Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Books: American Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics


American Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics
Written by Harvey Pekar
Art by Robert Crumb

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Growing up is - well - it's a strange thing: that's for sure and it changes you in ways that you don't expect.

I'm in no way a fresh-faced visitor to the world of Harvey Pekar and American Splendor: if you check those links below in the further readings section - you'll see that I'm previously written a few words about the American Splendor best of collection as well as  The Quitter (which is I guess would be best described as being like an extended American Splendor episode) and the book under consideration here: the charmingly (almost rustically) named "Bob and Harv's Comics" - well - I think that I must have tried reading it about three of four times over the past few years I've been working for Islington. It was on the shelf at the first ever library I worked at (that would be South Library for those keeping score at the back): and - hey: I liked comics - I knew that both Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb are (in their own off-beat and idiosyncratic ways) comic book heavy-weights that you know: are a big deal - the graphic novel versions of Kerouac and Picasso (or whoever).

And - man: that cover (have you seen the cover?). I mean: it's really really good. The way that the composition snaps you about: bouncing your eyes from the women's head on the upper left side: with her thought balloon ("Eat your hearts out, creeps!") popping out like a punch to the jaw and that sneer dripping off the side of her face leading you down to the sight of Robert Crumb - shivering like a leaf in a blizzard: racked with sexual inadequacy: and whose whole character is summed up completely by his pathetically avaricious eyes and his thought balloon: "I can never have her..." [1] and both of these figures (and - come on - it would have been a great cover with just them: I mean who needs more that really?) offset by louche [2] looking Harvey Pekar - purposelessly oblivious to the private hell unfolding in front of him: much more concerned with the idea of getting a comic out with both their names on ("You like money, don'tcha?").

And - well: yeah (short version) - I like the cover. I think it's good.

Of course - the problem is (at least for this reader) is that it sets the bar so high that when you step into the rest of the book: well - there's a real sense of deflation: for those expecting the same sort of knockabout humour and general sillyness  - well: you're going to need to re-calibrate your expectations.

Thankfully the introduction by Robert Crumb [3] is perfectly placed to help disabuse the hapless reader of any strange notions that they might have got into their head (like maybe this book is gonna be an Odd Couple / buddie-comedy: like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Rush Hour or whatever [4]?): for those of us thinking they're about to ride a fun little rollercoaster - his is the voice that comes over the intercom saying: "Oops. Sorry. Actually - this is just going to be a pleasant little bimbling [5] ride in the countryside instead. You don't need any seatbelts and you wave your arms and legs in any which way you want - because it's not going to make any difference seeing how our top speed is only going to be about five miles per hour...." (Ha!) Or - as he puts it (in a bit more of a downbeat kinda way): "Mostly it's just people talking, or Harvey himself, panel after panel, haranging the hapless reader. There's not much in the way of heroic struggle, the triumph of good over evil, resolution of conflict, people overcoming great odds, stuff like that... It's kinda sorta more like real life... A population raised on mass media spoonfed a constant diet of sensational, formalized story-telling, they're gonna be impatient with Pekar's comics."

Now - I vaguely remember the first time I read that intro and the kinda thoughts that it made me have (mainly because they're pretty much the same sort of feelings that I still have today): the first thought is that Robert Crumb sounds a bit like a snob (I mean the stuff he says he's basically just: "Oh yeah - all that stuff that everyone else likes is rubbish and the only stuff that's good is this small subset of stuff that I like." - I mean: oh my god - what is he? A teenage boy?) and also - well - as a proud consumer of mass media I've got to say: I think it's pretty churlish to dismiss it all out of hand. I mean - yeah: ok the large majority of it is pretty rubbish but then - the large majority of everything is rubbish (I think I read something somewhere recently where someone called this the 90% rule? As in - it's only the 10% of stuff that's really worth your time: but whatever) - I mean - mass media sensational, formalized story-telling (when it's done right) can give us things like Jurassic Park, Toy Story and Star Wars which - hell - I'll take anyday over some mumbley black-and-white art-house kitchen sink drama about how poor poor people are [5].

Also - as an argument for why something is worth your time: I've always found it to be kinda limiting and unconvincing. I remember as I was growing up I could never quite understand the appeal of David Lynch films [6] and when I tried to find out the reasons why everyone else seemed to rate him so much all I got was a variation of the line: "Oh - you know: it's so much better than that usual Hollywood rubbish." Maybe there's a fancy Latin name for this sort of thing [7]: but all I know is that it's not much of a glowing recommendation to say what something's not ("Say - why did you like that carrot?" "Oh - you know: it's not a dog. Man - I hate dogs.") especially when in the case of Lynch versus Hollywood or Pekar verses mainstream comics: the aims are so vastly different and the methods so contrary - that really all you're doing is making yourself sound like an idiot (sorry - is that a little bit too harsh? Sorry) [8].

But let's put aside this (frankly) puritan notion that it's only the difficult, non-mainstreamy stuff that's actually any good (oh - if only life were that simple) and instead try and talk about (and hopefully capture) what it is that actually makes American Splendor worth reading... (yeah?) because - like I've said: when reading it before I could never quite get to the point where I could get my head around what everyone was raving about: but now - with the benefit of all my advancing years: I think I might just be starting to get the hang of it.

Of course - what this all boils down to is stories (bear with me).

There was a line that I could have sworn I saw written somewhere on MaryAnn Johanson's Flickfilosopher website [9] (but which I now can't find) which said something like this (I'm going to paraphrase it a lot to make it sound more like me - ok?): growing up I used to identify myself as a film fan and as someone who liked reading books and - well - since starting running the Islington Comic Forum: someone who likes a good comic too. But more and more I've come to realise that actually the thing that really interests me (and is at the  root of all three of these) is story. The way we tell them, how they work, (how they don't work), the way they can make us feel, the way they make us think, what they mean: stories are my obsession and (yeah) there are very few things that I enjoy more than a good story well told [10].

Now: one of the things that I've noticed recently is the many ways that stories end up serving / reinforcing ideologies (I mean - yeah: ok - no duh right? But whatever).

Of course this is something that we're all conditioned to notice when we're kids. I mean - oh my god: working in a children's library I see this in seemingly every single children's book out there: all of them geared to deliver an important life lesson like: Make Sure You Always Say Please (The Elephant and The Bad Baby). Don't Be Stinky and Gross (Dirty Bertie). If You Can Talk A Good Game Then People Will Respect and Fear You (The Gruffalo). Your Parents Are Not Paying Attention To You - Deal With It (Not Now, Bernard). Change Is Inevitable, Relationships Are All About Compromise and Sex Is Death (Tadpole's Promise) [11] And - yeah - it's one of the mainstays of when you've just finished reading a book to a child to ask them: "Now - what do you think the message was there then?"

For me - one of the many barriers to cross to get to adulthood was being able to read a book that didn't have a stupid moral tucked away at the end and instead was just about you know - having fun, laughing at crazy stuff and enjoying the ride. What I didn't realise (and what has taken me years to fully come to grips with) is that - even if a story doesn't present itself as being moralistic - that doesn't mean that it doesn't have loads of twisted little ideologies (yes - that word again) buried all the way on the inside.

You want some examples of what I mean? Ok then: the latest season of Doctor Who (and probably all the seasons before that maybe [12] - but this is the first time I've only really noticed it) seemed to be operating on the assumption that ugly monsters = bad people and cute girls = good people [13]: and yeah - I guess it's unfair to pick on Doctor Who especially when everything else everywhere also operates on the same assumption: but whatever - the fact that it's pretty much all prevailing (and unquestioned) means that - while you think you're just enjoying the exciting adventures of a crazy man and his magical blue box - what's seeping into your head is a bunch of fluff about how looks are morally important (which I would have thought is a message that kids get enough of anyway - but oh well).

Another one (that's still fresh in my mind [14]) would be the new Star Trek Into Darkness film which - although everyone says it's "about" 9/11 [15] would be much more accurately described as being about the idea that it's wrong to kill people without a trail (which is kinda strange / kinda cool - seeing how every other mainstream action movie ever seems to think that the best way for people to deal with bad guys is just to shoot them in the head: preferably just after you've said something really cool).

Is what I'm saying starting to make sense? (Maybe I'm just babbling like a loon here: I dunno: but what the hey - let me stick with it a little more and see how much further I can get...).

If I had a point here then I guess that point would be this: stories are attached to ideas and in the giant majority of cases - the type of story people tell will end up revealing an awful lot about how they see the world: their beliefs, their motivations - and etc etc etc. And - don't get me wrong: I don't mean that as a pejorative: in fact one of the reasons that I tend to love the genre of science-fiction so much is that it's one of the best genres for fixing a story to an idea and seeing how that plays out [16].

Which (oh my god finally) brings us all the way back round to American Splendor and what it is that makes it worthwhile reading: because - basically - if the all the other types of stories out there are bogged down and laden with all these signifies and whatnot then what's refreshing and special about the stories that Harvey Pekar tells is that mostly - they're free of these sort of concerns. And compared to the hustle and bustle of these sorts of interpretative - whatever - traffic jams with all the screaming and hollering and honking and noise blah blah blah: a Pekar joint is like a nice quiet walk through the countryside allowing this reader at least - the chance to enjoy the roses - that is: the small and delicate grace notes of stories untethered from their usual moorings.

I realise that - ok - that maybe sounds like a big heap of nonsense: so let me try and be a little bit more specific: first of all I guess I should say (for those of you who have never even heard of Harvey Pekar or Robert Crumb and have just been sitting patiently at the back hoping that I would get around to explaining) what exactly this comic book is.

Ok - yeah: it's called Bob and Harv's Comics and it's a collection of (mostly pretty small - like 3 or 4 page) strips written by professional curmudgeon [17] Harvey Pekar (who writes about the small daily events of his own life [18]) and illustrated by Robert Crumb (who is one of the best names to drop into a conversation if you want to sound like you're like sophisticated about what kind of comics you like "What do I like to read? Oh - you know: this and that: I read a lot of Robert Crumb - so yeah: you know.").

And in terms of what this book (and - well - pretty much everything Harvey Pekar wrote) is: or at least maybe the best way to think about it - and yes I realise that this might sound a little bit silly to say - but one of the reoccurring thoughts that struck me as I read this book for the third/fourth/whatever time is that - well - this is what people did before youtube. By which I mean: if you wanted to capture life as it was lived and freeze it in amber for future generations - then a mighty fine way of doing that was to get in down in story. And once I realised that - then Bob and Harv's Comics became less of a fruitless pursuit for all the typical story goodness that I normally look for (the thrills, spills and chills or whatever): and much more like listening to a record of old tape recordings and appreciating not the story structure (which is kinda all over the place: with some stories (I'm thinking particularly of Hustlin' Sides here - a tale about the perils of selling records at work) ending just at the point as they start to seem like they're going somewhere) or architecture (which is what normally holds my interest [19]) but rather: zooming into the detail and admiring the way that the individual rooms are furnished: the weave of the carpet, the smell of the wood, the way that the light streams in through the windows: that kind of thing - you know? Which - if you want to try and translate that means - the way that Pekar can capture a character in a few chosen words or squeeze the messiness of human life into the space of just a few pages: with all the awkward pauses and poorly chosen words that propel us forward: you know - that kind of thing [20].

Which I guess is what (spinning around back to where we sorta started) makes that Robert Crumb introduction kinda - well - wrong. As what (I would say) he doesn't quite understand (and so can't quite sell to those of us not already primed to buy) is what makes this book worth the effort. I mean - ok: it is true that "a population raised on mass media spoonfed a constant diet of sensational, formalized story-telling, they're gonna be impatient with Pekar's comics." but the reason isn't because Pekar is offering a better version of the same dish - it's that he's offering a different animal altogether (dogs and carrots again - which yes - is a pretty lousy metaphor I know - but what can you do?).  

So yeah: the first story in the book ("The Harvey Pekar Name Story") is just Pekar spoint blank staring straight at the reader: like the only suspect at a police line-up: or a comic without a microphone manages to cover a whole heap of ground in only a few pages - connection, loneilness, bullying, humour, death and idle philosophy all just floating above his seemingly random tossed off musings: but the joy of it really resides in the way that Pekar manages to affix his own self into the page so that by the end of - it doesn't feel like you've been taken on a ride in the way that most stories do (which is a good thing: because who doesn't like rides - right?) it's more like you've just had a brief snatch of conversation with a random passerby.

At one point describes his writing style (half-jokingly - I think) as "New neo-realist" but I'd prefer to think of it more as just a guy talking about his life and sharing selected moments with any readers who venture in. And yeah: there's not much real action or adventure or (at least not in this book - maybe elsewhere?) much in the way of romance even: but still - when you leave: you'll feel like you've got to know another life a little better: and even if it's a bit musty smelling in places - I guess (growing up) that's the kind of thing you start to appreciate as being important.

But - like I said: I'm obviously just getting old.

[1] And - damnit: I can perfectly hear the way he says that in my head: but can't quite place who is reminds me of: it's somewhere in the neighbourhood of Droopy Dog mixed with a small tinge of Glenn Quagmire: but somehow that's not quite the full mixture - dagnamit: I wish I could put my finger on it (oh well).

[2] Is that the right word? I dunno - it seems right: but maybe not?

[3] There's another introduction (at least in my copy) by Harvey Pekar - but we're gonna let that one slip by the wayside. Because - well - I don't want to be writing this thing forever and - hell - we'll be getting on to some other stuff Pekar says in a bit...

[4] I was incredibly temped to make this list go on forever - but decided that I would just write down the first two that popped into my head and just leave it at that: LUCKY FOR YOU.

[5] And just to clarify: my point here isn't that art house cinema is rubbish (I'll admit now that I can find myself partial to a cheeky little bit of something intellectual or whatever now and again) - it's just that mainstream stuff isn't bad just because it's mainstream and that obscure stuff isn't good just because it's obscure - both can be good and both can be bad: but it depends on the thing itself - right? And you shouldn't just write things off without giving them a chance or exploring further (I mean - when I put it like that it sounds so obvious that how can you even bring yourself to disagree I know...): I mean - maybe this isn't true - but the way he presents himself leads me to think that Robert Crumb is the kind of guy who'd refuse to watch E.T. because - "all mass produced stuff is rubbish" - which (for me) just kinda makes him a chump.

[6] Which - strangely - didn't stop me from watching most of them. But then I've always been slightly perverse like that... And (and I think this was around the time I watched Inland Empire whilst half asleep and/or reading a magazine profile he did about his paintings) I finally came round to understanding what it is that makes him worthwhile: and yeah - while I could go into detail about what I think that is - maybe that's something that I should leave for another time...

[7] One of these maybe? I dunno... (I was going to check - but (man) that list is long).

[8] And it's not just Robert Crumb who thinks this way. Whilst I was writing this I stumbled across this Comics Journal feature (Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore) which reprints letters written by Pekar back in 1989-1990. (Normally I would recommend reading the whole thing: but - man - it's kinda long: so maybe not this time). Interesting highlights include: "...most comics critics and fans have low standards. They like escapist, pulp-derived stuff that will transport them from “mundane” reality into what they believe is a more exciting, glamorous world of the imagination. They crave adventure stories in which life is at risk, where great fame and fortune can be won." (omg - that's me!) "Many comic book fans don’t like to read about everyday experience; they say such writing is “bo-o-o-oring.” It may also be painful to them; they’d rather fantasize than contemplate their own world. When they become comics critics, too often even the most well-read among them praise and overrate flawed, escapist work." (Yes yes and yes: I totally love myself some good escapism) "Genre novels rely for their appeal on contrived, tricky plots, sensational adventures in which lives, power, and wealth are at stake, idealized protagonists, too-good-to-be-true heroines, and other stereotyped characters. Obviously, they’re very popular. People who don’t take art seriously, who just want superficial entertainment, enjoy genre literature, TV, and movies." (Ha! It's like my whole outlook summed up in a few choice sentences).

[9] Which is pretty good and you can read for yourself here.

[10] The only bit on the Flickfilosopher website I could find that relates to this was this bit: "There’s one thing I care about most when I approach a movie: the story. Is the story engaging? Is the story interesting? Is the story something that will keep me diverted or entertained or provoked for two hours? This means that a film that does not tell a story that appeals to me on some level has, in my reckoning, failed as a movie. I don’t care how gorgeous the cinematography is if I don’t like the story. I don’t care what a technical marvel the FX are if I don’t like the story. I don’t care what an amazing performance the marquee cast turned in if I don’t like the story. This is an analogy I like to use. There are two restaurants: One serves the best meal you have ever had in your life. The service is perfunctory. The ambiance is forgettable. But the food is the amazing. In the other restaurant, the service is impeccable and supremely attentive. The atmosphere is spectacular. But the food is shit. I would rather eat at the first restaurant. Every time. The second restaurant does not interest me in the slightest. Of course, ideally, I would choose, if I could, to eat in a restaurant where the food is to die for, the service is slavish, and the setting is magnificent. But this is not always what is on offer. Movies are the same way. I will take a great story that is not technically distinguished over a beautifully presented story that does not speak to me." (and - well yeah: what she said).

[11] Sorry - like I said - I work in a children's library and this is one of my rare opportunities to vent some of this stuff out.

[12] I mean - obviously yes: seeing how Doctor Who always has a monster-of-the-week it needs to have ugly evil beings doing bad stuff to people. But I could have sworn that one of the messages it used to deliver was that "it's not what you look like - it's what's inside that counts" which I would say is something that gets violated most notable in that Rings of Akhaten episode where The Doctor and Clara work out that the bad people are bad because they look bad and the good people are good because they look good.

[13] One of the few exceptions to that was the episode Hide - which most people seemed to think had a bit of a cop-out ending but (for me anyway) actually managed to reverse a lot of the "all ugly things are bad" propaganda that the rest of the season had been espousing. Of course the way it did this was to make everything as sappy as humanly possible - what the hell: it's a child's show which means that it gets away with making you feel a little bit gooey on the inside.

[14] Mainly - it must be said - due to the heated back-and-forth discussions me and my esteemed literary flatmate have had on this very subject.

[15] I'm looking at you Forrest Wickman (and also - yeah: every other film reviewer in the world all of whom have seemed almost contractually obliged to say something like: "oh yeah - this film is totally about 9/11") . And - ok yeah: while I can see why you would be confused seeing how - as he points out - seemingly everyone attached to the film has something along the lines of "oh  yeah - this film is totally about 9/11" and the fact that there is loads and loads of 9/11-style imagery scattered throughout the film (flying things crashing into buildings and people running around screaming etc) - but then (and I think this is an important distinction to make): there is a big difference between what a film (or any story really I guess) shows us (or tells us about whatever) and what it tells us. So the Star Trek Film is a story about people in space - it shows us lots of explosions and stuff (in a kind of 9/11 reminiscent way) but it's not really about 9/11 seeing how it doesn't really have anything to say about it (compare and contrast: George Orwell's 1984 says that Totalitarianism is bad for the human spirit, Catch 22 says that war is messed up and - what? - Star Trek Into Darkness says that - what? - 9/11? (What does that even mean?) It references the event - but doesn't have anything substantive to say about it - yeah?) - but anyway: this is all completely beside the point (although I'd like to make a final reference to some Slavoj Žižek (obviously) who provides one of the best examples between what a story shows us and what it tells us by demonstrating in this clip how and why The Sound of Music is racist). So... yeah. Enough of this.

[16] Or as Philip K Dick puts it (much better than I could): "I will define science fiction, first, by saying what science fiction is not. It cannot be defined as 'a story set in the future,' [nor does it require] untra-advanced technology. It must have a fictitious world, a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society... that comes out of our world, the one we know: This world must be different from the given one in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society… There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation…so that as a result a new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition. [In] good science fiction, the conceptual dislocation---the new idea, in other words---must be truly new and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader…[so] it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification, ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create…. The very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create---and enjoy doing it, [experiencing] the joy of discovery of newness."

[17] A word which - it feels like - was especially minted for him.

[18] "Anyway that was one of he most interesting incidents that's ever happened to me in a super-market."

[19] With - well - a particular fondness for ones that look like they were built by M.C. Escher (if that's not stretching the metaphor too far: but you know what I mean right? Twisty time-travel or whatever. Jake Gyllenhaal sitting in a cinema next to a guy in rabbit suit or whatevers.

[20] With a large smattering - and I guess this is another thing about growing up: the more you experience you more you can find yourself relating to - of "oh my god - yes: that's so true!" my favourite being: "But that's one nice thing about working for the government. The government has more tolerance for diversity "


Further reading: American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor, The QuitterBreakdowns, I Never Liked YouHicksville, David Boring, Black HoleJimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthThe Beats: A Graphic History.

All comments welcome.

No comments: