By Harvey Pekar, Heather Roberson
and Ed Piskor
Villard/Random House —
THERE HAS LONG BEEN a political undercurrent in Harvey Pekar’s work. A conversation will turn to current events or Harvey will be suffering anxiety while his wife, Joyce, is out of town at a conference or activism event. Famously, Pekar argued with David Letterman on the air over NBC (Dave’s network at the time) parent company GE’s involvement in anti-trust violations and sale of faulty nuclear reactors.
Politics and world affairs take center stage in Pekar’s latest graphic novel, Macedonia, cowritten with Heather Roberson, beginning with the question on the cover: “What does it take to stop a war?” As in Pekar’s Ego and Hubris, Harvey himself takes a back seat this time around, making only a one-page cameo. The story belongs to Heather, a Peace and Conflict Studies major who, during an argument with a professor, hits on Macedonia as an example of a country that has repeatedly been at the brink of war and somehow averted it. Later, she heads to Macedonia in an effort to learn how the peace is maintained, and the book follows her as she experiences the country, learning things that are encouraging, and others that are disheartening. Many of the best moments come through Heather’s individual point of view and scenes with the people she meets. Macedonia is not journalism; it’s far more personal, and Heather’s passion is in large part what holds the story together.
It’s an ambitious premise, and parts of it are very smartly realized. Heather admits at the beginning that the many contradictions in Macedonia’s recent history are “confusing.” In some scenes, Heather visits governmental organizations like the Legal Ombudsman’s Office, whose purpose is to help ethnic minorities navigate the legal system, and Macedonia’s sense of justice seems like it should be the envy of the world. In others, ethnic distrust and attitudes toward women make the country appear deeply backward. The two pictures of Macedonia are hard to reconcile, but Pekar and Roberson don’t simplify the situation and know better than to resort to platitudes to wave away the dissonance. They also don’t try to provide answers to everything, and just like the reader, Heather is still sorting through everything she’s seen when the book ends. There aren’t simple solutions to the world’s problems, but Macedonia recognizes that there is value in providing elucidation.
Macedonia is a deeply idea-driven book and as such it’s very talky. In drawing it, Ed Piskor has chosen to stay out of the way of the story, providing simple page layouts that largely stick to a grid. Because of how much back and forth dialogue there is, the grids often hold 9, 12 and sometimes even 16 panels. At the same time, he manages to keep scenes from devolving into a series of 12-16 tiny heads by providing business for each character to perform, varying the camera angle, or maintaining a constantly changing background as characters walk through a city. During the conversation with Heather’s boyfriend that serves as the background on Macedonia, he depicts their activity throughout the entire day as they talk.
Unfortunately, there are several technical flaws in the book that make reading it more of a slog than it should be. Much of the exposition appears in white text on a black background, which is okay for a caption or two, but which I found hard to read when appearing several pages at a time. Maps are sometimes labeled, sometimes not. Pekar and Roberson can’t seem to settle on whether the book is told in first person or third person, so sometimes a page will say, “That night Heather…” and later on the same page, Heather will be narrating the story in dialogue, facing the reader. Since the story never leaves Heather, this inconsistency of narration seems sloppy and pulled me out of the story whenever it happened.
The most difficult part is the wave of unfamiliar names and acronyms, many of which are introduced too casually, so that it’s hard to remember what all of them are when they’re brought up later. Juggling all that information can be hard and reintroducing what something stands for can seem repetitious, but it can be done and it seemed to go unattempted in Macedonia (As a side-note, it’s less the fault of this book specifically than simply comic book convention, but an all-caps font makes it tough to differentiate some foreign place names from acronyms — it took me awhile to realize that characters in the book were not referring to something called OHRID, but rather to the Ohrid Agreement, named for taking place in the city of Ohrid).
Piskor’s art has a few distracting problems, too. It’s not bad, just inconsistent, as some pages look much better than others. There are a few anatomy issues and Heather’s appearance changes from time to time, while Harvey looks like a gremlin in his cameo. Some pages are well composed with a nice balance of blacks, but others are dulled by too much cross-hatching. That it’s Piskor’s first lengthy graphic novel shows, but there’s certainly a lot to like in his art, and I imagine he’ll improve.
I have pretty mixed feelings about Macedonia. The script could have used another draft to clarify a lot of the information and fix a few mistakes, like the inconsistent narrative voice. At the same time, its an important story and I don’t know where exactly I’d have gotten it if not from Pekar. The bottom line is that if you’re not previously inclined to read about government organizations, peacekeeping, and the attempts to prevent wars in other parts of the world, this book has too much wrong with it to suck you in. However, if you are already interested, the content is compelling enough to be worth working through the rough spots.