Hardly anything actually happens… mostly it’s just people talking, or Harvey by himself, panel after panel, haranguing 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…real in late twentieth century Cleveland as it lurches along from one day to the next.
R. Crumb (1996) “A Mercifully Short Preface”, 1996.
Many of Pekar’s stories are not true stories, but the sort of anecdotes, observations and snippets of dialogue that a writer might jot down in his notebook for later use in a finished work.
Tim Kreider (2005) “Throwing the Book at Comics Artists”, 191.
Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical everyday micronarratives are predicated on their very quotidian-ness. Describing them one runs out of adjectives to describe the comics’ narrative world: mundane, ordinary, banal, normal, familiar etc. Pekar’s canon of work with numerous collaborators grasps this sense of the everyday as “the landscape closest to us, the world most immediately met.” (Highmore, 2002, 1). The run-of-the-mill events, occurences and ruminations were also often developed to further encompass the story of their own story-making process as Pekar sometimes worked to incorporate and transform self-reflexive commentary into the raw material of narrative. But as the competing prefatory quotations from comics artists Crumb and Kreider indicate, this defining quotidian quality can be criticised as much as celebrated.
Indeed, the very ordinariness of Pekar’s work in American Splendor and beyond is precisely what readers seem to respond to. Leaving aside the thorny subject of what exactly constitutes a “true story”, Kreider is absolutely correct to point out that Pekar’s work comprises of “anecdotes, observations and snippets of dialogue”, or as Crumb puts it “[h]ardly anything happens.” What Pekar strived for was a poetics of the everyday, captured fleetingly as part of a constant and evolving process. To examine and illustrate this, we can look closely at one of Pekar’s most celebrated collaborations with Crumb, “Hypothetical Quandary.”
The strands of image and text are ingeniously entwined in this micronarrative, showing us Pekar as narrator as he leaves his house to go and buy a loaf of bread. The text is monological, represented via thought balloons that reveal the character’s internal dilemma, his hypothetical quandary, reflecting on how his life would have been different if a major publisher had taken him on allowing him to write full-time (effectively removing him from everyday life and its prosaic problems and thus also his subject matter). The thought balloon is a device that allows the revelation of the interiority of a character while simultaneously locating that character within a contiguous social environment, in this case a clearly recognisable Cleveland – Pekar’s hometown, and the setting for much of his work.
The story is told economically over three pages, the last of which is reproduced here. The verbal and visual threads, while distinctive, are complementary. There is a steady, rhythmic visual pulse maintained by Crumb’s regular subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene transitions (see McCloud: 1994, 70-73) and enhanced by the verbal monologue. The visual style is late Crumb, more realist than the caricatures of his comix heyday. The rhythm of the language itself is based in the vernacular, the language of everyday demotic speech, a linguistic flow that captures a sense of consciousness akin to the flux of jazz tempos or stand-up comedy. The last two panels conclude with an affirmation of the sensual pleasures associated with freshly baked bread.
And that is it. The story starts and ends (the last panel even shows a classic “the end” sign). But there is of course so much more that can be said about this short piece. As this extract shows, Pekar has contributed to what Greice Schneider, in an unconscious echo of Kreider, has identified in comics as a “certain kind of work that privileges unexceptional everyday situations; stories that challenge any accurate plot description, often deprived of any special events and inhabited by characters doing nothing more than living out their own routines.’ (Schneider: 2010, 37).
The observations that Kreider (himself a talented political cartoonist) dismisses are returned to again and again. “The end” is never really the end – the diverse fragments that make up American Splendor comprise a vast archive of the everyday. Pekar sometimes went back to revisit events and incidents he had previously narrativised, working with different artists, altering emphasis, engaging in a dialogue with prior narrations.1
But if Kreider’s criticism is misplaced, it is perhaps still possible to locate Pekar’s work within a wider discourse on literary short fiction. Pekar’s writing resists the lure of the epiphany, that flash of what E.L. Doctorow calls “compressive illumination” associated with the modernist short story. The term has acquired a secular meaning thanks in no small part to James Joyce, who applied the religious term for the manifestation of God to “the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” (Joyce: 1944, 41). Writing in 2000, Doctorow notes that “the writers of today are drifting away from the classic model of the modern short story. They seem more disposed to the episodic than the epiphanic.” (xv)
Pekar’s stories are middles without beginnings or ends – they resist Aristotelian dramaturgy (a fact that annoys Kreider) by sidestepping either anagnorosis or catharsis. “Hypothetical Quandary” sets up a potential conflict, and then avoids any possible resolution or revelation. What is privileged is Bergsonian flux over the Joycean fragment.2 They capture that sense of the contemporary everyday in late twentieth century urban environments when, as Perec put it; “nothing passes except time, people, cars and clouds.” 3 This is precisely what characterises Pekar’s episodic everdayness, where life lurches along one day to the next.
Crumb, R. (1996) “A Mercifully Short Preface”, American Splendor presents Bob and Harv’s Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows), no pagination.
Doctorow, E.L. (2000) “Introduction”, Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E.L. Doctorow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.), xiii-xvi.
Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction (London: Routledge).
Joyce, J. (1944) Stephen Hero (New York: New Directions Press).
Kreider, T. (2005) “Throwing the Book at Comic Artists”, The Education of a Comics Artist: Visual Narrative in Cartoons, Graphic Novels and Beyond, eds. M. Dooley and S. Heller (New York: Allworth Press), 189-192.
McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins).
Pekar, H. and R. Crumb (1996) “Hypothetical Quandary”, American Splendor presents Bob and Harv’s Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows), 78-81.
Schneider, G. (2010) “Comics and Everyday Life: From Ennui to Contemplation”, European Comic Studies (3.1), 97-109.
Versaci, R. (2007) This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature (New York: Continuum).
- This approach of retelling the same event in different ways emphasises both the subjectivity of memory and the processual construction and re-construction of the past as it impinges on the present. See Rocco Versaci’s comparative analysis of the (re)telling of an incident from Pekar’s school days in “Austere Youth” (1992, illustrated by Frank Stack) with an episode from The Quitter (2005, illustrated by Dean Haspiel); 67-70 ↩
- A more sustained reading would of course reveal how the binary of flux and fragment fractures under closer scrutiny. American Splendor is after all a collection of discrete if interconnected pieces that form a whole – for instructive comparison see short story cycles such as Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and, of course, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978). More recent examples include Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1984) and Tom Humberstone’s work in progress, Ellipsis. These texts work to problematise easy distinctions between short stories and the novel. The archetypal model for enacting and exploring the dialectic between flux and fragment remains Benjamin’s monumental Arcades Project (2002). Thanks to Henderson Downing and Ernesto Priego for clarifying these thoughts at the recent panel discussion on short forms at the Flash Symposium! Shorts on Shorts at Birkbeck, University of London, May 24th 2011. ↩
- Cited in Schneider, 21 ↩