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Reading: Words and Pictures

Somewhere between prose and cinema lie these "comic" books, a new kind of narrative art.



What if, through some kind of art-historical accident, cinema had become fixated on the subject matter that dominated the early years of the medium? Suppose filmmakers had gone on making nothing but cowboy movies and slapstick comedies over the years, what might film's standing as an art form be today? This question is raised in the most recent issue of American Splendor comics, an annual publication written and published (but not illustrated) by Harvey Pekar. Though the thought experiment won't stand up under too much scrutiny (the notion of film being around for very long without meeting up with a Griffith or an Eisenstein in some incarnation is more than a bit implausible), it sheds an interesting light on the status of the medium that interests Pekar, namely the comic book.

For a variety of reasons that would probably be difficult to ferret out, comic books -- stories told using paneled drawings with captions and word balloons -- have historically been restricted almost entirely to a very limited range of material, primarily superhero tales and jokes of various kinds. There's no intrinsic reason for such a restriction; it's not as though the medium were inherently suited to a specific type of subject matter. But the historical process is self-perpetuating: the more closely identified the artistic medium becomes with a particular range of content or a particular genre, the more difficult it becomes for either artists or their audiences to conceive of ways to break free of those limitations.

Three books that manage to do so have found their way into mainstream bookstores in the past year. In Maus, Art Spiegelman gives us a grim, harrowing account of his father's experiences as a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, and of his own attempt to forge a relationship with his father in the wake of his mother's suicide. American Splendor, published last year, and the recently published More American Splendor are roughly chronological anthologies of many of the quirky, brilliant stories that have appeared in Pekar's comic book over the past decade. What all three of these volumes share is an expanded and entirely convincing use of a medium that has been restricted for too long to a handful of subgenres.

The very issue of terminology makes clear how much confusion there is around the genre identification of these works. The only terms available to refer to them -- "comics" or "comic books" or even "comic art" -- are woefully inadequate, even inaccurate, for they bring with them an unavoidable implication about the nature of the content: that it will be loaded with yuks. When I carelessly described Maus to a friend as "a comic novel about the Holocaust," he looked aghast until I explained that I did not mean a humorous novel, but simply a novel told with drawings and word balloons. My own first encounter with American Splendor left me bewildered, quizzical: if this was a comic book, where were the jokes? I had to overcome my presuppositions about the medium in order to recognize Pekar as a short-story writer, a purveyor of fiction who's chosen to cast his work in something other than straight prose.

There is a long tradition of arguing the artistic merits of various forms of comic art. Writers have not been slow to recognize, for example, the psychological richness of Winsor McCay's sumptuous Little Nemo dreamscapes, or the loopy, ironic ritualism of George Herriman's Krazy Kat strips. But what Maus and the American Splendor collections reveal -- newly, I think -- is the tremendous range and flexibility of the comic book as a literary medium. Comic narrative occupies a unique place somewhere between prose and cinema, combining the resources of each in a way that is entirely distinct from either.

Because comic narrative, like cinema, presents its audience with pictorial images rather than verbal descriptions, it shares film's casual ability to reveal without indicating, to show instead of tell -- the very capacity that prose lacks. The film critic David Denby once pointed out a similar distinction between theater and film. In the theater, Denby claimed, everything the audience sees is there for a reason: every character, every incident, every stage prop serves a purpose. The theater presents a universe stripped of extraneous material so as to approach a level of pure functionalism. Film, on the other hand, presents the world as it is, with the whole familiar cluttered constellation of random sights, sounds, and sensations. The camera, according to one of the basic tenets of film theory, does not -- cannot -- lie.

Of course, this account neglects to mention that what film gives us is not the world itself, but some particular corner of it that a director has arranged to his purpose. The casual, shambling looseness of the world as revealed by the camera is in fact a coy ruse, a pretense of naturalism within an elaborately rigged scheme. But if the camera's truthfulness is a setup, it nonetheless manages to encompass huge amounts of life's extraneous material. And it is this inclusion, ultimately, that frees the filmmaker to present the important stuff -- the stuff the audience is intended to see -- with as much or as little emphasis as needed.

Adding emphasis is trivial; what's precious is the ability to underemphasize. The feigned candor of the medium allows a director to include in his slice of the world a detail of setting, a chance passerby, an overheard snippet of conversation, even the crucial clue to a murder -- all without acknowledging that he is doing so. (In fact, there's a whole tradition of movies that metaphorically touch on this very aspect of film, including Blowup, The Conversation, and The Draughtsman's Contract.)

This is what theater, with its functionally circumscribed universe, has a difficult time doing, and it's something that literary prose can scarcely do at all. Because a piece of fiction conveys only those details that an author chooses to reveal, the reader can never lose sight of the grim purposiveness of the revelations. The horsewhipping peasant in Crime and Punishment is a simple example: though Dostoyevski presents this incident as something witnessed by chance, the very fact that he picks it out for telling, out of all the many (albeit less horrifying) incidents Raskolnikov has ever witnessed, leaves the reader in no doubt of its importance as a dramatic image. It's possible, of course, for a sufficiently absent author to conceal the process by which he filters the world's multifariousness, but it requires the technical agility of a James Joyce.

Like cinema, the comic narrative can encompass random bits and pieces of the world. But what it can also do, which the camera can't, is lie. The bonds that tie the filmmaker to some more or less accurate version of the real world are, naturally, no restriction to the comic artist. Fantasy, surrealism, visual metaphor are all available narrative techniques, and (unlike in film) can all be used casually, without acknowledgment. What the enhanced capabilities of "special effects" may yet mean in this regard for film is hard to say -- if David Cronenberg's camera isn't lying in The Fly, I don't know what it's doing. But it's a relatively clumsy lie, one that draws attention to itself as a technological feat. Comic narrative can lie easily and fluently, either subtly or outrageously as the occasion demands.

What we have, then, is a medium that, like film, can feign a naturalistic presentation, but at the same time can be free, as prose is, from the limitations of naturalism. I've gone into these abstract considerations at such length only because, it strikes me that American Splendor and Maus draw their respective strengths from precisely these two complementary aspects of the form.

What seems to interest Harvey Pekar most is the facility with which comic narrative can render the loosely interrelated web of conditions that makes up daily life. He has published his comic book annually since 1976, apparently at a personal financial loss. Each issue runs about 60 pages, and includes something like a dozen stories ranging in length from single-panel vignettes to great 15-page morality plays. Pekar conceives and writes each story, sketching it out in rough form using stick figures, word balloons, and general descriptions of pictorial details, then passes it on to one of a stable of artists to be illustrated and completed. Over the past decade Pekar has used the services of nearly two dozen illustrators.

Pekar's literary allegiance is hard to mistake: he sees himself as heir to the American realist tradition, a sort of new-wave Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis. His stories are rooted in the mundane, highly specific configurations of everyday existence. Many of them are formally unkempt, with upswellings of odd, incongruous detail bursting out of the limits of shapely dramatic narrative; they read like rough-hewn objets trouves picked out from the drama of daily life. Almost all of them feature Harvey himself as the narrator, observer, and main participant, either under his own name or as an alter ego (he is known variously as Herschel, Jack the Bellboy, or simply "our manx"). One early issue candidly announced its contents as "More Depressing Stories From Harvey Pekar's Hum-Drum Life."

His work is also inextricably bound up with the specifics of place: Pekar has lived his entire life in Cleveland, and his stories abound with homages to his hometown. Each issue bears the proud legend "From off the streets of Cleveland comes:" above its title (as do both of the Doubleday anthologies), and Pekar's ongoing love affair with his city is one of the formative forces in his fiction. He presents himself as a man with an intimate relationship not just with his neighborhood but with the city itself: its people, its landmarks, its history.

One of his most assured and complex stories, for example, culminates in a terse but utterly moving tribute to Cleveland. Briefly, "Grubstreet USA" (the title refers to New Grub Street, a novel by the Victorian writer George Gissing that Harvey is reading as the story begins) recounts a visit by Wallace Shawn to Cleveland to promote his film My Dinner With Andre. Pekar spends the day with Shawn and some mutual friends, intent on taking him aside and hitting him up for some kind of assistance: as a New York celebrity, Pekar figures, the man is in a position to do him and his books some good. But as the day wears on it becomes depressingly clear to Harvey that Shawn's financial and cultural position is only marginally better than his own, despite his being an acclaimed filmmaker. Realizing, too, that attempts to hustle Shawn for favors would probably be inappropriate, Harvey finally gives up and heads home by rapid transit. "Well, now I've met my quota of celebrities for 1982," he concludes philosophically. "At least he didn't try to borrow any money from me." And as the train speeds off toward home, the reader suddenly gets one final outsize panel, a loving view of the junk-strewn train yard and, in the distance, the Cleveland skyline alive with a gritty vibrancy. Success is as real here at home, the story concludes wordlessly, as in the bright lights of the Big Apple.

In addition to his city, Pekar draws inspiration and sustenance from his working life. The child of Polish Jewish immigrants, he's a working-class intellectual, an autodidact who has worked steadily at a variety of unskilled day jobs since graduating from high school (he's now in his late forties). For at least as long as he's been publishing American Splendor, Pekar has worked as a file clerk in a large municipal hospital, and many of the stories and characters included in the book are drawn from his experiences there: stories like "An Argument at Work," "Jack the Bellboy and Mr. Boats," or the hilarious "Class Antagonism," in which Harvey deftly demolishes a supercilious doctor who's been snotty to him.

The coarse, detail-packed feel of Pekar's work -- what he once called, not without irony, his "new wave neorealism" -- is a result of the medium itself, the combination of drawings and words in carefully calibrated proportions. It is the drawings in American Splendor that give us a line on the physicality of Pekar's life and the lives of his associates -- not just the way they talk, which straight prose can render just as easily, but the way they stand, walk, and touch one another. The drawings can convey the peculiar physical listlessness of hanging out on the street corner on a June night, or show a single angry scowl in which the entire breakup of a marriage is presaged.

For all of Pekar's insistence on a sprawlingly neorealist mode of presenting his experience, he is just as capable of giving his stories a knowingly postmodern twist that acknowledges and even subverts the narrative frame; and this too is made possible by the use of the pictorial image. "Read This," as its bluntly demanding title suggests, is one of Pekar's moralistic jeremiads, this one on the importance of helping friends in need. After presenting a little cautionary tale, Harvey stands before us, scowling, to deliver the moral: "Nuts to the so-called friends a' yers who grin in yer face but ain't there when you need 'em. People like that are a dime a dozen . . . This is a tough world, folks. We all need help t' get by so help yer friends an' make sure they help you or know th' reason why." The message delivered, Harvey stands there for one more panel, slightly disoriented in the wake of his passionate outburst. Then, in the story's final panel, he starts to panic, looks off to one side (i.e., off camera), and says sheepishly, "Uh, am I still on?" The sudden shift in perspective -- away from a story propelled mainly by large swatches of simple narration to an unexpectedly cinematic conclusion -- not only leavens the bombast of Harvey's peroration (as intended) but wittily undercuts the story's entire mode of presentation as well.

The fact that Pekar draws on such a wide array of illustrators to bring his work to fruition simply puts more spin on the process, Since Harvey himself is at the center of nearly every story, the reader quickly comes to recognize him in any of his visual incarnations, and he provides a common point of reference. But like cinematographers, each of Pekar's illustrators brings a distinctive visual sense to the work.

The best known of these collaborators is R. Crumb, whose friendship with Pekar dates back to the early 1960s (that is, before his own explosion into comic-book stardom). Crumb gets much of the humorous material, and everything he does (except for the breathtaking final story in the first American Splendor volume "Hypothetical Quandary") takes on an air of farce. Complementing his work is the team of Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm, who've done far more illustration than any of Pekar's other collaborators except possibly Crumb. They're also the only artists whose work has continued to appear throughout all the issues of American Splendor, and their styles -- clean and direct when they work together, slightly more shaded and impressionistic when Dumm goes solo -- form the basic visual scheme of Pekar's stories. Other artists' contributions are seen in relation to those of Budgett and Dumm: the more moody, dreamlike style of Gerry Shamray, or the tingling neon brightness of Kevin Brown's illustrations.

But some of the most interesting, most adventurous artwork that Pekar has published appears in the second anthology, More American Splendor. Particularly welcome is the work of Sue Cavey, which has an emotionally charged surrealism that none of Pekar's other artists has ever approached. Her illustrations for "Alice Quinn," for example, are a jarringly concise evocation of nostalgia and the force of the past. I also like the work of Mitchell Sonoda, whose characters blithely ignore the panel boundaries, sometimes taking over other parts of the page and sometimes leaping off the page altogether with a startling 3-D forcefulness.

If Harvey Pekar is drawn to the comic book's ability to make disingenuous claims of truthfulness, Art Spiegelman's Maus is predicated on a big lie, or rather a visual metaphor. It is the image that gives the book its title: In Spiegelman's rendition of the Holocaust, the Jews are mice, the Germans cats, and Hitler's Europe one colossal mousetrap. Other characters are similarly represented: Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs.

It's a daring and brilliant move on more than one count. In the first place, the combination of cartoons and anthropomorphic animals flirts dangerously with all sorts of extraneous cultural associations. Spiegelman, for example, has expressed dismay over the similarity of Steven Spielberg's An American Tail to his basic conception. But the connection is pointless: Spielberg's Feivel the Mouse is simply Mickey's Jewish cousin, whereas the characters in Maus inhabit an entirely different universe. Even the jacket blurb's assertion that "these cats and mice are not Tom and Jerry, but something different" brings them too close together.

The difference is that Mickey, Tom and Jerry, and the entire tradition of cartoon animals that they represent are created by grafting some human traits onto animal characters: Disney's early sketches show Mickey's transformation from an actual rodent (more or less) into the white-gloved homunculus he later became. Spiegelman's mice are just the opposite: they're human in everything but outer form, actual men and women onto whom he has tacked mouse masks and tails. Neither the author nor any of the characters ever acknowledges the animal motif, or refers to anyone as anything other than human. (In the final panel, in fact, as Spiegelman's parents arrive at the huge gates of Auschwitz, we see the slavering hounds that the German guards use to control the prisoners; they have no relation whatever to the genial beagles who populate present-day Long Island.)

Spiegelman does involve the animal image in one deft piece of representation: when Jews try to pass as gentile Poles they're depicted wearing pig masks, with visible pieces of string laced behind their heads; Germans discover them by tearing away the masks. But aside from this one narrative stratagem, Spiegelman's presentation is entirely realistic. The animal images serve only as a visual, not a dramatic theme, a metaphor presented without comment or acknowledgment (except in the chapter titles).

And the metaphor, of course, is Hitler's own. Spiegelman's epigraph is a well-known statement by the fuhrer: "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human." Spiegelman takes him at his word but goes a step further, dehumanizing not only the Jews but all of the participants in history's dark hour.

Considered simply as testimony, Maus recapitulates with chilling immediacy yet another tale of a few individuals caught up in the great machinery of destruction--a tale shocking and engrossing in its specifics, and also numbingly familiar in its overall shape. There are thousands of such stories, and in the face of the Gipper's inanities at Bitberg and the growing attempt throughout Europe to deny the reality of Hitler's Final Solution, it's important that they be retold as often as possible. Vladek Spiegelman tells his story in heavily accented English (Art retains his father's convoluted syntax but wisely spares us any sort of "dialect" orthography), beginning in the mid-30s in Poland, with his marriage to Anja Zylerberg, Art's mother. We follow Vladek into the Polish Army, to a German POW camp, and back to his hometown of Sosnowiec. We then watch with nauseating foreknowledge as the Nazis tighten the noose around the Jewish population: first the prohibitive regulations and restrictions, then ever-increasing deportations, and finally the wholesale annihilation of Sosnowiec's Jewry. It is only luck and Vladek's extraordinary resourcefulness and cunning that enable him and Anja to survive, first in a series of carefully constructed secret bunkers and then through the protection of gentiles paid off with carefully hoarded valuables. This volume of Maus (it is the first of two projected parts) brings Vladek and Anja to the gates of Auschwitz: "And we knew that from here we will not come out any more. . . . We knew the stories--that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens, This was 1944. . . . We knew everything. And here we were."

But Maus does more than bear witness to the reality of the Holocaust, for Spiegelman also includes in his account a moving portrayal of what it means to grow up as heir to such an experience. The subtitle of the first volume is "My Father Bleeds History," and the book makes clear the extent to which Vladek's history bleeds all over his son as well. A two-page preface, like an overture, suggests the nature of the father's legacy. While roller-skating with friends, ten-year-old Artie trips and falls, only to be left behind by his playmates. Returning home in tears, he encounters his father and tells him that his friends have abandoned him. Vladek stops what he is doing in amazement. "Friends?" he says incredulously. "Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week . . . then you could see what it is, friends!"

In old age his behavior is no more palatable. Vladek is querulous, domineering, and miserly to the point where Art worries that an accurate portrayal of him will resemble an anti-Semitic caricature. He makes life miserable for his second wife, Mala (also a survivor), and his interactions with Art alternate between tyrannical bullying and guilt trips of remarkable virtuosity. It is only through the project of compiling Maus that these two can reach an uneasy peace.

Maus is, of course, an exploration of the intermingling of personal with political history; and the conceit of cats and mice, in addition to serving as a political metaphor, plays a role in the representation of Vladek's personal history as well. Whether intentionally or not, Spiegelman's decision to portray his characters as animals has the effect of preserving a bit of privacy for himself and his father amidst the profusion of personal revelation. Over the course of the book we come to know Vladek quite well. We see him as a young man with his family before the war; we see him lose his virginity (a detail Art promises to leave out of the book, but doesn't); we watch the effect on his marriage of constant fear and desperation; and we learn a great deal about his last years, the period during which he narrates his story. But because we never see his face, there is a part of Vladek that remains protected from the reader -- and the reader is protected, too, from being put in the embarrassing position of a voyeur.

At one point, late in the book, Spiegelman inserts a four-page comic strip entitled "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," which had appeared several years earlier in an obscure underground comic journal. The strip treats Anja's 1968 suicide in a pained, expressionistic style, full of Munchian distortions and nightmare visions. It's a powerful work in its own right, and its presence in the context of Maus gives it an added kick. For one thing, it provides some information about the suicide itself, which is referred to in passing on the book's first page and then not mentioned again. But what's even more startling, after coming to know Art and his parents as mice, is to meet up with them suddenly in human form. After the subtle distance afforded by the mouse guise, these human depictions, even with all their distortions, are joltingly raw and unmediated.

What "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" also demonstrates, if demonstration were needed, is how wide a range of literature is possible using paneled drawings and word balloons -- a range not only of content but also of style, form, genre, and literary voice. Like American Splendor, Maus does more than simply tell a story; it serves also to celebrate the medium through which the story is told. As Pekar puts it in an early story, "You c'n do as much with comics as the novel or movies or plays or anything. Comics are words an' pictures; you c'n do anything with words an' pictures!"

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar, Doubleday, $6.95.

More American Splendor by Harvey Pekar, Doubleday, $7.95.

Maus by Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, $8.95.

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