Sunday, 6 April 2008

Some Kind of Comic Review -- American Splendor Season Two #1

American Splendor Season Two #1

Written by Harvey Pekar; Drawn by David Lapham, Chris Weston, Dean Haspiel, Mike Hawthorn, Hilary Barta, John Lucas, Zachary Baldus and Ed Piskor; Cover by Philip Bond

During the thirty-odd years that he’s been working on his autobiographical American Splendor comics, Harvey Pekar has found a voice so distinctive that even stories and art choices that wouldn’t necessarily seem notable on their own gain a certain discordant power when placed in the context of this comic.

This can true of both Pekar’s subject matter and the contributions of the various artists involved. Taken as an isolated short story the first piece in this issue, ‘I’m No Help’, would seem solidly unremarkable. It’s one of those stories where motivation sits just under the surface of a fairly minor encounter (in this instance between Pekar and a young man who seeks him out after seeing the movie version of American Splendor), and as such it’s a good example of the form. However, the desperation that the kid shows—for some sort of escape, and more specifically for the means to engender this escape, a “high definition camera”—plays off of several key Pekar concerns in an interesting way. One of the central themes of the post-movie American Splendor strips has been Pekar’s constant, overriding worry that the money the film has generated won’t keep coming, and that he and his family will be reduced to poverty since he no longer works as a file clerk. The fact that the kid (Byron) seems to hope that Pekar’s film connections will be able to furnish him with a way out of his life in Cleveland has a grim irony in this context, an incongruity that is only heightened by the fact that Pekar’s still there, living not forty-five minutes away from the kid. And what about the ragged pride Pekar has depicted himself taking over the plaudits the movie has brought him? How does all of this play into Pekar’s “open door policy” with regards to seeing fans, especially given that he initially seems to find Byron pretty annoying?

Beyond this story, you’ve got your standard mix of random anecdotes, scrappy jokes and wandering reminiscences, plus an entertainingly insistent lecture on how comics can be used for any purpose (even to give a lecture!). Like I said above, however, sometimes even minor cosmetic touches can be interesting in Pekar’s stubbornly naturalistic landscape. As with the previous Vertigo-published volume of American Splendor comics, a lot of the fun here comes from seeing Pekar’s work interpreted by artists outside of his normally circle of collaborators. That’s not to say that everything here works, of course. John Lucas, for example, illustrates ‘Grunting’ in a hammy, scratchy style that makes Pekar look like a tuckered out Wolverine. This could be amusing, given that the story concerns Pekar wrestling with the pad from a futon while his wife Joyce watches and comments, but it isn’t quite awkward enough to be successful*.

There are also stories in this issue where the writing is less engaging than the art, such as the Mike Hawthorn drawn ‘Restraint’. The anecdote itself is borderline-unpleasant (Pekar has trouble getting his prescription early from a strict German pharmacist; he doesn’t call her a nazi; he gets his prescription**), but it’s framed by odd fantasy images that add a crudely symbolic level to Pekar’s usual straight-to-camera rants. It could be argued that part of the charm of American Splendor has always lain in its persistent lack of such visual trickery***, but it’s also a series about finding new ways to depict the same old thing. As such, I can’t help but find a little humour and variety in the image of Pekar sitting on a giant inhaler in the middle of shark-infested waters.

My two favourite pieces of incongruous stylisation in this issue are both connected. The first is that Philip Bond cover image I’ve posted above, which has the bold, silly, pop-comic energy that characterises all of Bond’s work. The saucy nurse (who never makes an appearance during the comic itself, naturally) gives the hospital waiting room scene a sort of ‘Carry On Harvey’ silliness that clashes with Pekar’s grounded in a fairly obvious way.

But why do I find this compelling when I found John Lucas’ artwork forced and unconvincing? Two reasons: (1) Bond draws an awesome, bushy-browed Pekar, and (2) his cover illustration plays with the conflicted irony of the book’s title. The cumulative effect of these two points is charming: it’s almost like the cover asks the question, “What is this grumpy old guy doing in an exciting comic book adventure?”, to which the content of the comic itself answers, “Oh, you know, the usual.”

Which brings us on to my other favourite part of this issue, the Chris Weston drawn ‘Fall’. In this strip Pekar walks out onto his porch, trips up over a bit of wood, falls down the stairs and (*SPOILERS!!!*) hurts his arm.


Pekar then sits on the ground nursing/worrying about his arm for a couple of panels before the strip ends abruptly. This injury, of course, would then lead to the Pekar going to hospital, and thus traipsing off into Philip Bond country. Back in Weston-world, however, it’s oddly fascinating to see such a minor incident dramatised in what could be called the language of superhero realism. Again, the key to this strip’s success is that Weston does a great version of Pekar – as he tips over at a dramatic angle, the inky details of the background racing up towards him, Pekar looks oddly like Gregory Feely, the hopelessly crushed protagonist from Weston’s (excellent) collaboration with Grant Morrison, The Filth. If this connection temporarily makes the reader feel like a pink World War Two bomber with luminous yellow breasts is about to shriek in and bomb the whole scene then all the better; it’s just another play on the traditional excitement of the comic book form, another attempt to suggest the glory of the mundane, just like all the best American Splendor stories.

“Comics are words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures” – American Splendor #1 takes the liberty of (literally) reminding us of this fact all over again, and I love it for it. It’s good to see that Pekar just keeps on going on and doing it like he always has; after all, who else can generate combinations of words and pictures with the craggy, proud heritage that these strips have?

Footnotes:

*I’m currently imagining 'Grunting' as an actual Wolverine story. In that context, it would probably be the Wolverine equivalent of James Kochalka’s Hulk Vs The Rain comic. “He’s the best he is at what he does, and today, what he does is shift furniture...”

**Truthfully, there’s probably more to be said about this strip and its place in a long history of similar curmudgeonly complaints (see also ‘Standing Behind old Jewish Ladies In Supermarket Lines’), but I don’t think that 'Restraint' is one of the more inquisitive or entertaining examples of the form.

***And hey, many of my favourite American Splendor strips feature Harvey standing against an indistinct background rambling directly at you, the reader. Robert Crumb is particularly good at drawing these, since his version of Pekar has a real pent-up energy that seems to be etched deep into the page.

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