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Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore

The letter by Harvey Pekar appeared in The Comics Journal #135 (April 1990):

I wrote an article, “Comics and Genre Literature” (Journal #130), which R. Fiore complained about in his column (Journal #132). In the process he misrepresented and lied about things I’d said. For example, he stated I’d asserted that “serious cartoonists ought to eschew exaggeration and only draw realistically,” which actually I had not asserted or even implied anything like that, and had not only praised a number of “cartoony” cartoon stylists over the years in the pages of The Comics Journal but had had my work illustrated by some.

Fiore also wrote, “Pekar is trying to create a definition under which the only true literature is realist…” This statement is completely incorrect. I referred to “great non-realist literature” in my article.

And Fiore claimed that I accused the Hernandez brothers of “pandering,” when I hadn’t come close to raising the issue and had praised Gilbert elsewhere for his “compassion and ethical sense.”

I cited these instances and others while showing how dead wrong, intellectually sloppy and dishonest Fiore was in a letter-to-the-editor published in Journal # 133. Fiore knows he’s wrong, but he’s evidently got personality disorders and, like crooked politicians who get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, proclaims his innocence more loudly than ever in a letter (Journal #134).

He’s merely attempting to save face here and his reply is feeble. Maybe he thought I’d let him alone after it was printed. But I will give him no peace. It’s my duty to refute what he said in his latest letter and hope he sees the error of his ways. Perhaps it’s not too late to make an honest man of him. I’ll do what I can, comic fans.

Fiore opens by claiming that, “Since every representation of my column in Journal #132 is a distortion of one kind or another refuting them would be a matter of repeating everything I wrote, which I don’t think any of us has time for.”

Fiore’s excuse for not accurately restating what’s been written is a cop-out which he uses to justify misrepresenting things we’ve both written. But sometimes he makes false statements and invalid judgments because he’s extremely careless and has poor reading comprehension ability. For example, I knew when I got into writing about genre literature I’d make statements that would upset and confuse certain readers so I went out of my way to be careful. I pointed out, for example, that certain types of novels were often but not always written by genre authors. I cited We by Yevgeny Zamyatin as an example of a non-genre science fiction novel three times in recent issues of The Comics Journal. In my letter answering Fiore’s column I said, “I referred to We as a fine art rather than genre novel because Zamyatin doesn’t employ… clichés…”

Fiore responds in his letter, “Pekar identifies We as a genre novel and yet it does not have the qualities by which Pekar identifies genre fiction, so how could it be one?” Of course Fiore is wrong; I called We a fine art novel, not a genre novel. After going out of my way on three occasions to make my point in language clear enough for a second grader Fiore still totally misunderstands me and totally misstates my beliefs. How can The Comics Journal justify publishing this garbage? How do its editors imagine comic book artists feel when Fiore so completely misunderstands their work? Maybe Fiore has some kind of disability and The Comics Journal is getting a government grant to help pay for his work. In that case perhaps they could give him some less demanding duties. At least his column should be fact-checked very closely.

Fiore’s Incompetence

Here’s more proof of Fiore’s incompetence. He said in his column that my method of describing characters was “an essay in a thought balloon.” I answered, “I sometimes speak directly to readers about characters but I don’t give complete descriptions in a single thought balloon. I use speech balloons to describes major characters sometimes, but spread them over more than one panel. And I certainly would not call my descriptions of them ‘essays.’ To express political or philosophical ideas I do use the essay in combination with narrative storytelling. That’s unique in comics and I’m proud to be doing it.”

“An Argument at Work” (1979) Art by Gerry Shamray Story and © Harvey Pekar

Fiore, note his lame attempt to be sarcastic, responds by saying:

I do stand corrected on one point: Pekar does indeed put his essays in word balloons and captions as well as thought balloons. I now await the genius who will explain to me just what difference this makes. And I’m sure we all laughed out loud when he wrote that it’s all right because he spreads them out over several panels. (All that means is that they’re too long to fit in one.) If Pekar is asking whether incorporating a prose form into a visual form (essays into comic strips) is equally valid as incorporating a prose form into a prose form (essays into novels), my answer must be of course not, don’t be silly. Pekar admits that he “sometimes” addresses the reader directly, but the briefest perusal of either of the American Splendor collections will reveal that “sometimes” is “most of the time.” He loves to point out stories that contain no dialogue or some other unorthodox technique, but the truth is that these are the exceptions, and most of his stories share the same big caption/huge balloon/fit the picture in where you can formula. I think he usually pulls it off, which is certainly a tribute to his skill (I’ve often thought that the main advantage of the comics medium for Pekar is that it keeps him from overwriting any more than he already does), but I don’t think that makes it good technique. Then again, as I said about Jaime Hernandez, one has to tell the kind of stories one has to tell.

Notice, reader, how generously I quote Fiore, letting his statements remain in context so that he can hang himself.

If you read Fiore’s statement you’ll notice how incorrectly, sloppily and perhaps dishonestly he restates my position. I first of all denied describing characters in “essays.” (“I certainly would not call my descriptions of them essays.) Fiore does not deal with my correction, however. He goes ahead and claims, “Pekar does indeed put his essays in word balloons and captions as well as thought balloons,” (where the hell do you expect me to put words in a comic book if not in balloons and captions, Fiore, you dolt!) as if I agreed that my descriptions of characters were “essays.” I don’t, and he’s wrong but he goes along ignoring his own mistake and hoping readers will too.

Fiore then claims that it’s wrong to incorporate “a prose form into a visual form (essays into comic strips).” Comics are not only a visual form, they are a hybrid visual/literary form. It’s absurd for Fiore to claim that relatively complex or wordy statements shouldn’t be used in comics, just as it would be absurd to state that complex drawings shouldn’t be used in comics because they’re only a literary form (they aren’t) — as absurd as claiming that long spoken statements shouldn’t be made in films, which also employ words and pictures. It’s an especially foolish observation for Fiore to make in view of the fact that he says I pull it off, i.e., using a lot of words, and also when you realize that Fiore praises other wordy writers like Alan Moore. Moore hasn’t criticized Art Spiegelman like I have, however, so he’s O.K. with Fiore.

Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s wife, considers the many faces of Harvey Pekar in this silent panel from “A Marriage Album” (1985) Art by Val Mayerik Story by Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar © Harvey Pekar

I’ve saved the best for last here. Consider Fiore’s remark that I “most of the time” address the reader directly. That’s totally untrue. In my last comic book, American Splendor #14, there are only a few panels, not a few pages but a few panels, in which I address the reader directly with wordy remarks in a sixty page book. Some of my most popular stories have been those in which I did use the first person to speak right to the reader, but this is far from the only method I use. Fiore is incredibly lazy and sloppy to make unwarranted assumptions like this without checking.

Poor Reading Comprehension

Fiore regularly makes tons of mistakes. As I’ve pointed out, his reading comprehension ability is virtually non-existent; he even forgets what he’s written a few minutes earlier and gets things very confused. Let me illustrate. Because I disagree with him about aspects of Animal Farm, Fiore, in an attempt to exhibit bravado, keeps on claiming I haven’t read the book. Remember that.

The basis of our disagreement is that while I say “Animal Farm is an allegory based on the Russian Revolution, but does not parallel it in every detail,” Fiore thinks it parallels Soviet history so closely that it’s “less an allegory than an expose.”

He takes exception to the comment of Orwell literary biographer J.R. Hammond that “it would be too simplistic to interpret Animal Farm in terms of a satire on the Soviet Union.” It’s Fiore’s opinion that Animal Farm “is based on the Soviet dictatorship and no other. Napoleon and Snowball are based on Stalin and Trotsky and no others.” In Journal #132 Fiore writes, “Napoleon is unmistakeably Stalin. Snowball is unmistakeably Trotsky.”

I pointed out in Journal #133 that “Napoleon has a lot in common with Stalin but in certain respects he’s also reminiscent of Lenin. Like Lenin he leads the Revolution. Stalin did not lead the Bolshevik Revolution.” In fact one historian has written, “Stalin’s role in the events of 1917 was not prominent. He was overshadowed not only by L.D. Trotsky … but by G.E. Zinoviev, A.V. Lunacharski … and other less prominent Bolshevik leaders.” Napoleon, at the time of the Revolution, has more in common with Lenin than Stalin. Fiore’s statement that Napoleon is based on Stalin and no other is wrong. (It’s been claimed that the pig Major, often thought of as Marx, could be considered a combination of Marx and Lenin. However, Major dies before the revolution. He does not lead it, as Napoleon did.)

Later Fiore writes, “the barnyard revolution was not lead by Napoleon but by Napoleon and Snowball.” In other words Fiore thinks the Bolshevik Revolution was lead by Stalin, who he identifies as Napoleon, and Snowball, who he identifies as Trotsky. Let me deal with that. Stalin, as pointed out above, was not one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky ranked above him. Of the two Lenin ranked higher than Trotsky. Trotsky, despite his crucial role, was clearly subordinate to Lenin; they were not co-leaders. So, if I may repeat myself, and it’s mandatory to repeat myself to get ideas into the heads of Fiore and many Journal readers, Fiore’s statement that Napoleon is based on Stalin and “no other” is wrong.

Also incorrect is Fiore’s objection to my statement calling Animal Farm an allegory based on the Russian Revolution but not parallel to it in every detail. (Please note that I did not say Animal Farm was based on events that occurred in a revolution other than the Russian Revolution. I merely claimed that Animal Farm did not parallel it in every detail.) Let me quote Hammond again, “Yet it would be too simplistic to interpret Animal Farm solely in terms of a satire on the Soviet Union. It is clear from many indications that Orwell had wider aims in mind. In a letter to his agent Leonard Moore he stated that the book ‘is intended as a satire on dictatorship in general,’ and indeed a careful reading of the story reveals a number of pointers to a more generalized interpretation. There is, first, the fact that the ruling pig is named ‘Napoleon,’ a reminder that there have been many dictatorships in history apart from that of Stalin. Then there are a number of characters which are difficult to place in a strict equation with Russian history: Benjamin the donkey, for example, who clearly has a wider relevance than his minor role in the story would immediately suggest. Most significant of all is that the story is not presented as a simple apposition between the pigs and the other animals; all the animals including the pigs are deceived by the neighboring farmers Frederick and Pilkington, whom Napoleon and his followers come more and more to resemble. The regimes of Frederick and Pilkington, then, are no less cynical than that of Napoleon. It is not communism as such which corrupts Napoleon as much as the relentless accumulation of power. Totalitarianism per se, whatever form it may take, is the enemy Orwell had learned to fear and detest and which Animal Farm sought to expose.”

Let me quote the last two paragraphs of Animal Farm: “But they had not gone 20 yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, hangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had both attempted to play the ace of spades simultaneously.

“12 voices were shouting in anger and they were all alike. No question now what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but it was impossible to say which was which.”

Clearly Orwell has here denounced, beyond Soviet communism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, unjust governments of all types.

Above I’ve quoted Orwell as saying that Animal Farm is intended as “a satire on dictatorship in general.” But Fiore won’t even accept Orwell’s word about his own intentions. Well, maybe he does accept Orwell’s word now, but he’s too embarrassed to admit it.

Hammond mentions that “a careful reading” of Animal Farm “reveals a number of pointers to a more generalized interpretation.” But Fiore can’t read carefully and constantly misinterprets what he reads.

Fiore’s Mistakes

Fiore’s mistakes concerning my views of the Hernandez brothers seem almost deliberate. He’s so desperate to save face that he attributes positions to me about issues that I not only didn’t write about but am not interested in.

I like Love & Rockets, as I’ve repeatedly stated. However, I have some reservations about the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. I think they tend to romanticize and idealize some of their female characters and to sugar-coat their stories.

I pointed out that the residents of Gilbert’s Palomar seem to have a much higher standard of living than residents of small, rural Mexican and Central American towns normally do, based on such things as the way their houses are furnished. Fiore absurdly claims that I’m being condescending to Third World people when I point this out; that I only want them portrayed as poor and miserable.

Where does he get this shit? Certainly I did not write anything like it; I have no objection at all to the portrayal of wealthy Latin Americans or, for that matter, poor Latin Americans being pictured as happy or non-miserable. There are a number of Latin American novelists writing about middle- and upper-class people whose work I like. However, when Gilbert shows the residents of Palomar as having a standard of living comparable to those of lower-middle-class U.S.A. residents I think he’s sugar-coating his work.

Fiore, in praising Gilbert’s work, compares it to Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps which, he says, “paints a picture of an Indian village that’s far more idyllic than Palomar.” I guess when Fiore alludes to works like The Lost Steps he assumes readers haven’t read them and will accept what he says about them unquestioningly. I have read The Lost Steps, however, and I don’t think it makes sense for him to compare it to Gilbert’s Palomar stories in the way he does. The novel’s protagonist is a musician, New York-based for some time but a Latin American native, who travels to the headwaters of the Orinoco searching for primitive musical instruments. His search, physical at first, becomes psychological and spiritual as well, as he questions his mode of life and values. The “idyllic” village Fiore refers to has been founded by a fellow who wants to establish a model community, but, as Carpentier describes it, it’s got a long way to go before anyone can call it idyllic. In the short time the protagonist stays there he has some unsettling experiences, one in which he’s almost pushed into executing a leper, who’s finally killed by the founder’s son. In contrast to Love & Rockets there’s a lot that’s unpleasant in The Lost Steps. Carpentier calls some jungle Indians “human larvae.” His description of two prisoners they’re holding is nauseating: “… I saw before me the most horrible things my eyes had ever beheld. They were like two fetuses with white beards from whose hanging lips came sounds resembling the wail of a newborn child; wrinkled dwarfs, with huge bellies on which blue veins traced designs like those of an anatomical chart, and who smiled stupidly, with something fearful and fawning in their look.” Does Fiore think Carpentier’s being unfair to Third World people by describing Venezuelan Indians this way?

The Hernandez brothers write humorous, engaging stories which are often fun to read. By prevailing comics standards Love & Rockets is a fine book. But their work is less passionate, profound, thought-provoking, and intellectually rich than I would like. Prevailing comics standards are too low, that was one of the points of my “Comics and Genre Literature” article.

“Flies on the Ceiling” (1988–89) © Jamie Hernandez

As for Fiore’s charge that I claimed the Hernandez “pandered,” here’s what I said in my past letter: “… I never talked about pandering. I think, in fact, that there is a lot less literary pandering going on than is generally suspected. Most authors write the kind of works they like to read. If their taste coincides with a lot of other people’s, they become popular… I don’t think, despite disliking his work, even Frank Miller sells out. He believes the stuff he’s doing is good; he probably thinks it’s socially beneficial, too. I disagree, but I don’t question his honesty. Similarly, the Hernandezes, like a lot of comics illustrators, enjoy drawing pretty women (and, like a lot of comic book fans, looking at them) and would do so even if Love & Rockets wasn’t popular.”

Now, having read that, check this Fiore statement out: “He [Pekar] claims that he doesn’t accuse the Hernandez brothers of pandering or coming by their audience dishonestly, then equates them with Frank Miller, who, according to Pekar, is the unholiest of unholies.” O.K., if you’ve read my statement about pandering you’ll note that I write that Miller and the Hernandez brothers do not pander. By doing so I am complimenting them, not bad-mouthing them, as Fiore would have you believe. My objections to the work of Miller have nothing to do with “pandering.”

Fiore claims I’m not fair in stating his position but cites only one alleged example of this. I wrote, “Fiore thinks I shouldn’t compare Spain and the Hernandez brothers.” Fiore did not literally say this but obviously implied it with his remarks that Spain differed from “American artists of any kind” in that “he’s not an individualist. In much of his work the characters are not so much individuals as representatives of their social classes.” The implication of Fiore’s remark is that comparing Spain to artists who are individualists (i.e., virtually all “American artists of any kind,” including the Hernandezes) is invalid because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

However, Fiore happens to be wrong about the degree to which Spain, when he writes stories about things he’s seen and experienced, does individualize his characters. The biker who says, “Hey, lemme see dot picolo, man” in “A Night at the Country Club” is certainly not typical of all bikers or anyone else. Spain’s interested in class and group dynamics, but he doesn’t stop there; he’s also good at portraying individual idiosyncrasies in speech, manner, clothes, etc. The “lemme see dot picolo” biker is a real Hungarian refugee that Spain knew. He’s not representative of anyone but himself. The Hernandez brothers in Love & Rockets create more composite or romanticized characters than Spain does in his autobiographical stories; that’s why I compared them.

Fiore makes this invalid statement: “Once again he [Pekar] holds the Hernandezes’ industriousness against them.” Once again? When did I ever say anything about their industriousness? I did write that they’d published more issues of L&R than Spain had solo books because they’re more popular than he is, but I don’t know and don’t care how industrious Gilbert and Jaime are.

Fiore tries to make a big deal out of the way I define genre literature because I don’t do it in one sentence. To Fiore “genre fiction is fiction written in accordance to genre conventions.” Unless readers can identify genre conventions, however, this definition is useless. That’s why I allowed more room for my definition, in which I cited some genre clichés.

Genre literature is derived from other forms of literature. It has, obviously, many things in common with these forms. There are gray areas between them. Readers and critics can debate endlessly about whether certain novels belong to the genre or fine art category, just as music fans can debate endlessly about whether some music is jazz or pop or rock or R&B or classical. The only thing you can do is state your definition and apply it consistently. I define genre literature as commercial, cliché-ridden literature. I say genre authors (many of whom don’t think of themselves as “panderers,” but merely have rotten taste) frequently write romance and adventure (sci-fi and fantasy, detective, espionage, horror) novels. But all sci-fi and fantasy and horror novels are not genre novels. Remember I said that.

Fiore objects to me saying that my use of the word “cliché” is synonymous with his use of the word “convention”: “He [Pekar] would have us believe cliché is synonymous with convention.” Yes, Fiore, I would have people believe that because in the context we’re talking about — genre literature — they do amount to the same thing. Here’s why. Fiore writes, “Genre conventions are parameters designed to appeal to a presold audience that would be disappointed if the parameters were not met… A genre writer tailors his fiction to the expectations of readers and the buying patterns of editors.”

O.K., I wrote in Journal #130 that genre literature was “commercial as opposed to fine art literature.” Commercial literature is literature written to sell to an assumed market (e.g., sci-fi fans, mystery fans). The things Fiore calls conventions, that are to be kept within pre-set parameters, are clichés. What else can you call these things that genre writers use, that their public demands, but clichés? I criticize most comic book writers over and over for using genre clichés. Fiore in general agrees with my criticism of genre writing when he writes, “No matter how good a genre writer is, these restrictions will stand between his work and greatness.” In Journal #132 he says: “… no great novel will ever be written under genre conditions.” Is Fiore so stupid that he doesn’t realize the similarity of our positions regarding genre literature, or is it that he feels obliged to kvetch about every statement I make? Either way it makes him look bad.

Despite his comments regarding the limitations of genre writing, however, Fiore has praised the work of genre-influenced comic book writers including Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller. In Journal #114 Fiore writes approvingly that in Miller’s hands comics “are a gadfly medium defying the canons of high art and embracing genre entertainment as the true mythology of the people.” Miller’s Elektra: Assassin, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, and Daredevil all made Fiore’s top 10 comics of 1986 list. There’s a strong genre influence in the Hernandez brothers’ work, too. Fiore doesn’t want to accept that, but critic Leon Hunt, a genre fan and proud of it, agrees with me that the Hernandezes draw on genre sources. Hunt thinks that’s good thing for them to do, however.

The outlook looks bleak in “The Way Things’re Going” (1985) © Gilbert Hernandez

This is a good point for me to repeat that overall I like the Hernandezes’ work, since Fiore goes to such lengths to give the impression that I don’t. In answering Hunt’s letter (Journal #134) I said: “… I think Gilbert and Jaime both have good ears, are insightful, straightforward, and write humorously and unpretentiously.” L&R has been overpraised, but it’s a good comic. (As I write this it occurs to me that while the Hernandezes have been highly praised for their portrayal of women, they portray men more realistically though less flatteringly.)

Reader Ignorance

Fiore’s positions in many cases are so invalid that one of the reasons he clings to them must be that he assumes readers haven’t read the work he objects to. He keeps on repeating his idiotic charges after I’ve clearly shown them to be false. He states that I believe comics characters must not only be realistic but pass a stringent test of ordinariness. That’s a lie. Since I pointed out as recently as Journal #133 that I’d praised the work of not only Crumb but Elzie Segar, Winsor McCay, Bill Griffith, David Boswell, and Gilbert Shelton, all of whom have created highly unusual characters, it seems likely to me that Fiore is deliberately making a false statement here.

I’ve stated, implied, and repeated over and over, not only recently but in the past, that I liked the work of many non-realistic authors and cartoonists and I’ve cited Journal articles and reviews in which I’ve done this. What I don’t like is clichés. If a huge mess of realistic cliché-ridden comics existed I’d criticize them, but the overwhelming majority of comics are fantasies, so they draw my fire.

Fiore seems deliberately obtuse about the use of the term “science fiction.” Works by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and second century author Lucian have been called “science fiction,” but Fiore says it’s improper to label them science fiction because the term, though employed as early as 1851, did not become popular until after 1930. That’s like saying there are no trucks in England because in that nation they’re called lorries. But “a rose by any other name…”

I wouldn’t object if the category “genre” was used retroactively to describe certain commercial, cliché-ridden 19th and early 20th century adventure and romance novels that were aimed at an existing book-buying market before the word “genre” was used to describe a type of schlock fiction.

Regarding Mark Twain, Fiore asks why I don’t call him a genre writer since he employed some stereotyped characters and corny plot devices. I’ll give Fiore a couple of reasons. Twain also created a lot of non-stereotyped characters, and he was one of the most innovative American writers in that he made a literary language out of American English.

As I’ve said, non-genre and genre writing often have characteristics in common. People have varying ideas about which books fall into the genre category and which don’t. I’ve given my reason for not calling Twain a genre writer and it’s consistent with my definitions.

MAUS Revisited

The thing that really upsets Fiore is my criticism of his hero, Art Spiegelman. If I hadn’t been critical of Spiegelman a couple of years ago Fiore wouldn’t be doing all this beefing about me now. As soon as that happened he started making inane comments about me in his little column.

Let me pull together here some remarks I’ve made about Spiegelman and Maus in the past several Journal issues for those who haven’t seen them all.

Spiegelman’s object in doing Maus was to produce a book that would be considered great by a number of readers. It is considered great by a number of readers. However, I do not think it’s great; I think it’s overrated and smarmy.

Like a lot of people, Spiegelman apparently thinks that it’s easier to write a great book about so-called great themes, e.g. war and mass killing, always popular subjects. His father had survived the Holocaust and could give him some riveting descriptions of it. Moreover, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, Art could count on a good deal of sympathy from readers and critics, as they’d think he’d shared some of his father’s difficulties in going through this catastrophe. Understandably, there is plenty of sympathy available for Jews who have connections with the Holocaust. As a Jew whose relatives in Poland were slaughtered during the Second World War, I can tell you that there were always people around to commiserate with me. This sympathy can easily be turned into approval for the work of a Jewish artist who deals with the Holocaust. People tend to attribute moral superiority to such artists, whether they deserve it or not. Some Christians feel guilty about how Jews have been persecuted over the years and overcompensate by wanting to appear greatly concerned about their welfare.

Also helpful from a PR standpoint is the image of himself that Spiegelman has worked so hard to cultivate as a “serious” artist and intellectual. “For me,” Artie wrote in the Village Voice, “the romantic image of the Jew is not the khaki-shorts Sabra conqueror planting trees in the desert with a rifle on his shoulder, but the pale, marginal, cosmopolitan, alienated, half-assimilated, International Stateless outsider Jew, existentially poised for flight with no place to run, eager for social justice since that might make the world a safer place for him to live, with nothing but his culture to hang on to.” I’m sure Art likes to dream of himself as that sort of person. . .only dream though, because really being a Jew like that would be uncomfortable.

It’s pretty obvious that anyone with Art’s background who did even a competent job of treating a Holocaust theme in comics, a form wrongly considered by the general public to be inferior and incapable of handling “serious” subjects, would get critical raves.

There was for him the precedent of Barefoot Gen, a work about the A-bombing of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa, who lived through it as a child. Like Vladek Spiegelman, Nakazawa was a “survivor.” Despite Nakazawa’s sincerity, despite his anti-war message, Gen is not a great work of art. It’s interesting and significant because it shows that issues considered “serious” can be dealt with in comics. But Nakazawa employs in Gen a stale Astroboy-type drawing style and his writing, though sincere, seems aimed not at sophisticated adult readers but at junior high school kids. Despite leaving a good deal to be desired from an intellectual and aesthetic standpoint, Gen was hailed as a masterpiece, not a masterpiece of juvenile literature but a masterpiece period, because readers and critics were eager to show sympathy for Nakazawa as a “survivor” and to support his positions condemning the military aggression and totalitarianism of the Japanese government. If Spiegelman did merely a competent job with his Maus project he could count on getting raves. His father’s recollections in themselves were rich and interesting enough to insure that Maus was going to be a critical success, so I don’t think Spiegelman took a great risk in publishing it, as Fiore claims. Since few Americans and Europeans, aside from pretty well-informed comic book readers, were aware of Gen, they’d think Maus was the first comic to deal seriously with Holocaust survivors (in Gen’s case, it was nuclear holocaust survivors).

Spiegelman could count on sympathy as the son of a Holocaust survivor. He’d receive even more, and more approval as well, if he could get people to think of him as a Holocaust survivor like his father, not merely the son of a Holocaust survivor. Here’s how he went about trying to accomplish that. Spiegelman believes Vladek, his father, mistreated him. And Vladek apparently did make mistakes in raising him, the same kind of mistakes my Polish-born Jewish parents made with me as a result of trying to bring me up in the U.S.A. in a manner that would’ve been more appropriate in the pre-World War II Poland. Vladek was a businessman and religious; Art was an artist, not religious, and not about to become what Vladek would consider a nice Jewish boy. Vladek was not supportive of Art’s artistic efforts, as Maus’s text illustrates.

Somehow, probably as a result of trial and error, Art was able to devise a method of getting revenge on his father — trashing him, actually. This involved transferring the sympathy Vladek would normally receive to Art. Art does this by building sympathy for Vladek during flashback sections but portraying Vladek as some kind of cheap, misanthropic monster who bullied Art and his (Vladek’s) second wife Mala during contemporary scenes, and by minimizing Vladek’s generosity toward him, sometimes ridiculing his father in the process. Thus Art appears to some readers as a victim of a Holocaust victim, and entitled to enormous sympathy and approval. Art even has his Holocaust-survivor shrink call him “the real survivor.”

Maus by and © by Art Spiegelman

Art trashes Vladek in a fairly subtle manner, often doing it indirectly by putting savage criticism of Vladek into the mouth of Mala or by repeatedly showing Vladek as stingy, obsessed by money. Sometimes Art shows himself as a loyal, long-suffering son, trying to put up with his aging, decrepit, capricious and cruel father. From there it’s only a short step for some readers to assume Vladek may have gone so far as to deny material support to Art, or to beat him, even though there is no evidence in Maus to support that. A Village Voice critic, for example, characterized Vladek as a pathological monster, even though he evidences concern for Art’s welfare throughout the book. At one point Vladek takes Art to a bank deposit box to show him some valuables he’s stashed for him in case of an emergency, and expresses alarm that Mala’s trying to get Art’s inheritance from him.

Vladek’s actions and concerns may seem weird and spastic to many American-born readers. However, they don’t appear that strange to me, nor does Vladek seem so unusual to me, since I was raised by parents with a similar background. Vladek, though he sometimes tries to rationalize selfish and foolish actions as being good for his son, as do many parents, obviously has genuine concern for Art. I find Artie’s treatment of Vladek dishonest, disingenuous, and sloppy. Art’s an adult but he writes about Vladek like a spoiled 15-year-old kid. Some people, seeking to interpret Maus, have claimed that Art is trying to show how the Holocaust has affected Vladek, how he was O.K. before he went through its horrors. But that’s not true because Artie claims, directly and indirectly through Mala, that Vladek has always been a jerk.

Fiore’s bought Artie’s line completely and gets upset with me because I say Maus is overrated. He takes issue with me on the pig issue. Spiegelman uses anthropomorphism, picturing Jews as mice (victims), Germans as cats (predators), and Poles as pigs. I do not have general objections to anthropomorphism, but I do object to the way Spiegelman uses it. In doing so he stereotypes nationalities, which I find odious in itself and invalid in that the role of peoples and nations can change, e.g. it could be argued that many Jews are persecutors, not victims, in modern Israel.

I objected to Spiegelman portraying Poles as pigs in Maus. It undermines his moral position. He negatively stereotypes Poles even though he portrays some hiding Jews from the Germans.

Fiore objects to my objections on two contradictory grounds. He says that Art may be complimenting the Poles by characterizing them as pigs, because pigs are relatively intelligent. He points out that some of Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm are intelligent, and that at the end of Animal Farm the pigs start looking like humans. With regard to Animal Farm, Orwell shows both the pigs (the ruling class in the barnyard) and the humans as villainous, vicious, and dishonest. He portrays them, despite a couple of exceptions (Major) negatively, despite the intelligence of some. At the end of the book, by having them look like humans, he is showing them as equally evil. Certainly at Animal Farm’s end Orwell means for the reader to dislike the pigs. Hammond corroborates this statement when he writes, “the regimes of Frederick and Pilkington, then, are no less corrupt and debased than that of Napoleon.” Orwell does not approve of human or pig corruption. They’re both debased to him.

At least Orwell portrays some intelligent pigs. Spiegelman portrays the Poles as intellectually ordinary or ignorant.

But then Fiore turns around and claims that Art calls Poles pigs because Jews were mistreated in Poland. However, all Jews were not mistreated by all Poles in Poland. I reject Fiore’s support for the evil concept of collective guilt, blaming all for the sins of some. It is counterproductive and creates more hatred between ethnic and national groups.

Fiore asks why, if Art meant to portray Poles negatively, he shows them aiding his parents to hide from the Germans. I answered that Art had to do this because it was an integral part of his father’s story. So get this: Fiore asks why, if Art can distort the account of his relationship with his father, he can’t ignore or distort the fact that some Poles risked their lives for Jews during the Second World War. Here’s the answer: Art quotes his father as saying he’d met a Polish woman, Mrs. Motonowa, selling food in the black market. Vladek pays her for a loaf of bread. She tells him she doesn’t have change. He says, “It’s OK … keep it for your little boy.” Art’s implication is that Mrs. Motonowa lied here about not having change so she could keep it.

Then Mrs. Motonowa offers to let Vladek stay at her farmhouse. So Vladek and his wife move there. At this point Art interrupts his father’s narrative to cynically remark, “You had to pay Mrs. Motonowa to keep you, right?” Vladek answers with some irritation, “Of course I paid … and well I paid … what do you think? Someone will risk their life for nothing … I also paid for the food what she gave to us from her smuggling business. But one time I missed a few coins to the bread.” When Vladek does this Mrs. Motonowa comes back in the evening without bread. Vladek comments, “Always she got bread, so I didn’t believe … But still, she was a good woman.”

Maus by and © Art Spiegelman

What’s happening here is that Art is showing a poor Polish woman hiding his parents, but he’s strongly implying that she’s doing it for money alone, which is consistent with her pig image. To kill two birds with one stone, he pictures his father accepting her “mercenary” values. (“Of course I paid… Someone will risk their life for nothing?”) Maybe Art expects Mrs. Motonowa to turn down Vladek’s money, to support him and his wife for free, even though Vladek can pay for his expenses. Vladek justifies paying Mrs. Motonowa for risking her life to save his, but Art implies she’s taking unreasonable advantage of his father. This may illustrate that Art is even cheaper and more selfish than Vladek, maybe almost as cheap as I am!

Actually, there were Poles of high moral character who saved Jews without expecting to be paid for it. But Artie portrays all Poles as pigs.

Fiore wants to know why I approve of Orwell’s use of anthropomorphism and not Spiegelman’s. Well, see, Fiore, I have no general objection to anthropomorphism, but it can be used stupidly, tastelessly, inappropriately. Art stereotypes nationalities, Orwell doesn’t. Orwell’s pigs do not represent a whole nation, they represent what comes to be the corrupt ruling class of a nation.

Also Orwell and Spiegelman use different art-forms. Orwell employs prose so that you imagine what his characters look like. Spiegelman uses visual images which are often inexpressive and water down the intensity of his narrative. Fiore agrees with me about this, by the way, in his Journal #114 column, by saying Spiegelman “chose a style that was deliberately inexpressive,” though he goes on to justify this inexpressiveness.

Fiore’s Hypocrisy

Next, reader, let me show you what a hypocrite Fiore is. It should be obvious by now that I’ve taken a long, hard look at Maus and have serious, carefully considered views about it. Since I’m virtually the only person, to my knowledge, to discuss its faults at length, you’d think scholars and critics would welcome my views, even if they disagreed with them, as they mostly do. But Spiegelman fans like Fiore get hysterical when they read what I say, as if I’ve got the power to destroy him, which I obviously don’t. In fact, I was sure from the start that if I wrote something negative about him his supporters would be outraged, would form a protective circle around him, and call me a crank. Fiore’s one of them; he refuses to accept that there can be any legitimate criticism of Spiegelman and has, in recent Journal issues, characterized me as an evil nut motivated by jealousy. Although Fiore’s mainly been concerned with my critical views he has also shown his distaste for my comic book stories, as his remarks in Journal #132 illustrate. According to Fiore I’m jealous of Spiegelman because “he’s published by a respected literary publisher while Pekar is published by a notorious mass-market hash house. Spiegelman is invited to conferences while Pekar gets to be a clown on television.” But Fiore, by his own admission, wrote this about me as an introduction to my interview in the Berkley paperback The New Comics:

For the past 11 years Harvey Pekar has waged a one-man campaign to advance the comics form. While he was impressed by underground comics, he thought they had far more potential as literature than they had yet shown. In 1976 he set out to prove it with American Splendor, a comic he wrote, published, and distributed himself. By his own estimate he’s lost thousands of dollars on the deal, from a file clerk’s salary, no less. The passionate commitment that such a quixotic enterprise requires comes through clearly in his stories. They portray the minute details of everyday life that even serious fiction ignores; those moments that don’t lead to any conclusion but still stick in the memory. They are animated by Pekar’s abrasive personality, made up of equal parts gut-wisdom, crankiness, and an intense involvement with every aspect of life. His commitment finally began to pay off in 1986, when Doubleday/Dolphin published a collection of his stories. This notoriety led to a brief career as a professional guest on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, a career that promptly ended when he tried to expose the malfeasances of General Electric, the network’s parent company, on the air (he didn’t succeed, but the host’s frantic attempts to silence him revealed far more about the company than Pekar could have). He is often cited by cartoonists as an inspiration for following an independent path.

Fiore wrote this before my article in Journal #130 was published criticizing Spiegelman. Once Fiore characterized my publishing by Doubleday/Dolphin as a reward, a “pay off” now, however, it’s become a notorious hash house in his opinion. He praised my exposure of GE once, but now claims I was just being a clown. Actually, I’m pretty pleased with what I did on Late Night, Fiore, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it. He says Spiegelman gets to attend “conferences,” without realizing that I’ve been paid to lecture at universities myself. Believe me, I’d rather take on GE; it’s more fun.

“Late Night with David Letterman” (1987) Art by Gerry Shamray Story and © Harvey Pekar

He said I wrote about areas of life missed even by “serious fiction,” but now complains about my comic book writing, which he can’t even describe accurately. In his above-quoted statement he praises me for dealing with mundane matters, but in Journal #132 criticizes me for writing about them.

Why does Fiore change position? Probably because he can’t stand to read negative remarks about his heroes, especially Spiegelman, and because he feels inadequate and wants to draw attention to himself and his intellect, which he badly overrates. In any event, Fiore proves himself to be what one of my correspondents called him, “a loathsome fanboy.”

When I originally started writing this series of articles, letters, and answers to letters, I mentioned how low the standard of comics criticism was. While doing that I was thinking of Fiore, who not only overrates Maus, but praises the confused, pathetic stories of Miller to the skies. I haven’t been reading the Journal since its inception, but I’m told that some of its editors, who once thought the world of Miller, have now begun to realize that his work leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe someday they’ll understand that Fiore doesn’t have much to offer, either.

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14 Responses to Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore

  1. Rob says:

    I remember this well. I have great respect and affection for the writing of both men, so this was sort of like watching two friends fighting. Much as I love Pekar, this was not him at his finest, sadly. Also, where the heck is that Funnybook Roullette collection we were promised?

  2. Every bit as exciting as Pekar’s comics!

  3. Oh lordy says:

    Congratulations to Fiore and Pekar for inventing “The Bill O’Reilly Show.”

  4. Rob says:

    Another thing. Pekar was irascible even at the best of times, and I gather that this exchange happened during the events Pekar and Joyce Brabner later recounted in “My Cancer Year,” which was far from the best of times. So Pekar gets something of a pass from me here, and Fiore’s role in the exchange is more or less witty variations on “Not sure if serious.”

    Still, “Fiore-the-toilet-tongue” is (A) not Pekar at his peak and (B) something I imagine Fiore might have joked for a few days about putting on a business card.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Dispose of all the rubbish and focus in on the real arguments and who made the better points.

  6. Jim Sheridan says:

    So, is that where the argument ended?

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    This exchange has a lot of nostalgia value for me — my favorite period of TCJ’s history is era of the long dragged-out “blood and thunder” debates: aside from Fiore v. Pekar, there was also Fiore v. Crumb, Fiore v. Groth (about genre movies). The thing with the Pekar debate is that it really shows the limits of Pekar’s aesthetic, or rather the theory he developed post-facto to justify his autobiographical comics. The best Pekar stories (A Good Shit is Best, or Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies) weren’t simply observations taken faithfully from life — they were carefully stylized and organized. It was around the time this debate that Pekar’s comics started getting much less interesting for a variety of reasons — and I’m wondering if one of the reasons is that Pekar became so enamored by this theories of comics vérité that he lost touch with his storytelling ability.

  8. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, Pekar pushed back against the argument he was advocating for “realism” as a superior type of comics. As I read it this was all tied up in his argument the anthropomorphic aspects of MAUS weakened the story, and depicting Poles as pigs was problematic. I’ve always agreed with Pekar on the point. The original MAUS, a three page story in FUNNY ANIMALS (1972) made sense in that context, but it’s kind of a throw away idea at best and Pekar’s arguments against it are well grounded.

  9. patrick ford says:

    Another excellent point Pekar makes is what makes the book great are the contributions of Vladek Spiegelman.

  10. steven samuels says:

    “It was around the time this debate that Pekar’s comics started getting much less interesting for a variety of reasons ”

    You mean at the tail end of the original “American Splendor” series? If there was a drop-off in quality it surely wasn’t as pronounced as the one that occurred post-2000, where he was doing more bios of other people rather than writing about himself.

  11. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    I remember the Crumb/Fiore exchange on traditional music being fairly civilized and not so much like a flame war. Or was that only part of a larger debate? It’s been ages, and my old Journals are packed away.

  12. Don Druid says:

    Yeah, the magic realism name-dropping is just intolerable on cable TV news . . .

  13. Don Druid says:

    Reading this just makes me feel dumb as hell.

  14. R. Gordon Noble says:

    I used to love these back & forths…looking forward to future reprints of the great B & T blowouts.

    And while it may not have much value in terms of comics enlightenment, part of me pines for a reprint of the late, great Marc S. Tucker Open, with both the letters that led up to it as well as the responses it generated. If nothing else, it could provide a unique view of a troll characteristic now familiar to anyone who’s used the internet for more than an hour, that of unwarranted self-importance.

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