Illustrated Man, #1 — American Splendor

In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.

“It’s words and pictures and you can do anything you want with words and pictures.” -Harvey Pekar

American Splendor is not a typical comic book. Over the course of almost 40 years it aspired only to chronicle the life of its author, Harvey Pekar, a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital. In small detail with intimate vignettes, anecdotes, and observations Pekar renders stories that have very little action, some are comprised almost entirely of talking or an internal monologue. Originally published and distributed independently by the author before success delivered him to major publishers late in life, American Splendor was one of the first true underground comics and it nurtured a devout cult following that in 2003 culminated in a major motion picture by the same name starring Paul Giamatti. Harvey Pekar died this past Monday, July 12, at the age of 70.

Coinciding with the movie release, Ballantine Books released an anthology of Pekar’s stories that serves as fine introduction to his work of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I would make the case that American Splendor realizes the greatest potential of postmodern navel-gazing autoethnography.

Here’s Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

I feel an affection for American Splendor because at times I write this way too, but mostly I don’t care to read what other anthropologists have written in this mode, the exception being Robert Leonard’s peerless, Yellow Cab. But American Splendor is compulsively readable and rereadable. In fact it might find a more appreciative audience in non-comic book fans.

More than anything American Splendor is marked by its depiction of mundane subject matter. In perhaps my favorite short of the book Pekar wakes up next to his girlfriend. He brushes his teeth and eats breakfast. He walks to the grocery store to do some shopping and on the way home runs into a friend. They talk and then he’s on his way. He sees the mailman and collects a package. He comes home and talks to his girlfriend, obsessing over his lackluster efforts to establish himself as a published jazz critic. When she discovers he forgot to buy coffee they have a fight and he leaves to buy the coffee.

That’s it. The end. Once upon a time there was this guy and some things happened. Here they are.

American Splendor is a record of a life lived. Arguably it embodies many of the same qualities that the late novelist and poet Roberto Bolano called “infrarealism,” a term the Guardian, in its obituary of Bolano, pigeonholed through his novel The Savage Detectives, “a challenging mixture of thriller, philosophical and literary reflections, pastiche and autobiography.” This definition works well for American Splendor too, save the bit about being a thriller. Unless you’re riveted by the spectacle of talking on the phone, taking a bath, just lying in bed, talking about sports, checking the mailbox, or walking around the streets of Cleveland thinking.

In some of these stories we are like guests in Pekar’s head. For example one is nothing more than him taking a walk, coming home and reading, then writing, then reading some more and talking to himself. This aspect of his existence is not unlike mine, living a life of the mind and looking to the printed word for comfort and wisdom. Pekar writes a lot about writing. We follow his trials as he fights to publish and distribute his comic book independently, takes promising phone calls that lead nowhere, sees his career as a jazz critic and political essayist stall, gets jerked around by the Village Voice, and meets celebrities. Anyone struggling to get published and establish themselves in the field will find something familiar here.

At most Pekar’s plots do not advance beyond swiping his neighbor’s newspaper, shooting the shit with co-workers on break, helping friends move, and serving jury duty. Like anthropologies that claim a history of the present American Splendor preserves for future generations what it was like to be lonely man working a dead-end job in a mid-western city in the late twentieth century. Even Pekar’s meager diet of rice, Corn Flakes, peanut butter, and Pepsi manages to make its way to illustration.

While most of American Splendor is taken up with Pekar telling the story of himself, he occasionally veers into oral history to tell other people’s stories. Pekar is an American Jew and he seeks out the company of older, European immigrant Jews. Borrowing their voices he regales us with tales of unionized workers getting beat on the picket line, Jewish street hustlers, and concentration camp survivors. Pekar also relates to his Black co-workers and finds it important to tell us about their musical tastes, folk wisdom, and opinions on pickled okra.

It must be said that a great deal of what makes the series so strong is the way that Pekar’s introspection is reflected creatively by his artists. One vignette features a full page spread of Pekar walking on top of another image of him just standing around, below his feet are studies of his profile, all layered on top of an oversized image of his forehead, eyes looking down. Lettering fills every available space as he thinks to himself and reflects. The reader’s eyes are drawn down the page in this cascade, but there is no action. Cleveland is a star in these stories as well. The reader is treated to realistic illustration that mirrors Pekar’s own realism through detailed renderings of industrial buildings, trains, streets, storefronts, and cars. Traffic lights, wires, and poles. Even the cracks in sidewalks.

For anthropologies that seeks to tell it like it is, to represent people’s lives in a way that they can recognize, American Splendor stands as a subtly complicated role model.

What follows are some of Harvey Pekar’s infamous David Letterman appearances (you may need headphones to hear these, folks have ripped these from their VHS collections and the audio can be weak):

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

12 thoughts on “Illustrated Man, #1 — American Splendor

  1. This is a wonderful tribute. :)

    I would be interested to hear more about what you feel like you gain from reading Pekar, Matt. I will at least watch the interviews later today when I’m not just taking a brief browser break, but for now I’m just going off your writing, not having read or listened to any of Pekar’s work.

    Does realistic == mundane? How does Pekar’s project compare with, say, Marjane Satrapi’s comics, which are certainly “realist” in the sense of being biographical, but which also have a very expressive art style and feature conversations with God, reveries, not to mention living through war and confrontations with very visible forms of injustice and oppression.

    I admit I have an emotional (I hope not intellectual!) bias against “kitchen sink reality” of the type Pekar seems to embody. On the one hand, boredom and routine and “small moments” can make wonderful material for art, but I’m not sure exhaustively simulating them does as much for me and many others as readers.

    My taste for some novelty in narrative is probably open to critique, but either I’m reading for “education” — in which I like some analysis or synthesis — or I’m reading for pleasure in which I prefer to read about experiences I /do not/ have. This can be an expression of privilege, true, but on the other hand my social “spot” is pretty close to Pekar’s it sounds.

    None of which is to take away from the dedication and talent that presenting the ultra-real demands, and Pekar no doubt had those virtues in spades. I’m not trying to crap on him so much as maybe provoke Matt or others into analysing what this kind of realism gives them and others?

  2. Oh, I am so pleased that someone wants to start a discussion about comic books and anthropology with me! Thanks for suggesting Persepolis, that should most certainly be a future Illustrated Man post.

    As for how Satrapi’s work compares to Pekar the paramount difference is that Satrapi is both an artist and a writer, whereas Pekar is a writer who works with artists to illustrate his stories. Moreover Persepolis has a strong linear narrative progression, not unexpected for an adult telling their life history. Pekar’s writing is almost plotless, which arguably reflects how life is actually lived.

    I like your turn of phrase, which I will bend into “kitchen sink realism” because I think it is especially apt in categorizing Pekar’s mode. And yes, it is a collection of “small moments.”

    So why does realism appeal to me, anthropologically? No doubt realism is an effective way to claim ethnographic authority. Everybody wants their conclusions to be believable and you can lead the reader down that path by leaving a trail of detailed descriptions like bread crumbs in a fairy tale forest.

    And realism can help make your writing appeal to a wider audience, one that includes the subject community in the research project or even mainstream American society. There’s a political element to that, consciously shaping anthropology to be relevant.

    But there’s also something to writing about the mundane, the everyday, the boring, that elevates it. Saying, “This too is important.” That the affairs of ordinary people are important. That they are worth retelling, preserving, and capturing in art.

  3. Great post, Matt.

    Now there is something I would never have expected…American Splendor + Savage Minds. But it works. I too am a fan of Mr Pekar–and I think there is a lot of anthropologically relevant content in his work.

    Andrew:

    “I admit I have an emotional (I hope not intellectual!) bias against “kitchen sink reality” of the type Pekar seems to embody. On the one hand, boredom and routine and “small moments” can make wonderful material for art, but I’m not sure exhaustively simulating them does as much for me and many others as readers.”

    Nothing wrong with that. Certain things appeal or interest certain people. If you don’t find it appealing or interesting, then don’t read it. I don’t see the issue here.

    “I’m not trying to crap on him so much as maybe provoke Matt or others into analysing what this kind of realism gives them and others?”

    Pekar reminds me of some of the work of Studs Terkel…some of those interviews in his book “Working” where people just talk about their lives and kind of ramble on. This kind of daily life, average person narrative is something that I find both very interesting and very anthropological in many ways. Of course it’s a stylistic way of presenting things, but what isn’t?

    The famous photographer Walker Evans was quick to differentiate his work from documentary work. He said that a police reporter did true documentary work, and that his own work was “documentary style”. He was well aware of the fact that his work assumed a particular style in order to communicate certain meanings or impressions.

    But I’m not sure exactly what it is that you’re trying to “provoke” here, Andrew. A defense of Pekar? A discussion about representation and realism?

    Matt wrote:

    “But there’s also something to writing about the mundane, the everyday, the boring, that elevates it. Saying, “This too is important.” That the affairs of ordinary people are important. That they are worth retelling, preserving, and capturing in art.”

    Exactly. And as I understand it, part of the goal of ethnography is to spend enough time with people to gain some kind of understanding or grasp of daily life, which isn’t always full of drama and major relevations. Sometimes it just plods along, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.

  4. Thanks for the responses, guys.

    I guess I’m not so much interested in a defence of Pekar, because I don’t feel he really needs to be defended. As Ryan says, different strokes, and I’m well capable of seeing the worth of this kind of work even though it says nothing to me personally.

    Hrm, I guess I’m interested in poking at the boundries of “realist”. Let’s say Pekar ended up, through a fluke, having to talk down someone who was threatening to commit suicide, or caught in a bank robbery, or himself charged with a serious crime, or he decided to go to a conflict-torn place in the world and document what was happening there. All of these things could happen yet I’m not sure they would fit easily into a “kitchen sink reality” art ethic (though you can certainly have a very gritty approach to portraying them).

    So, to what extent do things seem more realistic to a reader if they a) match their day to day experience, and b) don’t include the kinds of high drama that does inflect people’s lives at one point or another.

    There is a certain pulse-pounding element to some of the stories I heard in fieldwork, yet they were also pretty “mundane” from another perspective (a race to diagnose a mysterious ailment while resources run low, thinking that someone who had you kidnapped in another country may have followed you to this one, etc.)

    I’m in negotiations with an illustrator friend of mine to slip some short graphic-novel pieces in between the chapters of my thesis, incidentally. XD So comic-anthropology is very much on my mind right now.

  5. Andrew, poking at the boundaries of “realist” is a fascinating topic. According to Wikipedia,

    Realism in the visual arts and literature refers to the general attempt to depict subjects “in accordance with secular empirical rules,”[1] as they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation. As such, the approach inherently implies a belief that such reality is ontologically independent of man’s conceptual schemes, linguistic practices and beliefs, and thus can be known (or knowable) to the artist, who can in turn represent this ‘reality’ faithfully.

    I wonder how this squares with the assumptions of interpretive anthropology, according to which the proposition that a reality “independent of man’s conceptual schemes, linguistic practices and beliefs” would seem to be an impossibility.

    I’m not favoring one position or the other here, just noting the contradiction and wondering what appears in the cracks between its poles.

    Why, for example, do Pekar’s comics appear more “realistic” than Blondie or Peanuts? Or am I wrong to believe that they are being seen that way?

  6. I want to hear more about Andrew’s graphic novel project. Can you tell us why you are doing it and what it will look like?

  7. “I want to hear more about Andrew’s graphic novel project. Can you tell us why you are doing it and what it will look like?”

    I second that.

  8. Well, I’m embarrassed not to have more to say at the moment about the graphic-novel insertions at the moment; hopefully I will the more the illustrator and I get into discussions of what to include adn how to approach them.

    As for why, I’ve always been a huge fan of graphic novels, so it’s partly just curiosity as to what I can do. There are some anecdotes in my field notes that don’t contribute directly enough to my core thesis to fit comfortably in the chapters, and yet still contribute to the overall impression of the place and issues I want to give.

    Going back to my last post and John’s reply to it, I think the wikipedia definition of realism is exactly the kind of thing I want to pry open; critique of it is probably a bit cliche at this point in anthropology, the objective observer, blahblah. What’s maybe more interesting is what cues we see in art that causes us to read it in a realist mode, beyond the depiction of events that (we presume) actually occurred.

  9. Thanks for the great post! Pekar’s American Splendor is especially dear to me, since it opened up the world of “serious comics” when I was a kid. (The only American Splendor comics published here in Finland back then were those drawn by R. Crumb.)

    I think much of Pekar’s realism comes from the fact in his works the point of view is always his – or of his “informants” if he recounts their stories. He never tries to give the impression of being an objective observer, but more a participant with his opinions and views.

    In this sense Pekar reminds me of Joe Sacco’s journalist accounts (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde) in which the voice of the author and the sense of “being there” are always strong. Actually, I think American Splendor might have had a big influence on Sacco’s later work given that also Sacco has drawn Pekar’s stories.

    Anyway, long story short, I think the realism in these comics comes from the intimately subjective point of view, much resembling a certain style of ethnographic writing.

    Matt, I’d love to hear your take on Sacco (Satrapi and other similar artists)! And thanks for bringing up the topic of anthropology and comics!

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