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Down to Earth

Words and pictures. Really, that’s all graphic novels — or, as we used to call them, "comic books" — are.

But, man, what those words and pictures can do in the hands of a talented writer or artist.

When it comes to making the most out of words and pictures, Harvey Pekar and Alison Bechdel are two of the best. On Saturday, they’ll visit Las Vegas to present "Titans of the Graphic Novel: An Evening with Harvey Pekar and Alison Bechdel" at the Clark County Library.

Both Pekar and Bechdel have taken an art form once almost solely associated with superheroes, cheap adventure and hackneyed escapism and turned it into a medium for telling real-life stories about real-life people.

For almost 35 years, Pekar has chronicled his own life — its ups and its downs, but mostly its mundane, everyday routine– in "American Splendor," a series of autobiographical comic books that he writes and enlists others to illustrate.

It is those comics that served as the basis for the 2003 film "American Splendor," starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, which was nominated for an Oscar and has won numerous film awards.

Bechdel created "Dykes To Watch Out For," a groundbreaking comic strip featuring lesbian characters. Then, in her 2006 graphic novel memoir "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," Bechdel chronicled her childhood as the daughter of a closeted homosexual father who, she believes, killed himself after she came out.

Among other accolades, "Fun Home" was named by Time magazine as the best book of 2006.

As it turns out, Bechdel and Pekar know each other and have appeared together before at events such as this weekend’s. In fact, Pekar recalls that they even have worked together after Pekar, at the urging of his wife, attended a speech by Bechdel in Pekar’s hometown of Cleveland.

"She was so good," Pekar recalls. "My wife stopped by afterward and started talking to her, and we had breakfast with her the next morning."

During breakfast, he continues, "these guys were sitting in the booth next to us and were talking some incredibly nutty stuff. I wrote down two pages of it, and I said, ‘Would you like to illustrate this?’ So she illustrated it, and that was really nice.

"So, we’ve both been in touch ever since, and I really think the world of her."

Bechdel, in turn, calls Pekar "a big influence on me," in that he paved the way for comic artists and cartoonists seeking to employ their medium in the service of realism and autobiography.

"I discovered his ‘American Splendor’ comic when I was at Oberlin (College)," Bechdel says, "and I was blown away by the fact someone could just write about, really, quite an uneventful life and make it very interesting."

Pekar says he knew from the start, when he enlisted noted artists, including friend and cartoonist/illustrator Robert Crumb, to draw his stories, that comics could be about more than the predictable, badly written stories he remembered from his own childhood.

"Words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures," he says. "I mean, a comic book writer can use any word in the dictionary. He can use all the words that Shakespeare used, and there’s no excuse, really, for lousy comic books."

But when "American Splendor No. 1" was released in 1976, Pekar admits that he didn’t know if his experiment in autobiographical realism "would catch on."

"But I did know that it was certainly a very valid art form," he says, "and there was no reason, if the piece was well-written, why it shouldn’t go over well."

Years later, when Bechdel began examining her childhood and life for what would become "Fun Home," she sensed that it was, as she puts it, "a naturally visual story."

Bechdel has drawn "Dykes To Watch Out For" since 1983 and says telling stories in combinations of words and pictures has become "like a syntax. It’s a way for me to connect my ideas."

"Most excitingly for me, it’s a way to talk about several things at once," she continues.

"Comics are a way to kind of have as many things going on on the page as you have going on in the brain. You can have two stories going on at once, having a strand of narrative and a strand of the scene you’re depicting. Then, they come together in ways that convey a whole other level of information."

Also, Bechdel says, "I think there’s a way that graphic narrative lends itself very much to autobiography, and I’m never quite sure why. People have various theories about it. For me, there’s something about drawing myself as a character that forces a kind of interesting objectivity about my life."

Although, Bechdel adds, interrupting herself with a laugh, "now that I hear it out loud, it sounds like it might be total bullshit."

Meanwhile, both artists continue to work on new projects. "Dykes To Watch Out For" remains on hiatus while Bechdel works on her second memoir, this one about her mother, whom Bechdel calls "a really amazing person."

"It was difficult writing about my father, but that was a walk in the park compared to this one, because he was dead and he wasn’t going to see it," she says. "It’s very different when you’re writing about someone who will be reading it."

In addition to "American Splendor," Pekar, now retired from his job as a file clerk at a Cleveland-area VA hospital, has been involved with several other projects, in part, he admits, to augment a scantier-than-expected pension from his government job.

The most recently published is "a book about the Beat generation, Jack Kerouac and people like that," Pekar says, while other recent projects have included a 2008 history of the ’60s activist group Students for A Democratic Society and, in 2007, "Macedonia: What Does it Take to Stop a War?" a book about political conflict in the Balkan country.

Given the breadth of serious, reality-based, even literary stories that now find their way into volumes of words and pictures, have we finally moved beyond having to begin any discussion of graphic novels with, let’s call it the Comic Caveat ("Yes, it’s a comic, but … ")?

No, Pekar says, "because I go to enough public events here that people come to see somebody talk or something like that, and the majority of fans are still superhero fans, and superhero artists and writers make a lot more money than somebody who does underground or alternative stuff."

Bechdel, however, hopes that we have. "I think," she says, "we’re at like, a tipping point to not having to have that discussion anymore."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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