I’ve posted several times over the last couple of weeks about how I love comics and graphic novels. I’d heard of Harvey Pekar and his “American Splendor” series, especially once it was made into a movie, but hadn’t read any of his books until recently. Curious, I checked out the first two slim volumes of “American Splendor,” “Another Day” and “Another Dollar,” from my public library.
Each volume consists of a number of vignettes about Pekar’s everyday life, written by Pekar and drawn by various artists. By “everyday,” I really MEAN “everyday;” this is Pekar’s life at its most minute and mundane. We see him one day doing errands–standing in line to mail a package, picking up a prescription–another day unclogging a toilet (“Today I Am A Man!”)–another day on the phone with an artist who’s drawing a story for him, discussing drawing the story–and still another day reading and reacting to reviews of his books, including one review that characterizes his life as “pathetic.” The illustrations are as detailed as Pekar’s text, showing a clutter of books, CDs, and a telephone on his desk, a glass of whatever he’s been drinking on his bookshelf, and traffic-laden Cleveland streets in an evening snowstorm, to name just a few examples.
At first, I wondered what the point of Pekar’s tales was and why they’ve attracted a cult following. The art, I thought, was great, but I couldn’t find any point to the stories.
Then I started thinking about how neat it would be if we had similar stories, especially in graphic novel format, about someone in ancient Rome. Wouldn’t that make a book like Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” in which Angela does a fine job of depicting daily life two thousand years ago in the Eternal City, even more fascinating? What if we had such marvelously detailed pictures and stories about the daily life of common, ordinary, long-forgotten people in any other time and place–ancient Egypt? medieval Europe? a resident of Cahokia 800 years ago? someone at the time and in the area that Angkor Wat was built?
Pekar’s storytelling technique would also shed more light on historical figures. What if we could see Eleanor of Aquitaine getting up in the morning, and what she did on arising? What if we had graphic novels showing Martin Luther arguing with his fellow priests or, later, having dinner with his family in the kitchen of his home in 16th century Germany, J.S. Bach refereeing a dispute among some of his many children or politicking with his patrons for raises in his pay, or Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet playing cards with their friends? And wouldn’t it be neat if you had a graphic novel like one of Pekar’s about the daily life of an ancestor who died long before you were born?
We do have letters, memoirs, and other material that helps us get a very good idea, in some cases, of the everyday lives and characters of people from other times and places. The Pastons, a medieval upper-class family in medieval England, are famous for the letters they wrote which have survived to this day, and writers such as Angela, Claire Tomalin (“The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens” and other biographies), Philippa Gregory (“The Other Boleyn Girl” and many other historical novels), and Helen Bryan (“Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty”) have masterfully reconstructed the lives of people from centuries gone by with words alone, albeit through 20th or 21st century eyes. But Pekar’s graphic novels provide a completely different level of detail.
I have to disagree with whichever critic called Pekar’s life as he depicted it “pathetic.” What he’s written about his own life could come from anyone’s, from the lowliest and most anonymous townsperson to the most glamorous of the glitterati. As Wired magazine and others aptly characterized Pekar, he was Everyman, and his stories are everyone’s.
What stories would you like to see in graphic novel format?