March 5th, 2014
Harvey Pekar’s and Joseph Remnant – Cleveland
It’s hard to think of this as anything other than epitaph, given its status as a posthumous release, but the question remains, is this a memorial for the man or the city he lived in? Neither, as it happens - Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a book full of and about life, with both the city and its people being given ample space to breath on every page.
Pekar’s Cleveland has traditionally been an overbearingly crowded place, with even the most casual walks around town populated with an abundance of word balloons, thought bubbles and interjecting faces that threatened to black out the sky. That abundance of words and opinions is still present in this book, but even when the text is at its densest it’s always carefully contained at the top of the panel, leaving the environments depicted underneath gloriously un-squashed.
The city and denizens of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland are every bit as rich with opinion and story here as they ever were, but I can imagine some people finding the first half of the book a little bit plain, filled as it is with broad historical overview rather than the crooked, close quarters detail at which Pekar has always excelled. Pekar’s generosity and his sense of interest manifest themselves differently in the first stretch of this narrative, where they are implicit in the amount of space city and artist are given to establish themselves in concert with each other.
Remnant – his name far too apt for the job - renders Cleveland with an adherence to architectural detail that echoes the work of Eddie Campbell and his assistants in From Hell:
Here, as in that great book, buildings have a life of their own on the page – part of the environment Pekar and co exist in, but rendered with a solidity that rises above mere background detail:
Let us think of these places as being real; perhaps they are! Remnant’s background players have a similarly suggestive definition to them. Sometimes they add a lot to a simple scene – take the bit players in these panels for example:
The guy in the front of the first panel looks like he wants to cudgel himself to death rather than keep on contributing to Cleveland’s economic well-being, while the guy behind the ballot box in the second frame doesn’t look best pleased to feature in this particular historic moment.
Pekar’s history of Cleveland takes up the first forty or so pages, and while it draws a generally progresses in a straight line it does jump back and forth a bit on its way to the present. This detailed tour through the city would be enough to make Cleveland a quiet pleasure, but things gets a lot louder when Pekar arrives on page 42, breaking the story in half as he does so.
From this point onward, the reader is in the more familiar position, walking and talking with Harvey as he makes his way through the city he lives in:
It’s not all entirely straightforward though - certain details and anecdotes repeat themselves, sometimes with new details sometimes almost verbatim, forcing to reader to ponder whether these are stylistic choices or examples of wonky editing.
Take the story about how John T. Zubal’s used bookstore used to be a Hostess Bakery for example. On page 51 we’re told that “Even now, years after John acquired it, it’s possible to eat the Twinkie filling safely. It was all chemicals and didn’t deteriorate.” This story recurs again 44 pages later, prompted by its appearence on a TV show hosted by Antony Bourdain. On this occasion we’re told that the Twikie filling “had been there 10 or 15 years, but the the stuff was all chemicals and didn’t rot after all that time. It was still edible, and Bourdain tasted it on the show.”
Glitches like this make it clear that the history you’re reading the by-product of a slightly dysfunctional, human memory. The title says it all, I guess – this is Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and its most striking details and points of interest are therefore likely to be the ones that kept Harvey coming back after all those years.
Reading through the book again, I’m struck by the way that Pekar’s trademark hunched stride seems to be shared by all of the denizens of his Cleveland. More than his particular outlook on life, with Remnant’s help Pekar gives everyone in this book – even the baseball stars – something of his physical manner:
It’s no wonder the people of this town stoop so much, given the amount of history that’s piled up on them – history that is here present in almost every panel in the form of Pekar’s narration. The buildings may stand un-bothered by the running commentary, but Remnant’s human characters show evidence of this strange gravity in their every motion.
Sometimes it’s as though the barely contained agitation of Robert Crumb’s illustrations has been pushed downward into the characters’ feet by the weight of Pekar’s words:
Rather than adding up to a portrait of a defeated man or a defeated city, however, this adds to the sense of defiance that runs through the book. Pekar is plenty familiar with the many economic and social problems that have effected in the city, and he’s careful to qualify his more optimistic impulses while filling the reader in on these issues, but that optimism is still there. It’s not for nothing that the book open’s with Pekar telling the reader that he’s “had plenty of good days.”
The book ends on a vision of a Cleveland free of people, free of Pekar, free of life:
The trick is to remember that they’re not in here for a reason. They’re out there, in the world, struggling against the weight of their own stories one footstep at a time.
Ulli Lust – Today Is The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
People complained that Eddie Campbell’s review of Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life didn’t discuss the art in enough detail, but in praising the sustained consistency of Lust’s line, Campbell identified the book’s strongest aspect: its cumulative effect.
In Lust’s hands, scenes of cruel realism like this one…
…and bursts of pained expressionism like this…
…feel of a piece as equally true depictions of her experience, separated by a couple of hundred pages of hurt and by a trail of footsteps that lead from one country to another and back again.
The unified nature of Lust’s approach underlines the lacerating consistency of her encounters with men; to notice one is to be barbed by the other.
That this sense of sustained, wearying horror doesn’t quite manage to define the long adventure chronicled in Today Is The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life is a testament to the desire for freedom and knowledge that lead her on this journey in the first place, and which is articulated in every line on every page of this long, difficult autobiographical comic.
Marc-Antoine Mathieu – 3″
A murder mystery that takes place in three seconds and 900,000 kilometres, 3″ exists in that strange borderland where something that would seem like a novelty item if it was less professionally produced attains a certain experimental aura by virtue of its execution.
Marc-Antoine Mathieu manipulates the reader’s experience of this interzone with astonishing ease, putting them in the position of a particle of light as it zips through a crime scene in a series of relentless zooms. This is the sort of comic that teaches you how to read it as you go; if 3″ is to be read at all it must be read in a state of heightened attention.
Then again, the same could be said of Where’s Wally?
Moogs Kewell – Big In Japan
To read this slight, charming travel diary is to find yourself experiencing a comic that has been constructed as an aid to memory first of all, and a narrative second, if at all.
This is visible in the way artist and Moogs Kewell‘s pages don’t so much establish a visual chronology as the present a loose accumulation of snapshots. There is movement here, page to page and caption to caption, but to find it you have to give yourself over to the accumulation of people, objects and places Kewell catalogues:
Sometimes Kewell gives herself over to numbering panels in the hope of keeping it clear. Somewhat amusingly, the pages where she adopts this technique tend to be amongst the more traditionally readable pages in the first place – a possible indicator that we might consider the diaristic disorientation of these pages as part of the experience, rather than as a bar to it.
There’s not a great deal of insight here into Japanese culture here, or much reflection on Kewell’s position as a Kentish lass with an abundant enthusiasm for the place – this is above all else an abundantly enthusiastic book, but the ways in which it codifies its enthusiasm are nonetheless telling.
You see, there are two art styles at work in Big in Japan. For the sake of good old-fashioned, EngLit pretentiousness, lets call them the Emulative Respectful and the Emulative Ephemeral.
The former is used to depict scenes and situations that have a certain cultural gravity about them – when Kewell sketches her friends’ wedding ceremony, for example, or when she finds Buddha:
The latter style is used more frequently throughout this book, and tends to be used to depict the more modern, less traditionally serious passions that Kewell chronicles within – karaoke blowouts, novelty toy purchases, rips to the Moomin cafe, etc:
As I’ve already indicated by my naming strategy, these styles are united by their desire to be Emulative - the Respectful of reality, by way of the conventions established for recreating it in sketchbooks, the Ephemeral of kitschy pop culture detritus Kewell surrounds herself with.
Kewell’s Japan is a land of abundant novelty, and the prevailing use of the Emulative Ephemeral throughout the book converts even Kewell’s few travel-based frustrations into party of the novelty of experience – frustration becomes the memory of frustration becomes a cute performance of the same. This process is sped along by her ripped-straight-from-the-diary approach to composition, with its lack of regard for distinctions between one event and another.
You might expect the Emulative Respectful to prove disruptive in this context, but while a genuine note of frustration that was depicted in a way that was true to itself would disturb the contents of Kewell’s pages, the shift from the Ephemeral into the Respectful merely slows the page down. By drawing focus where there was previously a confusion of different actions all happening at once, the Respectful therefore imparts Kewell’s sense of value on the reader.
[PLEASE NOTE: Any attempts to caricature this as a claim for the superiority of "detailed" comic book art over its "cartoony" counterpart will be graded harshly.]
Kewell’s friends are (almost, see postscript) unique in their ability step happily from one style to the other, their level of reality determined by their context, and – presumably – by how much time Kewell had to observe them in-situ. I’m particularly fond of this sketch of the gang at dinner, carefully poised as it is halfway between the big-headed, pop-eyed Ephemeral style they’re so often caught in and the Respectful tone Kewell reserves for elegant or impressive architectural sketches:
It’s scenes like this that remind us that it was the gravity of Kewell’s interest in her friends which was strong enough to pull her into this story to begin with, no matter how many other shiny stories she may have encountered along the way.
POSTSCRIPT: The only other character to find himself in the strange netherworld between the Respectful and the Ephemeral is the robot from Laputa who adorns the top of the Ghibili Museum:
Is his depiction here a reflection of cultural standing or of Kewell’s personal reception of the same? Such distinctions are smoothed over, rather than illuminated, by the shifting styles of Big In Japan, but one thing is clear: this robot is important. Moogs Kewell has spent some time with him in the hope that we should spend time with him too.