As often happened whenever the late Harvey Pekar strayed too far from the short-story format, his posthumously released graphic history Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland (Top Shelf) isn’t always as cleanly organized or coherent as it ought to be. Pekar tells the story of his hometown both in the broader sense and through his personal experiences, and the more general Pekar gets, the messier his Cleveland becomes. He jumps around from topic to topic and repeats himself, trying to get at the economic and racial woes of a city that’s gone through multiple cycles of civic pride and shame. It would be convenient to contend that had Pekar lived long enough to see this project all the way through, the result would’ve been less rambling. But similarly scattered late-period Pekar works like The Quitter and Our Movie Year suggest otherwise.
That said, once Cleveland gets past the sloppier contextual material, it becomes a much more enjoyable book. To some extent this is “Harvey Pekar’s greatest hits,” as he retells anecdotes about growing up in a Jewish family, getting a “flunky” job at a VA hospital, and suffering through two failed marriages before finding his anchor, Joyce Brabner. But by linking his biography explicitly to Cleveland, Pekar brings a fresh perspective to these old stories, grounding them in where he was living at the time, and how those neighborhoods have changed. These are the kinds of details that wouldn’t have occurred to him as a younger writer, when he was too rooted in one place to see what was historically and culturally unique about it. And as illustrated by Joseph Remnant—whose style resembles an amalgam of two of Pekar’s best collaborators, Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco—Cleveland recaptures the feel of the author’s American Splendor heyday, and that sense that his readers had that they’d just casually run into him on the block. It’s a bittersweet feeling, knowing that Cleveland now sports a Pekar-sized hole.
Harvey Pekar operated under the philosophy that an everyday working man’s life should be considered as dramatic and worthy of contemplation as tales of royalty or extremity. John “Derf” Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts) approaches non-fiction from a similarly casual angle, except that the “ordinary” guy he writes and draws about went on to become one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. As the title implies, My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, who was a classmate of Derf’s in junior high and high school in a small town in Ohio. Expanded from an earlier short comic story and pamphlet-sized comic book, the 200-plus-page My Friend Dahmer just about exhausts Derf’s store of Dahmer anecdotes, describing in detail how Derf and his buddies barely paid attention to Dahmer until late in high school, when Dahmer began doing a “hilarious” impression of a handicapped person which so impressed Derf’s circle of friends that they started The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club to encourage him. But though they hung out with Dahmer, none of them really talked to him about his troubled family, which means that none of them really knew him.
My Friend Dahmer occasionally tells when it should show, as Derf states outright what’s been going through his head in the years since he heard that his old acquaintance had been arrested. But the longer-form version of My Friend Dahmer is also better researched than the previous incarnations, with more information about Dahmer’s stormy home life and his early experiments with dismembering animals, none of which Derf really knew about when he was drawing sketches of Dahmer and posting them all around the school. What’s especially chilling about this book is how it illustrates the superficiality of most high-school relationships, where most of the people involved are so absorbed in their own lives that they fail to reach out to someone who could use their help—in this case, with tragic results. Even Derf’s art gets this across, as he draws Dahmer at home as tortured by his violent sexual compulsions, then draws him at school as creepily placid, only stirring when he contorts his body on command for a cheap laugh.
The Silence Of Our Friends (First Second) is a different kind of “eyewitness to history” story than My Friend Dahmer. In the mid-’60s, Mark Long’s family moved to Houston from San Antonio so that his TV reporter father could cover the Civil Rights movement. Long and Jim Demonakos have turned those experiences into a comic-book script, illustrated by the estimable Nate Powell, who tones down his usual experimental impulses to serve Long’s straightforward story about his father’s tenuously friendly relationship with a local black community leader. Still, Powell’s own comics often depict the South as a place where the slow pace and friendly faces disguise the looming threat of violence, which makes him a good choice to illustrate a book about a community in turmoil. And Long has a distinct perspective on the racism of the era, showing how it seeped into every aspect of daily life, such that blacks didn’t trust whites any more than whites accepted blacks. The Silence Of Our Friends starts as a family drama and becomes a courtroom drama, but throughout it’s about how a large part of the Civil Rights struggle had to do with getting people of every color to confront their problems—however painful the process—rather than fumbling along with the sickly status quo.
Just in time for Black History Month, the 22nd volume of the “Graphic Classics” series offers comic-book versions of writing by Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois. African-American Classics (Eureka) is a little different than past volumes in that it features more poems and more bluntly message-oriented stories, but it’s a good overview of Harlem Renaissance-era literature, beautifully illustrated by Eureka , Stan Shaw, and Kyle Baker, among others. The art is as expressive as the words, conveying a feel of folklore stretching from one continent to another. …
Cartoonist Bill Griffith had the good and bad fortune to poke his head out of the underground and into the semi-mainstream with his daily newspaper strip Zippy The Pinhead. “Good” in that while many of his fellow travelers from the ’60s undergrounds failed to make a living off their comics, Griffith persevered, and has reached a national audience with his often deeply personal reflections on Americana at its best and worst. “Bad” in that feeding the beast of a daily strip means that Griffith hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to do much besides Zippy over the past few decades. While other colleagues have seen their short stories and graphic novels draw serious attention in literary circles, Griffith remains the “Are we having fun yet?” guy to many. Perhaps the long-overdue collection Lost And Found: Comics 1969-2003 (Fantagraphics) will change that. Leaning heavily on the stories Griffith drew in the early ’70s for undergrounds like Young Lust, Short Order Comix, and the revolutionary Arcade, Lost And Found shows off more facets of Griffith, putting his obsessions with Hollywood, suburbia, and a certain type of corporate cockiness into a larger context. Zippy, Mr. Toad, and Claude Funston appear in a lot of these pieces, and the earlier stories in particular are crudely drawn, but Griffith’s eye for the unusual and his puckish wit are prevalent even in longer form, and this book offers a glimpse of what might’ve been had Griffith followed a career path more like his friend and Arcade partner Art Spiegelman. …
Similarly, Griffith’s wife Diane Noomin has seen her work scattered around anthologies like Wimmen’s Comix and Twisted Sisters since she made her comics debut in 1972, but has never received the dedicated study afforded by her new book Glitz-2-Go: Collected Stories (Fantagraphics), which brings together nearly 200 pages of Noomin’s work. The cartoonist’s recurring character Didi Glitz—her fantasy of a take-no-shit dame draped in ersatz glamour—is all over this book, exploring her sexuality and selfhood with a string of insensitive men, pushy women, and a secret stash of “rubberware.” But the best pieces in Glitz-2-Go are the ones where Noomin pulls back the curtain and deals directly with her own life, from being a Long Island teenager in the ’60s to dealing with a string of miscarriages that ended her dreams of motherhood. From the cluttered panels to the bracing honesty, these strips are very much of a piece with the original underground comics movement, and may not be immediately accessible to people unused to that tradition. But for those who fondly remember the glory years of Dori Seda, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Joyce Farmer, and Roberta Gregory, it’s a pleasure to see Noomin get her own showcase. …
Veteran artist Ernie Colón gets back to his horror comics roots with Inner Sanctum: Tales Of Horror, Mystery And Suspense (NBM), an adaptation of several stories from the radio series that used to terrify Colón as a boy in the Bronx in the ’40s. Of course, a large part of what made Inner Sanctum Mystery so effective was the power of suggestion, as the sound effects and the oily Raymond Johnson narration led listeners deep into the dark. As skilled as Colón is, he can’t help but reduce some of the original stories’ shock value just by drawing what’s better left to the imagination. Still, it’s fun to see Colón attempting Warren-style horror again, and at the least, the overall gruesomeness and cleverness of these stories might drive some readers to rediscover the radio show.
During the ’60s, Jim Henson hustled to get his work in front of as many as people as he could in as many different ways as he could, whether he was hauling his Muppets onto any TV show that’d have him, or pitching ideas for new series and movies to a string of execs in Hollywood. After receiving an Oscar nomination for his playful 1965 avant-garde short Time Piece, Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl started developing an existential Western that drew interest from several producers—this was the era of the “head movie,” after all—but never came to fruition. Now artist Ramón Pérez (under the supervision of Lisa Henson and The Jim Henson Company) has adapted Henson and Juhl’s script into graphic novel form, striving to retain the absurdism and overt artificiality of the original idea. Jim Henson’s Tale Of Sand (Archaia) tells the story of a young man who gets drafted by a old-timey Western town to make his way across a desert filled with bizarre obstacles: sharks, dames, tanks, football teams, a stretch limo containing a ferocious lion, etc. As with Ernie Colón’s Inner Sanctum, Pérez can only do so much to replicate the editing rhythms and juxtapositions of a different medium, but by working in text from the original script, he does get across the post-modernism that Henson and Juhl were going for, and is faithful enough to the structure to allow Henson-philes to imagine what the movie might’ve been like. That alone is a gift.
French cartoonist Guillaume Bianco recalls Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Edward Gorey with his album Billy Fog: The Gift Of Trouble Sight (Archaia), about a death-obsessed little boy who sees ghosts and demons that others can’t. Combining illustrated poems, fake newspapers, games, factoids, conventional comics, and first-person musings by his hero, Bianco’s book may seem a little dense and disconnected at first, but there is an actual story tying all these fragments together, having to do with the death of Billy’s cat and how it gets him thinking about souls, Santa Claus, and whether all grown-ups are murderers because “they killed the kids they used to be.” The Gift Of Trouble Sight is macabre, but never excessively so, and as Billy comes to grips with the permanence of death, Bianco achieves a profundity rare for this genre.
Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends With Boys (First Second) is also about a kid who sees ghosts: high-school freshman Maggie McKay, who has spent her whole life being home-schooled by her mother (until Mom abruptly split). Now among her peers for the first time, Maggie has to learn the rules of the teenage caste system and to try to figure out how to satisfy the spectral lady who’s been haunting her since she was a little girl. Similar in many ways to Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost, Friends With Boys is ultimately less invested in its supernatural elements and more concerned with Maggie and how she comes to terms with the many big changes in her life. This is a nice little book overall, pitched to readers a lot like its heroine: adolescent misfits prodded to grow up faster than they know how.
Lastly, from the “thinking outside the panel” department, cartoonist Stephan Pastis and Chronicle Books have assembled Pearls Before Swine: Only The Pearls, an iPad app containing 250 large-sized, full-color strips from the run of the series—half of which add brief, clickable audio commentary by Pastis—plus a few animations and behind-the-scenes videos of Pastis at work. In keeping with the strip’s sensibility, the bonus material is irreverent, but not un-serious. Even with the requisite deadpan clowning, Pastis does impart actual information about how he puts Pearls together, including the squabbles he’s had with his editors over even the minutest traces of “edge” in the strip—such as any inclusion of the word “sex.” Other cartoonists have done similar “behind the comic” collections before, but the mixed-media presentation and the under-$5 price tag makes Only The Pearls an experiment worth supporting. If nothing else, the strips themselves are as funny as ever, no matter the presentation.