This week: Harvey Pekar: NPR commentator, a look back on Scott Pilgrim and what I read, with notes on some.
HARVEY PEKAR REMEMBERED ON FRESH AIR
For anyone who missed it, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air program on NPR ran a show on July 16th memorializing the recently departed Harvey Pekar through interviews Gross did with Pekar on the occasions of the American Splendor movie and the release of his graphic novel The Quitter. The interviews aren’t greatly revealing—Pekar has already made a career of writing about his life, so what is an interviewer to ask?—but it is a pleasure to hear Pekar speak, so much less gruff than he depicts himself in his work.
Pekar is as introspective and open as one might expect, especially when talking about his work, and details like the surprising relative lack of success of Our Cancer Year inspire thoughtful speculation. Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner is interviewed along with him in the first interview, and her perceptions and memories of being portrayed by Pekar and his collaborators present an interesting counterpoint.
But the real revelation for me wasn’t a part of the interviews at all; it was a commentary Pekar recorded for NPR member station WKSU that ran between the two sit-downs with Gross. On the occasion of Valentine’s Day, Pekar talks about how little use he one had for cats, before his wife’s cat made him realize that they are much more complex and intelligent that he’d realized, leading he and his feline housemate to a grudging respect for one another. It’s funny, meditative, and—has this word ever been used talking about Pekar?—charming. Pekar’s distinctive voice, a high-pitched rasp with surprising warmth, proves perfectly suited for radio, and I found myself completely drawn in.
I was pleased to learn that the Fresh Air website has a link to Pekar’s archived commentaries, and I’ll be listening to them over the next few weeks. Thirty-six in all are available at the WKSU website. They’re unfortunately in alphabetical rather than chronological order, but it’s a great resource.
And of course the Pekar-themed episode of Fresh Air is definitely worth a listen for all fans of Our Man and of expanding what comics can do. You can stream or download the episode at the show page.
READ THIS WEEK: SCOTT PILGRIM
- Scott Pilgrim vols. 1–6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Scott Pilgrim full-colour odds and ends 2008 by Bryan Lee O’Malley
This isn’t really a review, since lots of people already have that covered. Just a few thoughts. Didn’t go out of my way to avoid spoilers, but since I’m mostly generalizing, I don’t think there really are any.
Didn’t make it to any of the early release parties; got the book on Wednesday. Realizing that I didn’t really remember where the story was, I decided to reread the first five books before starting on six. And I’m glad I did. I’d only read the previous volumes once each, roughly when they were released (I didn’t get the first volume right away, but I think I picked it up before volume two came out) with a year in between, and I had forgotten most of the texture of the story beyond the main events. Reading them close together also brought out a lot of the foreshadowing and the way events connected, even before I got to the later volumes. They felt more even, too, and I didn’t have the experience I had the first time of liking some volumes a lot and disliking others (though three is still too long).
Particularly striking in the rereading is the growth in O’Malley’s art, not that he’s a slouch at the beginning, but he comes a long way over the six books. Sometimes it’s a steady growth, as in volume one, where O’Malley is finding his feet with the characters and has actually completely changed his brush style by halfway through. Other times it’s between volumes, as in volume four, when characters begin occupying space much more three-dimensionally than before. It’s hard to imagine drawing 1,200 pages without getting somewhat better, but O’Malley has clearly pushed himself to constantly improve. Six volumes in six years is an achievement in itself, and since the series takes place over the course of only about one year, it means that O’Malley has lived and changed over the course of the series much more than his protagonist has. (Hopefully so have I. In rereading, I couldn’t help but think about where my life was when the series started compared to where it is now, as well as the fact that when I began reading it I was a couple years younger than Scott and am now a couple years older.) I’d be curious to learn how those six years have change the way he relates to his characters.
As I was reading, I found myself trying to decode why this series became the phenomenon that it did. The craft is certainly a part of it, but there’s more than that. For a while I was wondering if the setting in Canada was a part of it—so familiar to American audience, yet that tiniest bit exotic, coming at similar situations slightly differently. Might explain why a British rather than American director seemed so appropriate for the film adaptation. But no, that wouldn’t account for its translation into so many languages and success in other cultures. On some level, it must really capture this moment, the first to truly fuse Gen Y ennui with manga influences and video game aesthetics and narrative techniques. And it hits that nostalgia spot so perfectly. It’s not about today’s games; it’s about the games of the late ’80s, early ’90s, the 8-bit and 16-bit systems that are still beloved today. That’s certainly a factor that makes me feel included. If the game relied on elements from Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor or Halo, I’d be lost, but Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog, etc., were a part of my childhood, and ingrained deeply enough that I remember their looks, rules and theme songs, easy.
Those classic games also don’t really have any content (plot of every Mario game: bad guy kidnaps princess, hero travels a series of lands and faces a series of enemies, hero defeats bad guy, hero receives a kiss from the princess); they’re all rules and aesthetics, meaning that the references are easy to explain and learn, even for readers too old to have played the games as children. And, like the simple Golden and Silver Age comics that modern writers mine for subtext, they are largely blank canvases to project meaning onto. Classic video games are full of great metaphors but light on subtext. You travel between vastly different settings by way of a vaguely defined underworld. You advance in experience and ability through vanquishing a series of foes dripping in Freudian imagery. You earn second chances to repair your failures. You face an evil version of yourself with all your powers and embodying your negative traits. Part of the genius of Scott Pilgrim is the way that O’Malley taps all of this raw metaphor and wields it to visualize what is underneath a largely internal story, much of which is about people paralyzed by the contents of their own heads.
A colleague at work who falls into the category of too old to have played the games Scott Pilgrim references told me he had enjoyed the ambiguity of the strange happenings in the books: surely a 17-year-old Chinese girl wasn’t really flying out of the sky, and enemies weren’t really turning into coins. How much of this was literal and how much was just Scott’s perceptions, influenced by the video games Scott grew up playing and still played? Growing up with games where these types of things were normal, it had never even occurred to me to question them.
It’s not an invalid question, and there’s no doubt that much of it is metaphor: we all have to contend with the baggage that new significant others bring with them, the ways that the people who used to be in their lives are still with them, and can still hurt them and us. We all have to grapple with the worst versions of ourselves and hope we gain experience from it. And sometimes we desperately need a second chance to try to overcome an obstacle, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a floating “1Up.” But I think on the narrative level we can be certain that everything we see in the series really happens. When we play the games, we never question if these things are literally happening, and similarly we never question them in Scott Pilgrim. Maybe it’s a generational thing, informed by a childhood not batting an eyelash at these kinds of flights of fancy in our game narratives. The presence of events that are simultaneously metaphor but are also literal in the context of the gaming generation is part of what makes the series so fresh and exciting.
So, volume six. After the rereading, I was primed, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s not perfect, a little overfull—the whole series has felt like it had too many vaguely defined supporting characters, many of whom look very similar—and fitting all of them in slowed things down in places, but it was intensely emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that is surprising but feels fitting. O’Malley hits all the appropriate thematic and emotional buttons to bring Scott’s arc to a close. Scott isn’t a different person by the end, but he’s grown and on his way to genuinely maturing, and I related to him for the first time. It’s the most serious of the books, but just as chock-full of asides and silly details as before, an impressive juxtaposition (a favorite gag of mine is when Wallace shouts “J’accuse!*” at Scott and a caption at the bottom of the panel says, “*French. -ed”). I think it’s probably the best volume, and certainly the first I’ve unreservedly loved, combining all that’s been best about the series with the emotional vulnerability of O’Malley’s debut graphic novel Lost At Sea (a little about this below).
I suspect that when I someday reread the series again, knowing how it all ends will add even more texture to previous volumes. I can’t wait to see what O’Malley does next.
READ THIS WEEK: OTHER STUFF
- Action Comics #890 by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods
Oh, I love you, Floating World Comics. You actually reorder stuff that sells better than expected instead of waiting for a second printing that may never come.
- Icon: Mothership Connection by Dwayne McDuffie, M.D. Bright, Mike Gustovich, et al.
Love the fact that the Milestone integration into DC has led to a bunch of paperbacks, though I’m a little concerned that the way this one groups a bunch of nonconsecutive issues means they aren’t going to be very thorough in their collection.
- Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley
“Lost at Sea” by Bryan Lee O’Malley from Oni Press Color Special 2002
Like Scott Pilgrim, the focus of Lost at Sea is very much the inside of a character’s head, but it doesn’t have the visual metaphor of game iconography on top, instead balancing the art with a lot of captions. Without the mediating layer of the game logic, this is much rawer emotionally (about loss, compared to SP’s finding someone new and getting over it), and the art and writing are more raw as well, all of which appealed to me a bit more when the book came out when I was 19, but it has its pleasures, especially in O’Malley’s already well-tuned ear for dialogue. I’d happily hand it to a 17- or 19-year-old looking for a sad but cute and funny comic to read. The two-pager from the Color Special is less a story than simply a preview of the book’s tone, so it’s skippable, since the book’s been out for years now.
Also, I’ve always been amused that under the Oni Press rating system, a book with the line “Fuck you fucks and the fucks you fucked in on!” earns only a “Teen Age 13+.” Sure, 13-year-olds say “fuck” all the time, but it’s still a much laxer standard than any other rating system I can think of.
- Neonomicon #1 by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows
Made the mistake of reading the comments underneath a story about Moore turning down Watchmen rights because he’s not interested in the caveat that he be involved in sequels and prequels. At the time, they were pretty evenly split between “Moore has integrity” and “Moore is a whiner,” but everyone seemed to take for granted that Moore is a figure from the past who only comes up in stories like about old works. I actually considered breaking my rule of staying out of places like that to point out that he in fact had a comic released that same day, but thought better.
The comic itself is pretty straightforward for Moore so far, a police procedural with a Cthulu riff that isn’t revealing any greater aspirations yet. But it’s solid enough, with characters who are familiar but with a twist, strong dialogue and attractive art that knows to keep things subtle (except in that one panel) and stay out of the way. Next issue should give a better sense of where this is going.
- New Avengers #2 by Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger & Laura Martin
- Predators #3 & #4 by Marc Andreyko, David Lapham, Guilherme Balbi & Gabriel Guzman
- Superman/Batman Annual #4 by Paul Levitz, Renato Guedes & Jose Wilson
I like annuals, and it bums me out that they aren’t a given anymore. Thick, done-in-one stories are perfect impulse buys and reads for me, and I usually look for old annuals when back-issue diving. This one was fine.
Still of Harvey Pekar from American Splendor © Home Box Office, Inc. Images of Scott Pilgrim © Bryan Lee O’Malley. Images of Neonomicon © Alan Moore.