THE BEST COMICS YOU DON'T READ
You don't read these comics. If you did, they'd be selling lots and lots of copies and be on charts everywhere and we'd know, wouldn't we? But you don't. Because they're not. And these are current comics I'm talking about here, that your local comics retailer can order for you. If they won't, then go to another comics retailer. If you don't know if you have a specialist comics retailer near you, click over to http://www.the-master-list.com/ and have a look. If that doesn't work, and you're in the USA, then dial 1-888-266-4226 as a second resort.
This is far from a complete list, and anything I haven't had space for will be dealt with in coming weeks.
Harvey Pekar has always worked from the conviction that comics can be about anything. He's the one who produced the quote I'm always throwing at people when I talk about the power inherent in the form: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." AMERICAN SPLENDOR is the expression of his conviction. Since the 1970's, Harvey Pekar has been using comics to talk about life, work, politics, cancer, and, mostly, himself.
Harvey Pekar is sixty this year. It's been a long time since he was a passionately-talked-of darling of the fan cognoscenti, and you rarely see him namechecked by other creators as an influence. But he is the great pioneer of autobiography comics, of equal importance in that genre as Crumb (an occasional collaborator of Pekar's). He wasn't exactly young when he started AMERICAN SPLENDOR - at that time, an oddity in many ways, not least because he was a writer-only working in what was traditionally, and is still today, considered a writer-artist's genre. Been a long time since he was an irregular on Letterman. Yeah. Comics writer used to guest on Letterman. I've never seen those spots, being in England and probably about fifteen when they started happening, but I've seen Pekar's own comics-told recollections of those situations. And in a forum where Pekar has complete control and can make himself look good, he comes off as, at least, half crazy.
And that's the secret to Pekar, what brings me back to his work when his craft is clumsy and his technique is rudimentary and he swallows up panels with groaning word balloons. Strange searing honesty. He detailed the passage of his cancer in a comic. Years of episodes lead you to at least consider the fact that his wife hates him. He exists in dead-end jobs that plainly barely exercise the back of his brain and tries to make ends meet by writing record reviews for fifteen bucks a pop at five in the morning despite having received option and screenplay fees from Good Machine, a well-regarded film prodco (amongst others, it works with the excellent director Ang Lee). Harvey Pekar is as fucked a human as you'll find, put bluntly. And he's honest about it.
What brings me back to Pekar is captured perfectly in his newest work, AMERICAN SPLENDOR: BEDTIME STORIES. It's watching lives, in the words of the song, slide out of view. It's compelling in a way his work hasn't been in a while. Hell, I wouldn't have noticed BEDTIME STORIES if Diana Schutz at current Pekar publisher Dark Horse hadn't sent me a copy. It is completely honest in its depiction of ordinary Western life - not the comfortable riches of people like me, nor the legless-crack-whore end of the scale, but the in-between people smashed between aspiration and survival. It's about people.
Dark Horse are on the Web at http://www.darkhorse.com, and there's a short and sharp interview with/feature on Pekar worth reading at http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wbur/chat/guests/
Gary Spencer Millidge
STRANGEHAVEN is, at best, on an irregular schedule. Don't expect to see it every month. Or every two months. Hell, it won't mark out the seasons with any reliability. And so what? He's not soliciting the book and then not releasing it on time. He's simply not offering it until it's done. Gary Millidge has always operated not on human time, but on geologic time scales that ordinary mortals cannot comprehend. He's the poster boy for The Long Now Foundation, really.
STRANGEHAVEN itself has that same slow, drifting, endless sense of time. Strangehaven is the village you never quite get out of, and the comic's like that too - just when it threatens to slide out of your consciousness entirely, a new instalment appears, to suck you back in.
Comparisons of this nature are odious, but since I can't at this moment use the net to shove the book in front of you and bark "Read this, shiteyes!", they're all I've got; it's a softer, stranger, more insidious, cider-drinking cousin to the great British TV serial THE PRISONER. It doesn't stand up and shout at you and run around like Patrick McGoohan. That's not Gary's style. Gary sits you down with a pint and mutters a while and eventually you realise he's tangled you up in a story you can't easily get out from. Like Strangehaven, the ties are invisible and sneak up on you and are very, very binding. It winds disparate stories and characters around each other like TWIN PEAKS (the other great touchstone when people discuss STRANGEHAVEN), but Gary does it better, and with more compelling and likeable characters. A delicious stripe of weirdness runs through this book, too; a somewhat inbred-looking secret society and a local rainforest shaman spice the kitchen sink drama wonderfully, in the periods where the main plotline rests.
The hypnotic trick of STRANGEHAVEN - a very English book, but entirely accessible to anyone who reads English -- is that there is a main plotline, but after a while you just don't care.
The STRANGEHAVEN web presence at http://www.abiogenesis.co.uk is still under construction. An earlier iteration, featuring an essay from Gary on the series' creation, is at http://home.clara.net/clara.net/t/y/c/tycho/webspace/retina/.
Over a thousand words already. This is To Be Continued. Return for more lessons next week, about books like METABARONS, ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, and FINDER. In the meantime, go and take a look at the first page of #17 of FINDER by Carla Speed McNeil. http://www.lightspeedpress.com/preview17.html. I've been to Disneyland Paris with my daughter. I know this feeling…
I can be contacted by email about this column at firstname.lastname@example.org. My voluptuous website, recently updated with a new front-page essay and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.
BAD WORLD, a series of occasional articles by myself, is at http://www.themestream.com/gspd_browse/browse/
INSTRUCTIONS: Read SNOWBLIND by Robert Sabbag (1976, my copy Picador 1979), listen to RUSHES by The Fireman (Juggler Music, 1998), and hit the website of LOBSTER, the journal of parapolitics, at http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/
Today's recommended graphic novel is THE NEW AMERICAN SPLENDOR ANTHOLOGY by Harvey Pekar and various artists (FourWallsEightWindows, 1991).