Tag Archives: Illustrated Man

Illustrated Man #10: The Vision

I first started blogging about anthropology and comic books back in 2012 in an occasional series titled Illustrated Man. It lasted for about nine posts before petering out as other projects demanded my attention, especially going back to grad school to pick up a Masters after completing my doctorate. While I stopped blogging about them I never stopped reading comics.

Now a professional librarian, my engagement with comics is changing again as I begin serving on a graphic novel book prize committee for my state professional association. It’s time to shake off the rust and get to writing again! So welcome to The Return of Illustrated Man. For our first installment I’ll be taking up a subject neglected in the original run, superheroes, with a review of The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast (2016).


Marvel fans know Vision as one of the oldest characters of the Avengers, his Silver Age origins dating back to 1968. Despite his longevity Vision is not a heavy hitter among the superstar Marvel heroes and is typically only seen in the context of the Avengers group. I mean, he’s no Wolverine or Spider-Man. Casual fans may recognize him as a supporting character from the recent blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Perhaps because of his status as a relatively minor character in the Marvel canon, Vision was ripe for a reimagining and his latest iteration, a twelve issue run from 2016 now collected in two trade paperbacks, is stellar.

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The Illustrated Man vs. Super-Graeber

In the comics industry, special issues that promise one hero “versus” another are usually long on gimmick and short on action. Keeping with that tradition my blog post promises an epic confrontation when in reality I’m not really engaging Graeber’s thought provoking essay “Super Position” in a substantial way. I’m going to use the author’s Freudian critique of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as catalyst to reflect on the anthropological study of popular culture.

As an aside I will say this about Graeber’s essay: he uses Roman numerals to demarcate thematic chunks of the essay, which allows him to write without transitions. Whenever I see this technique it always makes me think of Walter Benjamin, that patron saint of the Marxist critique of pop culture. To invoke Benjamin in an essay on Batman is like saying, “I’m very serious about playing around here.” Or, at least that’s what I’m thinking when I write essays with Roman numerals.

Graeber’s subject is Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman movies, which are themselves based on Frank Miller’s legendary characterization of the hero in “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), widely considered one of the greatest comic book stories of all time (and rightfully so). Miller’s book closed the door on the Silver Age version of the character and redefined the Gotham City universe as gritty and violent. Among the movie going public Miller is also known as the original author of Sin City and 300, while to the comics crowd he’s associated with legendary runs at Daredevil and Wolverine.

Miller himself is a reactionary ass and his slander of the Occupy movement as composed of “louts, thieves, and rapists” was only the latest salvo in a stream of proto-fascist dribble. So when Graeber pins down the The Dark Knight Rises as “anti-Occupy propaganda” he is pretty much on the money. A more patient man than I could probably connect the dots between the Reagan-era conservatism of “Returns” with Rises. Neoliberalism and the apocalypse, maybe. Revenge, definitely.

What are superhero movies all about? And why are they so popular right now? These are the questions that prompted me to think about how anthropology could actually forward such a project. How ought we compose a research agenda focused on mass media and popular culture? Personally, I find myself consistently disappointed in most everything academics have written about pop culture. I’d like to think that anthropology could do better. What Graeber is doing here is using history and critical theory to write a polemic in order to make a political point. That’s fine, but it’s only one way that anthropology might go about designing research about comic book super heroes. Continue reading

Illustrated Man, #8 – Sita Sings the Blues

The history of womankind is a broken record as the same damn things keeping happening over and over again. At least that seems to be a major theme in Sita Sings the Blues, an incomparably unique animated feature that combines ancient Hindu mythology, a 1920s blues singer, and one artist’s failed marriage to tell the story of a every woman who lets a man walk all over her.

This is a true labor of love, rendered mostly in Adobe Flash, by the artist and cartoonist Nina Paley. Paley has made the complete feature available for free under a Creative Commons license. Now that the music rights have cleared for Annette Hanshaw’s soundtrack the film is also available on DVD and if you like what you see there’s merchandise for sale so appreciative audiences can support the artist.

The story unfolds in multiple layers, each taking place at divergent moments in history and represented with its own animated style. We begin in present-day San Francisco, portrayed here in squigglevision, with the couple, Nina and Dave, in domestic bliss. Dave’s sudden departure for a new job in India foreshadows the impending end of their relationship. Paley juxtaposes this with the epic myth of Sita and Rama, presented as gouache paintings come alive. Interrupting or narrating the story is a third form, a trio of shadow puppets commenting on the myth. These characters exist out of time. Finally the signature sequences are done with computer animation as a cartoonish Rama and Sita act out their story with Sita singing the words of Annete Hanshaw’s blues. Although visually set in the myth the audience is experiencing creative expressions from the early twentieth century America and encouraged to note the similarities between the two.

“I never knew how good it was to be a slave to one who means the world to me,” she sings.

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Illustrated Man, #7 – Shane, the Lone Ethnographer

In this installment of Illustrated Man we’re joined by anthropologist and comic book aficionado, Sally Campbell Galman, assistant professor of child and family studies at the U Mass School of Education. Dr. Galman is author and illustrator of Shane, the Lone Ethnographer, an introductory text that uses comics as a vehicle for teaching field methodology.

MT: Tell me something of your love for comics. What is the personal history of your tastes and interests?

SG: As a girl growing up in Japan and Hawaii surrounded by early Anime culture and the comics scene on base I was phenomenally uninterested in comix/comics and the associated culture. I think a large part of this was that back then (1980s) it was a heavy, heavy masculinist scene that alienated a lot of girls and boys, and maybe I was responding to that. The genre is defined much, MUCH more widely now and I think that’s a lot more welcoming for girls and women as well as subaltern men and people of color, to name a few.

I really wasn’t interested in that as much as I was in drawing — drawing was what I spent my days and nights doing and developing. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not classically trained in ANY respect, but I do remember there was this little Ed Emberly book about learning to draw animals from basic shapes that rocked my 5 year old world.

It’s probably a little pedestrian for the dyed-in-the-wool comics fan but the two artists who turned me on to the possibilities of the graphic novel and the panel or strip-format comic were Gary Larson and Art Spiegelman. The former was so quirky — it gave me the idea that there could be more than just superheroes or Prince Valiant or Cathy. The latter taught me about diversity of style and subject matter. The Maus series changed my world from an artistic and political point of view, considering I first came across it in 6th grade. Again, things are much different now, and as an adult (with the internet!) I have a much better range of stuff to read.

MT: Why did you think it would be a good thing to bring comics and anthropology together? Is there something that comics can do for anthropology?
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Illustrated Man, #6 – Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle gets around, notably to places most of us don’t go. Pyongyang, perhaps his best known work, is a graphic memoir of his travels in North Korea. An animator by training Delisle was granted a two month work visa to oversee the production of a children’s cartoon in that isolated nation. A similar work situation found Delisle temporarily placed in Shenzhen, China, an experience that was also turned into a travelogue. Comic fans and other curious characters can find previews of these works over at Drawn and Quarterly, he also keeps his own website with a blog in French (the man is Quebecois).

In this installment of Illustrated Man, we turn our attention to Burma Chronicles, Delisle’s most recent foray into the graphic representation of a westerner’s encounter with an Asian culture. Why Burma Chronicles you ask? They shuttered our local Borders Books and I got it on clearance, that’s why. I for one am not thrilled at that company’s implosion (unlike some snarky others). Shit man! I live in a city of 180,000 and now we have one bookstore left, a Barnes and Nobles. Okay, two if you count the used store that specializes in romance novels.

Back to the comic. Guy’s wife, Nadege, is an admin for Medecins Sans Frontières, and she brings them to Rangoon while MSF attempts to reach a remote and stigmatized ethnic group who reside along the border with Thailand. While Nadege is away Guy spends a lot of time caring for their infant son Louis, socializing with the NGO crowd, trying to squeeze in a little work on the side, and making wry observations about everyday life under the military junta.

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Illustrated Man, #5 – Journey to Cahokia and Jingle Dancer

Can anthropology be for children? Should anthropology be for children? In this installment of Illustrated Man we turn our attention to two picture books from the juvenile stacks of my local public library.

Books for children can, on occasion, offer a clarity into underlying issues that belies their apparent simplicity. In the introduction to the revised edition of Enjoy Your Symptom, Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek seizes on this:

Whatever the vicissitudes and deformations of Lacan in cultural studies, one should focus on what happens with children in their early age, following the wise Jesuit motto, “Give me a child till he is seven, and afterward you can do with him whatever you want.” So I am tempted to claim that there is hope for us Lacanians as long as American children are massively exposed to Shel Silverstein’s two classic books, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O; one is almost embarrassed by the direct way these two books render in naked form the basic matrix of the Lacanian opposition of desire and drive.

I too have felt the profound touch of picture books like Leo Lionni’s treatise on epistemology and the non-translatability of experience, Fish is Fish, or Jon Muth’s tranquil and enlightening, Zen Shorts. Kids’ books are big business and tenure track positions are getting harder to find. Maybe there are some anthropologists out there who want to get in on this genre?

With the AAA’s push for a more “public anthropology” we might consider too the role our discipline can play in K-12 education. I’m not talking about the anthropology of education or an anthropology of children like the work being done by the good people at the CAE, which is in itself fascinating and, of course, vitally important given the politicization of ed discourse in the public sphere. But, imagine instead an anthropology for children. Maybe there’s a CAE person reading this now who can add to our discussion, are there anthropologists out there right now writing to children?

There are a number of kids’ books that brush up against anthropology or that invite one to interject an anthropological spin on things. At my house we have a slew of these “people around the world” type books (all of them gifts), including ones on bread, shoes, houses, and families. The DK Eyewitness series offers beautiful picture books on archaeology, mythology, Indians, classical ancient societies – Egypt, Greece, Rome, the biggies – even evolution and early humans (or as my kids call them “Monkey People”). The archaeologists already got Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. With cool how-to books like this one they need someone to move into Bill Nye territory.

Granted works like the DK series are commercial productions for the kiddie book market. They’ve no doubt got academics serving as consultants or fact checkers, but most of the creative work is done by graphic designers and copy writers who know how to make books that kids want and that parents will buy. That’s why I find the two works I’d like to discuss today so interesting. They are artistic works of scholarship and experience, creatively rendered and engaging to young people. For any anthros wanting to write for children, here are some role models
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Illustrated Wimmin, #4 – The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

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.

Alison Bechdel crashed the party on American literature’s main stage with Fun Home (2004) a stunning graphic memoir about coming of age, coming out, and discovering her father’s own closeted gay identity. It received rave reviews and was featured at the top of a number of end of the year best book lists and, with the close of the ’00s, reappeared on some best of the decade lists. And rightfully so, there wasn’t a more monumental nonfiction comic book in a decade that will be remembered for an explosion in top notch comic output. There hasn’t been a more significant comic memoir since Maus (1986).

My own encounter with Fun Home began on the Eastern Band Cherokee reservation as I was conducting the ethnographic field research for my dissertation. I was cast in a theatrical production as a soldier in Andrew Jackson’s army and one of my fellow Indian killers was a bohemian epileptic artist named Pat working his way back to Florida from Knoxville. Like Capote’s villain from In Cold Blood he traversed America’s highways with a library in his trunk: Zizek, Baudrillad, and a borrowed copy of Bechdel’s novel.

After I settled in Newport News I discovered Fun Home in the stacks at my public library and got hooked on Bechdel’s beautiful ink lines, hyper-literary self reflection, and slightly neurotic gallows humor. I was anxious to get my hands on more of her work and I soon learned I had a lot of catching up to do. Before achieving celebrity status Bechdel was already a star in the gay and lesbian community for her biweekly strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, first published in 1983. A nearly 400 page retrospective was released in 2008 as The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.

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Illustrated Man, #3 – The Stuff of Life

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.

A cultural anthropologist, I am frequently called upon to teach biological anthropology. This has always been in the context of introductory level courses: human evolution or general anthropology with an evolution component. After stumbling out of the gate, I have become comfortable wearing the evolution and ecology hat. In particular I find pleasure in arranging the topic of human origins as a narrative. You could say that my approach definitely betrays my bias as one more skilled in the humanistic side of anthropology. Yet I am very cognizant of the fact that many students are drawn to courses like Introduction to Anthropology because it qualifies as a science in their distribution requirements, but does not require math or a lab.

I’m not getting saddled with a blow off class. I’m going to hit ’em hard with evolutionary theory and basic genetics. Evolution I can do because I’ve read Darwin, Dawkins, Gould, and Mayr. But structure and function of DNA isn’t exactly my forte. So I need something challenging for my kids, but not out of my league. That’s why I require The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA as supplement to the more usual textbook fare. At just under 150 pages, all illustrated, Stuff can, in an evening or two, easily be digested by anyone who passed high school biology.

There’s also a lot here that will appeal to comic book fans. Author Mark Schultz, writer and illustrator for the venerable Prince Valient strip, brings wit and a snappy pace to otherwise dry material. He did an outstanding interview on NPR Science Friday (which is how I discovered the book) where he talks about the medium of comics and how he approached nonfiction material. Illustrators Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon are award winners, having taken home two Eisners for their art in Alan Moore’s completely awesome super-hero-crime-procedural Top Ten. Their ink brush lines bring a fun, cartoony look making the book a delight to look at without distracting from the lessons at hand. The book’s greatest strength comes from the aide the Cannon’s art provides to visualizing things like cell division and protein synthesis. Right-brained learners rejoice!

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Illustrated Man, #2 — My Neighbors the Yamadas

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.

I was first exposed to the beauty of Studio Ghibli productions back in my dreadlocked college daze, years before I became the father of three girls. I’ve long treasured a secret joy found only in children’s programing and in my free time – back when I had free time – I’d randomly chose selections from the kid’s section of Hollywood Video (a commercial business that rented something called “VHS” — feature films stored on magnetic tape, I know it sounds weird).

This is how I discovered Hayao Miyazaki and the beloved classic, My Neighbor Totoro. A truly transcendent film, a gift to the future. I went on to become a huge Ghibli fan. I’ve seen twelve of their nineteen features (at least according to Wikipedia) and I am now eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of Tales of Earthsea, based on the fantasy series by anthropology scion Ursla K. Le Quin.

In the 1990s, as American popular culture began to take note of Japanese anime and manga Ghibli rose in profile as a preeminent studio. Eventually its stateside distribution would be picked up by Disney under the leadership of superfan, John Lasseter. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately this has led to a redubbing of the treasured Totoro, which replaced the original cast with celebrity voices and changed the Japanese soundtrack to one Disney believed was more palatable to American ears. Prior to this Totoro was distributed in the U.S. by low-budget and cult favorite, Troma Entertainment. If at all possible, I encourage you to seek out the earlier Troma dub or, if you have an international DVD player, the Japanese language version with English subtitles. If the fiasco surrounding the Disney release of Jacques Perrin’s Oceans is any indication, it seems likely that Disney has taken creative liberties, intentionally mistranslated, or simply cut some aspects of Japanese culture to appease American audiences.

And yet, Disney produced the American release of Spirited Away, a film many consider to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece and which won an Oscar in 2003 for best animated feature, and, most recently, the early 2010 hit Ponyo. Disney has also sought to capitalize on Ghibli’s back catalog, producing original dubs of older features previously unreleased in the U.S. including the subject of this post, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Right off the bat, American fans of Japanese popular culture will notice that My Neighbors the Yamadas does not look like an anime film. It has a completely different stylistic feel. In place of anime’s infantile, doe-like eyes and expressive hair on long and lean bodies we get something that appears to be watercolor over ink lines with the aesthetic character of a color comic strip in a Sunday paper.

The Yamadas is not directed by Miyazaki but Isao Takahata, a anime director famous in Japan but relatively less known to American audiences (most notably Roger Ebert championed Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, calling it one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time). With the Yamadas, Takahata has created a genuine sleeper hit that is beautiful, sophisticated, and hilarious.

Narratively My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of vignettes almost all of which depict events in everyday life from the point of view of different members of the Yamada family. The short sketches are indicative of the material’s origin as a comic strip. There is the father, Takashi, and mother Matsuko. Teenage son Noboru and grade school aged daughter, Nonoko. Shige is the grandmother and Pochi the family dog. As in the previous entry for Illustrated Man on American Splendor, my appreciation of Yamadas stems from its detailed portrayal of the ordinary. Like American Splendor these are “slice of life” sketches and while the gags don’t hit pay dirt every time they come quickly and there’s enough of them so something is going to stick.

The vignettes are strung together in thematic segments, often with ironic titles like “Domestic Goddess” for a series of stories about Matsuko. Her stories center around the labor of being a housewife: doing the laundry, shopping, changing light bulbs, doing the dishes, and getting the house ready for company to visit. “Marriage Yamada Style” features Takashi and Matsuko together, doing little things for one another, annoying each other, eating out, and fighting over the TV set. Like in a musical, realism can suddenly give way to fantasy sequences, like when their epic battle over the remote control turns into this dance number:

My Neighbors the Yamadas is made all the more unique by its use of haiku as a segue between vignettes. Irascible Shige visits an elderly friend in the hospital that seems more like a country club. But when she demands of her friend, “Just what are you in for?” the friend turns to tears and they walk away together in silence. A narrator’s voice reads “No sign of death’s approach in the cicadas’ voices.”

In another scene Noboru takes a phone call from a girl while Matsuko and Shige watch with great interest. After he says goodbye he bounds to his room and turns up the music loud, with shouts of ecstasy he dances on his bed. “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn.”

Takashi stumbles home late from work and is completely exhausted, everyone is asleep save Matsuko who is watching TV. He demands dinner and without looking up from the TV she informs he can have beancake or a banana. Disgusted he spits out, “Who wants to come home after a hard day’s work to beancake.” And she gets up, “So the banana, then?” He struggles even to get a cigarette to his lips he’s so tired as she fetches his fruit and some tea before sitting down to watch her show. Absentmindedly, Takashi puts the banana in his mouth without peeling it. “Turn toward me. I’m lonely too. The autumn dusk.”

I queried my friend and anthropologist of Japan, Chris Nelson, about the significance of haiku in My Neighbors the Yamadas. To my mind it served to elevate the quotidian events of the Yamadas’ life into something beautiful, equating poetry with the chores of a housewife, the insecurities of a socially awkward teen, the trials of a small child lost in the mall. Additionally, I read it as marking the stories as particularly Japanese as if the haiku was doing some nationalist work too. The original Japanese movie trailers, which come packaged as special features on the Disney DVD make clear that the Yamadas were marketed not only as a typical family, but as a quintessentially Japanese family.

Though he had not yet seen the feature, Chris took a break from archival work in Okinawa to offer this thoughtful reply:

I don’t think that the use of poetry is really marked or unusual in this particular Japanese context. In fact, I was reading your message in a coffee shop after I had been turning the pages in the weekend paper (local, not national). There in the middle were two pages of poems submitted by readers. Most of them have the same kind of seasonal cues that you’ve mentioned. What the poem does is tie the particular event of the story to the season, but also to something more abstract. It works to tie something from daily life to the ineffable. If I were a poet and I was going to write a poem, I would try to do the same thing.

It speaks to connoisseurs of poetry, who get the allusions. It also challenges me to try to say something novel with all of these “already saids.” The Ghibli folks are extending this to cartoons, but there’s also something pleasantly familiar about that to most viewers, who have seen this in lots of conventional TV animations (many made in the visual style of this one). In the case of the animation, it also provides a kind of narrative closure for the story and links a modern animation to older forms of popular performance.

There is much in My Neighbors the Yamadas that an anthropological audience will find pleasantly familiar. The English dub, staring Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon as the dad and mom, is available on Netflix and is totally adorable. I watched it with my seven year olds and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The only thing I could compare it to are the early years of The Simpsons. Those first three seasons when The Simpsons was irreverent and quirky with a sweet, affectionate core that stands in contrast to the wacky, bawdy, and self-referential years that followed. So Yamadas is family friendly, but like the early Simpsons it depicts an imperfect family in a way that will amuse adults, not because of its references to popular culture but because its representation of domestic life are humorous and honest. The Yamada family bickers and can be petty, even passive aggressive, but their faults are all recognizable and realistic.

Like my father told me, “You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Que sera sera, what will be will be.

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):