Comic Studies: Pekar and Autobio Comix

The second week of my Comic Studies course has arrived, and everyone seems a lot more comfortable in class -- possibly because we've now reassured ourselves that the other students seem quite normal and not at all the sort of people that send death threats to writers on rebooted comics. Hopefully.

The theme for this week of the Autobiographix module was Comics as Confession, with Harvey Pekar's groundbreaking "American Splendor" as the set text. Thirty-two years of comics would be a bit of a tough slog, so Dr Chris Murray had chosen a few specific stories -- "How I Quit Collecting Records," "Ripoff Chick," "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," "The Young Crumb Story" -- as well as the graphic novel "Our Cancer Year," to focus on.

Alan Moore has described Pekar as the godfather of autobiographical comics, and he isn't the only one. Pekar has a reputation as being the first to truly exploit the genre within the comic form. Others had come before, but Pekar grasped that comics is a medium that can truly deal with realism and ordinary stories in a new and exciting way. "Words and pictures," he'd often say, "you can do anything with words and pictures."

Pekar writes about the every day happenings in life -- queuing in a supermarket, buying records, talking with his friends -- in a way that is as engaging as a story full of gunfights and aliens. A discussion about how Pekar feels about his name and looking himself up in the phone book is completely spellbinding despite only his head, shoulders and occasional hand appearing on panel. At a time when underground comix were being deliberately controversial and subversive, Pekar was far more interested in the ordinary.

The precursor to our study of Pekar's work was the infamous "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" by Justin Green, a wonderful penispalooza of autobiographical Catholic guilt. Comix were reveling in being as rude and crude as possible, flaunting their freedom of censorship from the draconian Comics Code that still restricted mainstream comics throughout the 60s and 70s.

While Pekar was unconcerned with sensationalism, almost all of his work was self-published and thus free of censorship. A recurring theme throughout his stories is that of his compulsive need to keep things in order and maintain control, and it's hard to imagine Pekar submitting to an editor! Pekar did not illustrate his comix himself, but even with his lack of artistic ability he would still sketch out roughly what he wanted the artist to create. He was fairly loose though with his desires, believing that being too specific would be condescending to the artist.

Pekar's comics are grumpy and conversational in tone, moving through time and memories with the writer often stopping to speak directly to the reader. His "American Splendor" comix, and therefore his life, were adapted into a critically acclaimed film of the same name in 2003. Throughout his life. Pekar maintained his job as a clerk in a hospital, partly due to self-published comix not making much money, but also because Pekar seemed to need to work in order to stay sane (ie, to maintain control). His comix, vast in number, were all created in his spare time.

Interestingly, few people in the class had previously read "American Splendor," and it was good to see older stories showcased alongside "Our Cancer Year" to demonstrate that classic Pekar confessional style. Inevitably some students were completely put off by the art which is not terribly pleasing to an eye used to handsome Supermen and colorful heroes; yet more were drawn into the stories despite themselves.

In many ways, "Ripoff Chick" is the perfect example of why Pekar's curmudgeonly tales work so well; on the surface, the story is about a flighty and manipulative woman who screws Harvey out of his cash and time. Yet throughout, Pekar is consistently honest about his own shallow motivations; his desperate desire for sex results in him not even caring about her personality flaws as long as he gets laid. In one panel, he yells at the woman for being a faux-feminist that only wants men for their money, and in the very next panel turns to the reader and confesses that he did, in fact, only see her as a sex object ("dig me -- casting stones").

Much of "American Splendor" focuses on far more trivial matters, but Pekar's honesty is a constant, no matter how awkward the confession. "Our Cancer Year" is slightly different from the usual stories, not least because the narrative shifts slightly from pure autobiography to a co-written experience: Pekar penned the graphic novel with the assistance of his (third) wife and fellow writer Joyce Brabner. Partly, perhaps, because through the course of his illness, Pekar became far too ill to write, but also due to the effect the terrible disease has on the couple and their relationship.

"American Splendor" featured a lot of artists over the years, Pekar himself being unable to draw much more than the stick figures he used for his rough drafts. Robert Crumb was a friend of Pekar as well as an inspiration and frequent collaborator, but overall, the series went through many artistic styles. Frank Stack is the artist on "Our Cancer Year," giving the book a very dark, rough, and acutely observed design. Stack was there with Pekar, drawing the situations as they happened a lot of the time, and the captured emotions are distressing to say the least.

I'm not much of an artist, falling firmly in the writers camp, but the Comic Studies postgraduate degree has attracted a wide spectrum of students, and I found it interesting how obvious our backgrounds became when analyzing Pekar's work. Each week we submit a small journal of our thoughts and analysis of the set texts, and a selection of these are then given out in class for us to talk over and discuss. Nearly half the snippets involved the writing, themes and reading experience, while the rest were critical and intense observations of the panels, layout and framing.

Listening to these analyses, I was able to look again at the comix with fresh eyes. "Our Cancer Year" uses a lot of interesting panel shapes rather than the familiar rigid boxes. These dilating and twisting spaces heightened the experiences within the story, curved lines representing everything from reflecting mirrors to bulging tumors. One page, detailing an argument between Pekar and Brabner, presents the central guttering in the shape of a lightning bolt, further underscoring the tension in their relationship. Brabner often appears in circular panels, recalling the shape of her glasses, pointing towards her softer influence or even suggesting that she may feel like a commentator in Pekar's story.

Guttering is of course where the magic happens; that space is what demands our active participation as a reader. It is our imagination that fills in the action between the panels, the missing links that connect the story and make it flow seamlessly in our minds, and it is also where most of the time and space manipulation occurs. Rest assured we will be coming back to that topic soon!

All of this is created, of course, by the artist rather than Pekar himself, which raises the interesting question over whether a non-artist can truly create their own autobiographic comic. Equally, that is difficult to discern when the level of collaboration between the writer and artist is unknown, but I think it's safe to say that while the art can enhance the meaning of a story, it's the writer that truly influences the overall tone. Pekar's experiences are refracted through the artist and indeed filtered through Pekar's own memory, Brabner having noted that Pekar didn't cover many of the nice things that happened to him, and that he was far calmer in real life!

Pekar sadly passed away in 2010, leaving behind a wealth of stories and unpublished works to remember him by. His comix persona truly was far grumpier and miserable than his actual self, though his stories always did have a positive beat to them. His anger stemmed not from a hate for his fellow man, but from a deep belief that people could be better than they were. Alan Moore stated that there was real joy in his work, and it wouldn't be nearly as readable if that weren't true.

Pekar left behind a flourishing genre: independent and underground comix are still dominated by autobiographix, and Pekar has inspired industry greats from Joe Sacco to Alan Moore, both of whom are looked at later in the course.

Next week the class will be looking at Comics and Identity, with Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home." I'll be looking at Satrapi's autobiographical comic in very fine detail in the meantime in order to give a presentation on the title during class, and the following week I'll be listening to a talk by legendary artist, Colin MacNeil. And the week after that, it's Frank Quitely time!

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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