gina Lollobrigida and her plunging neckline prominent on the cover. (She played Esmeralda, the dancing gypsy girl, in the Allied Artists movie with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo, and this paperback publication was intended to capitalize upon the motion picture's playing in the movie houses coast-to-coast.)
Meanwhile, graphic novels as a genre continue to get ink in national magazines. In The Week for September 5, Ballantine's repackaging of numerous issues and stories from Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde, and Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neill's first run at the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all get enthusiastic plugs. Two of these have motion-picture tie-ins, which brings me to another peeve: we seem to think that when a comic book or a comic book character is transformed into a motion picture version, it signals a cultural advance for the comics medium. Movies are a superior artform? Not hardly. But they do make more money (or need more money to be made), and it is the financial status that is being elevated when comic books get made into movies. Remember the old justification for buying comic books not too many years ago: they're investments. They'll be worth Big Money someday. In a capitalist society, money is culture, not artistic enterprise.
But director Quentin Tarantino, lately of the action-thriller Kill Bill: Volume One, vows he'll not make a movie based upon a comic book because the genre's zealous fans can't be pleased, and they respond to the movie by tearing it to shreds for not adequately representing their heroes.
The latest flap over Doonesbury occurred over the Sunday strip for September 7 in which the word "masturbation" appears. Cartoonist Trudeau was fully aware of the taboo that Stone Soup's Jan Eliot evoked a few years back when she entitled the first anthology of her strip, Don't Say Boobs on Sunday. Sunday comics pose two inconveniences to cartoonists. First, because they are usually not printed by the client newspapers but at distant printing plants whose business is printing and distributing the color sections, the client newspapers have no way of "editing" the Sunday comics. They can delete offensive strips from the daily line-ups with ease; but not the Sunday funnies. So cartoonists must be extra careful not to include any controversial material in their Sunday releases. The second inconvenience is that the Sunday comics are traditionally reading matter for children. Kids are not as attracted to the daily comics as they are to the gaily colored Sunday funnies. So the Sunday strips must be created with juvenile readership in mind. Aware of this minefield before him, Trudeau supplied an alternative Sunday strip from the Doonesbury archives. And several papers took advantage of the offer, saying they didn't want to face readers who might have to explain the meaning of "masturbation" to their children before they, the parents, were actually ready to confront the issue. In the questionable strip, Rev. Sloan reads aloud to Boopsie a newspaper article reporting an actual research finding that "regular masturbation prevents prostate cancer." Boopsie protests, saying that talk about sex makes her uncomfortable. "You're dating yourself," Sloan says. To which Zonker, overhearing the exchange, says, "Hey, did you hear self-dating prevents cancer." Trudeau pointed out that the strip was not actually "about" masturbation or prostate cancer studies "but about the shifting nature of taboos and the inability of two adults to have a certain kind of serious conversation." To a kid wanting to know what "masturbation" means, Trudeau's point is doubtless obscure as well as immaterial. But newspaper editors who chose to run the alternative strip he provided are much too cautious. Said Trudeau: "It's a South Park world now, and younger readers are unlikely to be shocked or confused by anything they find in Doonesbury." He's probably right. David Astor at Editor & Publisher conducted an informal survey on the matter via E&P Online. In the papers that chose to run the masturbation strip, how many readers got offended? "Very few," Astor reported. All experienced some protest, but none reported anything like an overwelming outcry.
REPRINT REVIEWS. Luann: Curves Ahead (128 8.5x9-inch pages in paperback; Andrews McMeel, $10.95) is the first Andrews McMeel collection of Greg Evans' comic strip, Luann, and it's about time. Appearing in about 400 newspapers worldwide, Luann is one of the most authentic representations of the American teenage girl around, and her adventures in this book are a fair representation of Evans' ability to capture the winsome bittersweet essence of adolescent life. Nominated five times for "cartoonist of the year" by his colleagues in the National Cartoonists Society, Evans submitted his first cartoon for sale in 1958; his target was Playboy, and he was eleven years old. It didn't sell, but ever since then, despite various detours, Evans steered towards being a full-time cartoonist, navigating through some previously uncharted waters on the way. Growing up in Burbank, he attended California State University at Northridge, majoring in art education, and after graduating in 1970, he taught art. In 1972, Evans married and went with his teacher wife to Australia as part of a teacher-recruitment program; there, he taught for two more years, and he concocted a comic strip called Just Us, which, because "there are only about two and a half newspapers in Australia," was not too successful. In 1974, he quit teaching and landed in Colorado Springs, where he operated a tv camera in a local station, eventually becoming a promotion manager. In 1979, he revived Just Us and peddled it to a local paper. No sale but a good idea from the editor, who suggested building a strip around one of the characters, a cranky teacher named Fogarty, and selling the strip to school newspapers. Evans took the advice and for the next seven years, sold Fogarty and a second strip, Stu Dance, to about eight hundred schools around the country by mail. He also became a performer. At the tv station, he got involved with its radio-controlled robot, and in 1980, he bought his own robot, quit television, moved to Southern California, and began performing with the robot in malls, trade shows, and fairs. All this time, Evans had been freelancing magazine cartoons and sending comic strip ideas to syndicates with no success. And then, inspiration struck.
"I'd been watching my four-year-old daughter primping with play make-up and acting oh-so-feminine," Evans said, "and I thought that a strip about a very contemporary little girl was just what the comic page needed. As I worked on the idea, however, I found that age four was too limiting, so I advanced her to age thirteen. Ah, adolescence! Who doesn't recall their teenage years with a mixture of joy, pain and acute embarrassment? What a rich subject for comedy and pathos! I gave my main character a 'lovable loser' quality and created a colorful cast of friends and adversaries. Thus, Luann ws born."
Beginning March 17, 1985, the strip, over the years, went beyond comedy and pathos as Evans confronted his title character with typical teenage problems (Luann's first menstrual period, for instance, but also female rivalries, sibling angst, and so on), treating the concerns both sensibly and sensitively. In the collection at hand, we have mostly comedy. Luann gets a summer job, thinking that her father will get her a car so she can drive herself to work and back; but he happily undertakes to be her chauffeur. The job, at the neighborhood swimming pool, has its own rewards-namely, a hunky supervisor named Stuart who Luann falls for. She also rescues her chief rival, the glamor teen Tiffany, who almost drowns (perhaps trying to attract Stuart's attention). And she takes the test for a driver's license three times before passing. In the meantime, there are numerous episodes involving Luann's unrequited love for the handsome Aaron Hill, who confesses that he's fallen in love with a girl named Claudia while on summer vacation in Dallas. The reprinted strips (from January 2000 to February 2001, each one dated for the convenience of history addicts) introduce us to the entire cast of the strip-Luann's parents, her brother Brad, her best friend Bernice, the hip Crystal, African-American Delta, cloddish would-be boyfriend Gunther, the class clown Knute, and the ethnic and handsome Miguel-all rendered in Evans' crisp, clear-line style, cheerfully embellished with attractive gray tones and solid blacks. Evans once told me he likes the writing part of cartooning better than the drawing part and thinks his drawings aren't all that much, but I disagree: his pictures of Luann and her friends (particularly the "hot" Tiffany) are clean and graceful renditions, visual treats on a comics page too often cluttered with stylistic failures.
Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) supplies the book's introduction, exclaiming: "I was Luann! How does Greg Evans capture so evenly the whole picture? With humor, insight and wonderful illustrations, he has produced a delightful snapshot of teenage life." But Evans' achievement is an even greater marvel: he has captured a feminine personality with great skill and understanding, it seems to me (an admitted male). And, surprisingly, he is not alone among contemporary cartoonists to accomplish this feat. Brooke McEldowney in 9 Chickweed Lane turns in a similarly masterful performance with a strip focusing on a teenage girl, her single mother, and her grandmother-all in the same household at the same time. Makes you wonder. Maybe the female of the species isn't so difficult to comprehend as the males think she is. Maybe this whole "Men from Mars, Women from Venus" thing is merely a ruse, an advertising ploy by the publishers of those "little" poetry magazines. Maybe men and women are more alike than they are different.
Other recent arrivals from Andrews McMeel (all 128 8.5x9-inch paperbacks at $10.95 each) include the seventh Zits "sketchbook," Road Trip!, another celebration of teenage America, this one written by Jerry Scott and drawn by Jim Borgman. At its introduction in July 1997, Zits increased in circulation faster than almost any other new comic strip, reaching 500 newspapers in less than a year. It's now in over 1,100 papers, a status enjoyed by only about two dozen comic strips. Scott's gags are pure slices of teenage life, and Borgman's visuals are masterful celebrations of the ways the comic strip format can be manipulated for laughs. To emphasize their hero's adolescent growth, for instance, they show his legs stretching through four panels, the entire width of the strip. "Jeremy," says his mother, "your shoes are in the middle of the hall." To which he responds: "So are my feet." And the picture persuade us that he speaks the truth. The main event herein, however, is that Jeremy and his Hispanic buddy, Hector, manage to get their Volkswagen van, a relic of the sixties, running, despite their towering ignorance of the fundamentals. "Five minutes ago," says Jeremy to Hector, "you thought a clutch was a small purse." And Pierce, Jeremy's friend with more metal hanging from his ears, nose and forehead than a Christmas tree has ornaments, gets a girlfriend, D'ijon, an African-American who enjoys watching "gory stuff" like Pierce getting his tongue double-pierced. They surmount the inter-racial issue with the sort of aplomb that parks prejudice 'way off in the boondocks where it belongs. "Are you sure you're okay with 'us,'" she asks him. "I'm African-American and you're a ... well ... y'know...." Pierce: "Perforated American?" "Exactly," she says. "I mean, what would our kids look like?"
And on the eve of the publication of the Whole, Entire Complete Far Side collection (at $135 for the lot, a two-volume, slip-cased 1,245-page production due out later this month), we have another collection of the kindred Close to Home panel cartoon by John McPherson, Ferociously Close to Home. Nearly 600 newspapers carry the feature, which has been syndicated since 1992, perpetuating the weirdness quotient that is McPherson's forte. Populated by a curiously lumpish brand of humanoid, these cartoons display an astonishingly strange inventiveness. Here's Gina, who decides a branding iron will be an ideal memory aid for her husband, who can't remember their anniversary. Or Lanny, whose treadmill session is interrupted when he inadvertently sets off the health club's offensive odor alarm. This is approximately the 15th Close to Home anthology.
The current collection of Scott Adams' Dilbert comic strip, Words You Don't Want to Hear During Your Annual Performance Review, is prefaced with words of wisdom from Adams: "I recommend working for a timid boss who likes to avoid confrontation. You can test whether your boss fits that description by bringing a huge bag of fertilizer to work and shoving his head into it, then sewing it to his shirt collar and laughing as he goes running around like a man with a bag-o-fertilizer head. After that, if he says something about how humor helps morale and how you're like a member of the family, then you have a timid boss." Highlights of this batch (it sez here) include Dilbert's accidental transformation into a sheep, the cashk-sucking "consultick" episode, and visits from an anti-depressant popping, not-so-grim reaper-all rendered in Adams' memorable drawing style (which he describes as "not too refined").
FUNNYBOOK FANFARE. Another foray into the superhero mental state is about to debut in a comic book entitled Dork Tower by John Kovalic. The comic book focuses on the dubious adventures of a bunch of gamers, but in No. 25, "Dr. Blink, Superhero Shrink" appears in a 4-page story, written by Kovalic and drawn in a clean, crisp manner by Christopher Jones, who expertly adapts the so-called "animated Batman style" to his needs.
Blink is treating a superhero named Captain Omnipotent, who, like Superman, was sent to Earth while a baby by his parents because their planet was exploding. He was adopted and raised by a farm couple, and, as he matured, he found that, due to the slighter gravity on Earth, he could perform superhuman feats. And so he became Captain Omnipotent to battle Evil in all its manifestations.
Blink says Captain Omnipotent is suffering from "severe abandonment anxiety and some self-esteem questions." His crusade against Evil is actually his effort to win approval to replace that which he never received as a child from his birth parents.
"You're over-compensating as an adult-driven to heroism by a deep-seated search for affirmation," says Blink. "Your mighty deeds stem from your subconscious searching for the validation you could never receive from your birth planet" matched by "an inner struggle with the guilt of being the only survivor of a doomed race."
Cured by this psychic revelation, Captain Omnipotent no longer feels compelled to do mighty deeds, and on the last page of the story, he strolls nonchalantly down the city street, ignoring crimes and plights of all sorts that are happening on all sides. He will save no one no more.
So much for how realism can affect superheroics.
Future issues will delve further, no doubt, into the implications of this outcome. And we'll meet other spandex-clad minions-among them, "The Remainders, not the earth's greatest super-team ... in fact, they've been ranked eighth on the list in a recent 'best of' poll"; and Nocturne, a masked vigilante by night and a millionaire playboy by day (a classic "multiple personality disorder").
Kovalic has chosen to inspect the other side of the coin that Lee and Ditko glimpsed in Spider-Man, who learns, early on, that "with great power comes great responsibility." This is a moral vision, not a psychological one. Clearly, too much psychological realism in superhero comics seems destined to destroy the heroics in a chorus of raucous laughter. But we'll be the happy beneficiaries.
Although Blink at present is merely a backup feature in Dork Tower, Kovalic is toying with a couple issues of Dr. Blink Comics in the future.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY. The main problem with the Patriot Act and the all the subsequent Homeland Security roll-out is that we haven't, yet, accepted the locus of the battlefield. It's the front stoop, but another stupe, George WMD Bush, is so anxious to avoid making waves among the voters of 2004 that he and his minions are pretending that we can fight the War on Terrorism mostly in Afghanistan or Iraq and in American airports and libraries. What's more, we don't need to make any of the sacrifices a citizenry usually makes in wartime (except to support larger and larger tax cuts for the wealthy, for which we, the un-wealthy, wind up paying). As long as we're content to leave the fighting to the military and the law enforcement agencies, John Ashcroft will persist in making it easier and easier for those troops to fight. And that means abridging the freedoms that we are supposedly fighting to preserve. After September 11, it ought to be obvious that the battlefield is every main street and crossroad in the U.S. By the same token, the soldiers are you and me and all the rest of our neighbors. Once we have fully accepted that status, Ashcroft's designs on our freedoms will be thoroughly frustrated. In this War on Terrorism, the civilian population is be on the front lines and must be ready to sacrifice our lives to protect our freedoms instead of demanding that our freedoms be sacrificed to protect our lives. Now that's what a patriotic act is. Alas, the Bush League apparently believes it can create patriots by fiat and legislative mumbo jumbo instead of insisting upon actions and genuine attitudes that prove patriotism.
GADDING ABOUT. I'll be in Wichita, Kansas, on November 6, delivering an illustrated talk, "How Not to Read Comics," in connection with an exhibit of original Peanuts artwork, "Speak Softly and Carry a Beagle," at the Wichita Art Museum. The presentation will be at 7 p.m. in the Howard E. Wooden Lecture Hall.
HARVEY PEKAR, THE MOVIE. Autobiography, if it is written by a professional writer or any craftsman in the other arts, eventually gets around to pondering about the relationship of the artist to his work and of the work to the reality in which it is embedded. These relationships are the central ones in an artist's life; they are his perpetual preoccupation. It is apt, then, that they emerge as central in an artist's autobiography. The question that engagement with this preoccupation always prompts in me is: why should I care about an artist's obsessions? If I'm an ordinary citizen of the world, why should I be interested in the psychic or metaphysical flailings of the "artistic" sensibility, bent, in perpetuity, upon self-examination? If I'm not artistic, what does it matter to me? What can such mental adventures tell me that will be of any emotional value to me? The recent motion picture, allegedly a celluloid version of Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book series, American Splendor, raises all those questions again. And supplies a kind of answer, too.
Pekar had grown up in Cleveland and was, by his own admission, a man with no marketable skills. Between graduation from high school in 1957 and 1966, he held an array of jobs that required no talent or training: janitor, sales clerk in a record store, laborer, shipping clerk, microfilmer, photocopier, and elevator operator. In 1958, he had attended Western Reserve University briefly. He also flunked out of the Navy's basic training. He got married to his first wife in 1960, but that didn't work out either. Ditto his second wife. In 1966, he found job security in the civil service, that occupational niche designed for with job security uppermost in mind: he took a position as a file clerk in a veteran's administration hospital. It was as menial as any of his other occupations, but it was steady employment and it left him free to write in his spare time.
An avid jazz buff and collector of records from the 1920s, Pekar was an articulate critic and contributed occasionally to Downbeat and other jazz magazines. He was also a passionate reader with a particular fondness for naturalist and realist novelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among his favorite authors: George Eliot, George Gissing, Balzac, Flaubert, Chekov, Nathaniel West, George Ade, James Farrell, and the children's book author Eleanor Estes. In 1962, Pekar had met cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was working at American Greeting Cards at the time and shared Pekar's affection for collecting records from bygone decades. Crumb and his chum Marty Pahls reacquainted Pekar with comic books by showing him the work of Will Eisner, Jack Cole, Walt Kelly, and E. C. Segar. Pekar also saw some of Crumb's sketchbooks, including The Big Yum Yum Book, a long narrative done painstakingly in color as a gift for a girl Crumb admired at American Greeting Cards. (That girl never saw it; Crumb eventually gave the book to his first wife, Dana.) Pekar saw possibilities in the medium, but it wasn't until after Crumb had joined the underground in San Francisco and began producing underground comix all over the map in the late sixties and early seventies that Pekar started thinking about doing realistic stories in the comic book format. In 1972, Crumb visited him in Cleveland, and shortly after that, Pekar started writing comic book stories, and he wrote them, unabashedly, for adult readers. He self-published the first collection of his stories in 1976, giving it the title American Splendor.
We elected Jimmy Carter in 1976, and we also celebrated the bicentennial of the nation. That celebration was one of the prompts that inspired Pekar to give his comic book its scoffing, ironic title. The other reason lay in his apparently life-long scorn for superhero comics with their bugling titles- All American Comics, Star Spangled Comics. "That's where I got the 'American,' Pekar told Richard von Busack at Metro: Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper. "As for the word 'splendor,' when I heard of the movie 'Splendor in the Grass,' the title amused me. Most people would not consider my life splendid." In almost a score of issues of American Splendor over the next twenty years, Pekar demonstrated, with a perverse dedication born of a lurking resentment and a ferocious artistic aspiration coupled to rampaging self-doubt, just how un-splendid his life was.
Inspired, doubtless, by the autobiographical content of some of Crumb's work and of the early efforts of another underground cartoonist, Justin Green (whom Crumb dubs "the first, absolutely the first ever cartoonist to draw highly personal autobiographical comics"), Pekar set out to produce a series of autobiographic comics. Said he: "I thought they'd be good for me because they allowed me to say what I wanted to say-to comment about life as directly as possible. ... Most comic books are vehicles for escapism, which I think is unfortunate. What was going to be different [about mine] was the extent to which I'd emphasize mundane life experiences. I wanted to write literature that pushes people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them. I knew I always ran across very amusing things that happened at work and off the job. All this funny stuff, funnier than the stuff you hear standup comics do, yeah."
But it wasn't all for laughs. Pekar continued: "People that don't make a lot of money still have real serious problems that call for heroism and sacrifice to solve. ... So I wanted to show [that] it wasn't just matinee-idol kinds of guys who are heroes. And everybody's life could be an interesting life. I wanted to point that out."
Having no discernable skill as an illustrator, Pekar wrote his stories in comic book page format using stick figures and speech balloons, and then commissioned artists to illustrate them. He had a feel for the medium: he'd worked as a street corner comedian, and doing stand-up comedy was good training. Said he: "Using panels, you can time stories the way a good oral storyteller would, sometimes using panels without dialogue for punctuation." Crumb was one of the artists in the first several issues. (Reportedly, he was a reluctant collaborator, ultimately agreeing to do the work for payment in old records that he wanted from Pekar's collection.) Among the other artists Pekar most frequently employed were the team of Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Kevin Brown, and Frank Stack.
Pekar once said that he thought of himself as a sort of recording machine: "I look at myself sometimes when I do these shorter pieces like a photographer walking down the street who runs into things; he sees things and he shoots them." But he was scarcely a dispassionate observer. He was a committed working class social critic and a bundle of quirks and obsessions. He got "messed up" if his daily routine was disturbed. He loved his apartment, crammed with books and records and videotapes. Pahls noted his "frenetic style ... the distilled energy, waving arms, beads of sweat, flashing eyes." And Crumb remarked about "this wild, intense Jewish guy into bebop music ... this real seething character." Just the sort of personage who could not be simply a recording machine: Pekar was an active and often eccentric participant in the stories he retailed.
In telling his stories, Pekar aimed for accuracy and plausibility as well as realism, and since he was a character in most of the stories, his own credo required that he be as truthful about himself as possible. Although he admitted that if something was too embarrassing or painful he simply didn't write about it, he regularly revealed himself, warts and all, to his readers. In "Holding On" (American Splendor #17, July 1993), he upsets a fellow worker by taking shortcuts in processing the records she gives him. When she insists that he do it her way, he gives in but makes such a fuss that she offers to do it herself. "Oh, no you ain't," he says, "-you ain't takin' no work from me!"
In the same issue's "Cat Scan," Pekar bores a friend by telling him about his hopes for an article that he submitted to a West Coast magazine and his fear that the magazine isn't going to publish it despite the editor's having told him she would. Later in the day, he gets a report on a cat scan that shows he is "clean" of the cancer he'd had (about which, more anon), and so that evening, feeling good, he phones the editor of the magazine to find out about the status of his article. Fearful of upsetting the editor, though, he decides to speak only to her assistant. But the assistant, juggling several phone calls, responds hurriedly by saying that he'll tell the editor that Pekar called and then hangs up. Pekar is plunged into despair: reporting his phone call to the editor will make him appear to be a pest and might jeopardize future sales to the magazine. His wife is upset by his behavior: "You come home feeling good about your cat scan results and two hours later you're moping again. It makes me feel that I can never make you happy, that your obsessions will always dominate you and make you miserable. And when you're depressed, you make me depressed." Pekar ponders this for a single, silent panel, then puts his arms around her and says, "Aww, honey, please don't take it that way." End of story.
Pekar isn't in every story. Sometimes he tells stories he's heard others relate. And sometimes he's just an observer. In a one-page story, "Distancing," he watches a stout woman sweating and puffing down the hallway; then another woman comes along and asks, "How far aheada me is she?" Pekar says, "Oh, pretty far--maybe twenty-five yards." "Good," says the other woman, "I don't wanna ride on the same elevator with her."
Pekar's most ambitious undertaking in eighteen years of American Splendor is the 252-page graphic novel Our Cancer Year written by Pekar and his third wife, Joyce Brabner, and illustrated by Frank Stack. The book records the chief events of Pekar's bout with cancer in 1990. The trauma of this encounter is complicated by Brabner's long-distance involvement with a number of young people she has met at an international youth peace conference, by the couple's moving out of an apartment in which Pekar has been living for 19 years, by a painful attack of shingles that Pekar contracts in the midst of his debilitating chemotherapy, and by Pekar himself, a man for whom any change is anathema and every undertaking a potential disaster that he is sure to bring to fruition by prophesying it relentlessly. A powerful and often moving narrative, the book reveals in the everyday details of the ordeal the couple's steadfast and sustaining love for each other in the face of this life-threatening calamity. As the details of Pekar's medical dilemma multiply, his wife's pragmatic heroism takes center stage. But she shares the spotlight with her husband. Pekar does not suffer his illness stoically; and as usual, he has the courage as well as the honesty to reveal himself as he often is, obsessed by petty preoccupations. Yet he is as often concerned with the burden he has created for his wife.
The drama of the story is not an accidental thing. The subject-cancer, its threat and its treatment-is bound to foster drama of a sort. But the drama of this tale has been deliberately crafted by its authors, who selected and arranged the order of the events depicted in ways that will produce emotional impact. Again and again, they make the details of everyday life serve their purposes. Pekar loses his wedding ring because it slips off his finger, grown thin during the customary weight loss accompanying treatment. Brabner, although disturbed by the lost ring, hides her dismay from Pekar, who feels bad enough as it is. Later, she and a friend find the ring and, as a joke, return it to Pekar in his mashed potatoes at dinner that evening. But neither husband nor wife is persuaded by the prank to treat the matter lightly: the ring is an emblem of their union, and they embrace at its recovery.
In illustrating the story-a prodigious undertaking-Stack varied his treatment, often from panel to panel, seeking to reflect the moods of the moments he pictures. Sometimes he drew in stark outline; sometimes, in elaborate cross-hatching. Sometimes he drenched panels in black; sometimes, he flooded them with light by leaving out all detail and hachuring. His gestural drawings have a blunt nearly crude spontaneity-a seedy sort of reality like that of the world he is depicting. But he also captures tender moments with a deft hand, clearly at home in this moving story of frustration and survival and the transcendence of the human spirit.
In the pages of two decades of American Splendor, Pekar ranted about the disorders of society he saw around him, and he recorded the ordinary events of ordinary life that, given the right moment, became revelations of cosmic order or of human irrationality or compassion, epiphanies and kvetches about the human condition. The enduring constant was Pekar's prickly personality and a crusading crankiness that quickly established him as what Busack calls "a curmudgeon/sage." All of this emerges in full feather in the movie, much to the credit of its makers, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
Although the movie is based upon the comic books and the comic books are largely autobiographical, the movie is of a different order of autobiography. The comic books are vignettes of Pekar's life as a hipster grouch; the movie is a chronological account, weaving those vignettes into the whole tapestry of Pekar's biography. The movie is more documentary and less didactic than the comic books. Moreover, oddly, the movie is both biography and autobiography. Because Pekar appears in it as himself and supplies a voice-over running commentary, we see him from the autobiographical inside as well as from the biographical outside when he is being played by actor Paul Giamatti. Brabner and Pekar's nerdy co-worker at the hospital, Toby Radloff, also appear as themselves and as enacted by Hope Davis ("on the acrid side of wistful," in Busack's deft turn of phrase) and Judah Friedlander. In one scene, we see both the actors and the people they are playing in the same frame, the actors in the background getting themselves ready for the next shot. We see both the reality and the fiction, the real people and their make-believe selves as they are "making that fictional movie," as Busack notes: "In this way, the directors have tackled the thorny problem of making a downbeat life upbeat, of finding the funny side in Pekar's predicaments."
The movie focuses on Pekar's career as a comic book writer and on his courtship of Brabner and their subsequent marriage. We also see him at work in the hospital, and we witness the ordeal of his bout with cancer. A key moment occurs during the latter sequence when, picking up dialogue from the comic book, Pekar, wracked by chemotherapy, asks his wife: "Am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book? Or am I just a character in that book?" The theme of identity echoes throughout in the multiple Harvey Pekars-the actual Harvey, the enacted Harvey, and the "other Harveys": in one of the movie's most surreal moments, Pekar strolls on-screen and, against a hand-drawn comic-book background, muses about his "unusual name" and how strange it was when he discovered several other Harvey Pekars listed in the Cleveland phone book. As he talks, a shadowy figure crosses the scene in the middle distance behind Pekar.
The identity theme is an aspect of the over-arching reality vs. illusion question, a quandary that is reflected in the movie's melding of drawings and live-action, animation and still photography, as if even the movie cannot make up its mind about which is which. The questions cascade over the work. Which of these on-screen images are of real people and things and which are wholly imaginary? Where does reality end and illusion begin? Which is real and which is art? Is the artist's art real? The artist's preoccupation is never far from the surface: Is Harvey Pekar just a character in a comic book (or a movie), or is Harvey Pekar a real person about whom a comic book (and a movie) has been made? Gnawing at the issue, the question at last becomes relevant to us all: Is Harvey Pekar his own creation? Are we all? Can we be? Do we want to be?
Goethe hangs over the proceedings, too: the eternal woman elevates us all and keeps us striving. Pekar, contemplating chemotherapy, is about to give up and die when Brabner gives him a reason to live: make a comic book telling of the cancer ordeal, she tells him, invoking once more the movie's theme: create yourself again. Much of this part of the story is related through Stack's illustrations from Our Cancer Year, but the artist who draws the book on the screen is a composite character, called "Fred." His daughter, Danielle, whom Pekar and Brabner eventually adopt, is not Stack's daughter but the daughter of another artist, whose life is so screwed up he can't handle having a daughter.
The movie performs a sleight peculiar to storytelling. By the mundane means of imposing a chronology, the movie creates a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And narrative, in turn, is a form that deploys suspense: we want to know how it turns out, and so we keep turning the pages-or sitting in our seats, watching events unreel on the screen before us. In biographical narrative, life becomes art. It becomes art because it gets arranged in seeming "order," and the order of it yields, in readers and observers, an effect. The movie has a conclusion: Harvey Pekar on the screen survives his cancer ordeal. Perhaps more important, he survives the challenge to his artistic integrity represented by his guest appearances on the David Letterman tv show. Here, at last, was the fame towards which, despite disavowals to the contrary, Pekar had always been tending. Fame and fortune. But would cashing in be the same as selling out? In the movie, Pekar rejects his celebrity status on tv, launching into a tirade against Letterman's network during one of his guest shots. Disappearing off the nation's tv screens, Pekar subsides into obscurity once more, but with integrity intact.
In real life, Pekar explained his motives to Busack: "What really got me to go after Letterman was that I was tired of doing the same shtick that he wanted me to do-kind of a parody of a Cleveland working man. I was tired of doing that, and it wasn't like I was getting rewarded by sales of my books. And I was paid relatively little to be on that show. So I thought, I'm not going to get into this rut. I started casting about for things that I could do that I might be able to do successfully. I noticed, reading the weekly news mags, that General Electric had bought NBC [Letterman's network at the time]. This struck me as being a real serious conflict of interest. GE had been busted so many times for antitrust violations. They had this 30-year history of what I would call really anti-social activities. I thought, gosh, Letterman's always making fun of their light bulbs and stuff like that. I don't know if his interest goes an deeper than that. Let's find out, y'know? So I sort of steeped myself in the kind of stews GE was in at the time. They were in really some serious trouble. They were being sued for over a billion dollars by three cities in Ohio that had bought a nuclear power plant for them to produce energy. Later they found out that, according to GE's own studies by their own engineers, these generators were defective. I thought, I don't care, what the hell, if this guy tries to stop me, we'll see what happens."
Letterman wasn't willing to go along with Pekar on this crusade. Said he: "You don't walk into someone's house and insult them, sneeze on their hors d'oeuvres."
Pekar's tv career was over. But he was still alive and well and, in the movie, retired from the hospital and lurking the snow-covered streets of Cleveland on the look-out for the epiphanies and oddities of human nature that make us human.
In real life, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Braber acquired Danielle (now 15 years old) in 1998 and Pekar retired from the VA hospital in October 2001. In No. 4 of the magazine Comic Art, Pekar writes about his motion picture adventures. He's now living on a pension and a limited-duration annuity, and his chief concern seems to be money-how he can acquire enough to support himself and his wife and Danielle, who he thinks he'd like to help put through college. The "American Splendor" movie, he hopes, will earn him enough money, "directly or indirectly," to achieve these goals. He runs through a list of personages who had, at one time or another, approached him about transforming his comic book into a motion picture or a television series. But he says he's happy with the present product and feels, in that perverse Pekar fashion, that he was lucky none of the other attempts worked out. Filming began the month after he retired, and he went down to the set often-not to direct the movie or to interfere in any way, he says, but to enjoy the novelty of the experience and "to score free meals."
"Later Bob and Shari complimented me on not bothering them," Pekar says. "I guess a lot of authors really get nervous about the way films based on their work are doing to come out, and really get aggressive with their questions and suggestions, but the 'American Splendor' cast and crew that Ted Hope had put together seemed so solid and creative that I knew they'd at least make a good movie."
It was the directors' and producer's notion to put Pekar himself in the movie. "Shari got the idea from having seen me drawn in so many ways by the various illustrators that worked on American Splendor," Pekar says. In "My Movie Year," Pekar's six-page comic strip version (drawn by Gary Dumm) of the movie's creation in the August 15 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Shari explains: "We thought it'd be appropriate to give him different looks at different points in the film." In other words, the movie would have the same visual ambiance as the comic book series. The double-casting also gives the movie another layer of confusion between reality and illusion.
In January 2002, Pekar discovered another malignant growth on the other side of his groin from where the previous cancer had attacked. For the next year, he was in and out of the hospital, "given so many kinds of medicine and electric shock therapy for depression and chemotherapy for lymphoma that things are a blur." He remembers seeing a version of the movie but says he was too confused to appreciate it. Later, at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003, he was delighted with the apparent acceptance the movie met with when it won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film. The movie also won the International Critics Award at the Cannes Festival in April. Throughout these adventures, Pekar is plagued, as usual, with a steady stream of pessimistic fears. He left the Sundance Festival early before the movie was named a prize winner. Although he thought it might win a prize, he didn't think it likely: "Due to the lack of recognition I'd gotten in comics, that didn't seem in the cards." But he records, with unaccustomed cheer, a "technique" he's discovered that makes him feel better. Usually, he takes his antidepressant pills when he arises in the morning, but he found that if he takes them about four in the morning, he gets up feeling much better. But the feeling, apparently, doesn't last:
Writing last July, he says: "My question remains, what happens after [the movie opens in New York in August] with the extra freelance writing gigs I need? Well, I guess I'll just have to wait and see. Things could get better or way worse. The only thing to do is get up every day and try to do your best."
This is about as upbeat as Pekar gets, and it is a reprise of his earlier observation that, as "an old man of 63," he would, "relatively soon, croak anyway, so what difference did it make if I tortured myself over my ability to provide adequately for my family. The worrying was counterproductive. Although it would be difficult," he continues, heroically, "I had to resolve to make the most of each day, to keep on trying to find extra work and, in general, to keep busy, to mope around as little as possible."
As one of the movie reviewers asked: Can Pekar really be this pessimistic?
I wonder. During her brief appearance in the movie, the real Joyce Brabner allows as how one of the reasons she married Harvey was because of his sense of humor. Is this irony or reality? We don't see much evidence of it in the movie. But watching Harvey during his first on-screen presence in the movie, I thought I saw him smile. Almost. It might be simply a momentary illusion on my part-and maybe it's a trick of Harvey's physiognomy that makes him seem to be smiling when he isn't-but I thought I saw the ever-so-slight curving upwards at the corners of his mouth, just as the sequence ended. As if he was laughing to himself, not taking it all very seriously. Maybe Brabner's off-hand remark supplies the movie's most insightful moment. Or not. We are left with the enduring conundrum that every artist confronts in his autobiography: who is the real Harvey Pekar? Which is the fiction and which is the actuality? Can an artist, conjuring up his autobiography, even know ?
FEETNIT: Some of the foregoing, the Pekar biographical part, is taken from one of my books, The Art of the Comic Book, where it appears in a Whole Chapter about Robert Crumb and Frank Stack and Gilbert Shelton and all the other undergrounders. For a previewing plug of the book, click here.
FINALLY, AS I SAID BEFORE: Good news for the hare-brained: a fare-hared extension of the subscription deadline, tovarich!! Yes, we're had merciful thoughts here at RCHarvey.com. You now have until November 1 to pay your subscription fee of (merely) $2.95 (for the first month, then $2.95 every three months thereafter-an amount FIXED FOR LIFE or as long as you wish to prolong it). Becoming a Charter Rabbiteer this month will also entitle you to that Genuine Rabbits Fete Club Card. Not only will this signal your Charter Membership, but if you run into the Happy Harv at any comic convention where he is selling his books, your Rabbits Fete Card will be good for a 10 percent discount on any of those books.
We urge you, as softly as we can, to act now in order to stay 'tooned. The subscription fee will increase to $3.95 as of November 1, and you don't want to get caught in that upswing. Click here to be transported to the subscription application; once there, concoct a user ID name for yourself and a password, and complete the financial portions of the application (using either a credit card or bank account number).
To find out about Harv's books, click here.
send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form - Harv's Hindsights - main page