Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore

This letter by R. Fiore appeared in The Comics Journal #132 (November 1989):

Now that you’ve all had time to digest Harvey Pekar’s article in Journal #130 — and what a great, big, fiber-laden chunk it was — it’s as good a time as any to examine the stool. What it demonstrates primarily is that, other accomplishments notwithstanding, Pekar is a lousy critic: slipshod in his methods, weak on facts, given to shoddy reasoning even when he’s correct, and largely motivated by envy of anyone in comics he perceives to have a higher reputation than his.

I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that this is a defense of the Leon Hunt review that got Pekar started [“Pekar and Realism,” see “Comics Library,”  Journal #126], which I thought was dumb from the ground up and dumb from the roof down on the other side. Realism is not a “mode,” it is a goal and a criterion. Contrary to naive assumptions, to convey reality accurately is no simple matter. Far from being passive, the reader of a realistic work is constantly measuring it against his own experience. “That’s not realistic” is probably the most common critical comment made; it is a judgment available even to the least sophisticated reader. Every kind of discipline has its “limitations,” but the limitations of realism are far less important than the power it has to convince and inspire identification.

Having whet his appetite on Hunt, Pekar proceeds to lash out at everything else that has annoyed him over the last five years, starting with Art Spiegelman’s Maus. If nothing else, he shows a real talent for self-contradiction. He starts out by comparing it unfavorably to Animal Farm. While it is true that Animal Farm is allegorical and Maus isn’t, when Pekar says Orwell “didn’t identify the pigs explicitly as Lenin or Stalin,” he is demonstrating that he hasn’t read Animal Farm lately. Napoleon is unmistakably Stalin, Snowball is unmistakably Trotsky, and most of the events in the story have direct parallels to events in Soviet history (so direct that they tend to make it less an allegory than an expose). Pekar questions the validity of distancing oneself from a horror and then demonstrates it, by describing how by immersing foreign statesmen in the horrors of the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, Israeli politicians render them incapable of rationally viewing the current political situation. This illustrates another Pekar belief: there is only one proper way of portraying a historical event; if one can be shown to be effective, then all others must be ineffective. When Pekar describes Spiegelman’s method as arbitrary, he ignores Spiegelman’s own testimony that it was the only way he felt he could handle the material. But why is anthropomorphism, improper for dealing with the horrors of the holocaust, proper for dealing with the horrors of Stalinism? Simple answer: because Pekar doesn’t see Orwell as a rival.

Pekar again contradicts himself when he admits that Spiegelman portrays Polish gentiles as risking their lives for Jews, but still claims that Spiegelman pictured Poles as pigs in order to defame them. (Must it be defamatory? Orwell chose pigs to represent the leaders of the revolution because they are among the most intelligent animals. That Orwell portrays the common people as ignorant dupes of one sort or another doesn’t seem to bother Pekar. But of course, he hasn’t read the book lately.) Part of the reason for this fixation is Pekar’s unwillingness to truly examine the position of Jews in Poland. He says, “Jews were not treated as first-class citizens in Poland.” This puts it a bit mildly. Up until 1938, Polish Jews were given the highest priority for entrance visas to Jewish Palestine, which is to say that until Kristallnacht, it was thought that Jews were more in danger of persecution living in Poland than they were living under Hitler. In any case, it becomes more and more clear that Pekar hangs on to this issue because it’s a handy club to beat Spiegelman over the head with.

Club #2 is Pekar’s assertion that Spiegelman’s portrayal of his father is “poor” and “confusing.” Strangely, almost every other critic the world over seems to think this is one of the most vivid, multidimensional character portraits ever seen in a comic strip. Somehow, everyone else’s viewpoint is distorted but Pekar’s, who just coincidentally sees Spiegelman as a rival. One possibility for Spiegelman’s higher reputation that Pekar ignores is that, even with cats and mice, Spiegelman is a better realist than Pekar is. Specifically, he has a better eye for social detail, a better ear for dialogue, a greater means of describing a character than an essay in a thought balloon. He also has a sense of economy and pacing. Pekar acts as if telling a compelling narrative were somehow cheating, the sort of trickery a real “fine art” writer wouldn’t stoop to.

Maus by and © Art Spiegelman

Also getting too big for their britches are Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. As with Spiegelman, it’s not that Pekar doesn’t want them admired, it’s just that he doesn’t want them admired more than he is. This is perfectly transparent, but he attempts to disguise it by focusing on Spain as a victim. While it can certainly be said that Spain’s work is undervalued, I can hardly see how the Hernandez brothers can be held responsible for that. The reasoning seems to be that if Spain is not properly appreciated, then the appreciation of the Hernandez brothers must be somehow invalid. This only makes sense if you believe that appreciation is a finite resource that must be forcibly wrested from your rivals.

For reasons known only to himself, Pekar has chosen a basis of comparison that’s really not fair to Spain. Pekar claims that Spain’s characters are more individualized than the Hernandezes’. What are we comparing here, Love & Rockets and Mean Bitch Thrills? I don’t see how any rational person could make that statement. But then, individuals aren’t what Spain’s work is about. One thing that makes him unusual (and valuable) among American artists of any kind is that he’s not an individualist. In much of his work, the characters are not so much individuals as representatives of their social class (a time honored and perfectly valid strategy in satirical and didactic fiction). Spain paints his most convincing portraits not of individuals but of groups. In his motorcycle club stories, for instance, you learn very little of the personalities of any individuals, but a great deal about how they function as a group. But I don’t see how you can compare this with characters whose personalities have been developed over hundreds of pages.

As with Spiegelman and Orwell, there’s a double standard here. The slightest taint of genre fiction is enough to delegitimize the Hernandez brothers, and yet Spain’s work is filled with genre material, and a large body of it is about a super-hero. Pekar claims that Spain has eschewed the things that make for popular success, and yet almost all his work is based around violence, the very stuff of popular entertainment, and this is borne out in the sales figures. In his heyday in the ’70s, Spain’s comics sold far more than the Hernandez brothers’ do now. (Jay Kennedy’s Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide reports that Mean Bitch Thrills sold 35,000 copies, and, if it had comparable print runs, Subvert #1 did around 60,000. Spain was an integral part of the two most popular anthology undergrounds — Young Lust, which altogether sold in the hundred thousands; and Zap, which altogether sold in the millions. It will be quite some time before comics featuring the Hernandez brothers outsell comics featuring Spain.) Why, with his loudly proclaimed standards, doesn’t Pekar criticize Spain for this? Simple answer: if he ever perceived Spain as attaining more prestige than he has, he would.

Fiore sees Luba as emotionally distant in “Ecce Homo” (1984) © Gilbert Hernandez

Pekar’s specific criticisms of the Hernandezes are the familiar exercise of looking for clubs. He claims that Luba in “Heartbreak Soup” is a “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.” He catches himself in time to notice that she’s not a hooker. He neglects to mention that she doesn’t have a heart of gold, either. She is emotionally distant, a neglectful mother who keeps her children only because society demands it, and seduces a boy with no thought but for her own gratification, an act that leaves him scarred for life. The sentimental notion behind the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is that the woman who fucks you for money nevertheless still loves you. In the Palomar stories, Luba doesn’t fuck for money and isn’t particularly loving. Other than that it’s a perfect match.

Pekar next complains that Palomar does not exude enough poverty and oppression, and that the characters seem more like people from Gilbert Hernandez’s own life than poor Central Americans. Little wonder about the latter, since Gilbert has always said that Palomar is a combination of elements from his own life and his relatives’ reminiscences of the old country, which includes Texas. Harvey Pekar seems to me a very strange person to be criticizing someone for basing his work on his own experiences. “Heartbreak Soup” is not about Latin American poverty but Latin American culture, and the things that remain constant in that culture in spite of poverty or place. To demand that a culture be portrayed only in terms of oppression is to treat that culture as purely reactive. To view third world people solely as victims is every bit as patronizing and paternalistic as to view them as subjects. And besides, as he does so often, Pekar is only telling part of the story. While it is true that Palomar exists outside of the normal pressures of industrial capitalism, the minute anyone leaves town the wand is broken. Once in the city, the Palomarans find themselves selling their clothes or their bodies to eat, as in “The Way Things’re Going” and “Bullnecks and Bracelets.”

“The Way Things’re Going” (1985) © Gilbert Hernandez

What other crimes is Gilbert guilty of? Well, he’s written about a serial killer and a witch’s visit to Palomar. These literary offenses are so heinous that Pekar sees no reason to elaborate on them. As if serial killers didn’t exist in real life (as if serial killers in fiction were not based primarily on actual persons); as if witches, or people who style themselves witches, were not part of Latin American culture. And, most important of all, as if witchcraft and serial killing were what “Duck Feet” and “Human Diastrophism” were actually about. What they are actually about is the disintegration of what at first seemed a stable society. (And it should be noted that never in “Duck Feet” is it explicitly stated that anything supernatural is going on.) What one begins to perceive is a lack of imagination on Pekar’s part. Allegory registers but metaphor doesn’t.

Pekar’s misunderstanding of Jaime Hernandez is closely aligned with his misunderstanding of what constitutes genre fiction. He spends three paragraphs flailing away at it and comes up with a definition under which Lord Jim, Moby Dick, and Pudd‘nhead Wilson are genre novels. Along with more than half of world literature. And the real definition is simplicity itself: genre fiction is fiction written according to genre conventions. To hear Pekar tell it, genre fiction is anything from which the reader might conceivably derive pleasure. Pekar realizes the contradictions in his definition, and in trying to resolve them he makes a complete fool of himself. “Great novels can be written in these areas,” says Pekar, giving Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as an example of an “outstanding science fiction novel.” Most American science fiction fans aren’t aware of it, he says, but it is “acclaimed by scholars of top-notch fiction.” Pekar is wrong in almost every particular. We is not a science fiction novel, it’s a Utopian novel, or rather, the first modern dystopia. It was written before science fiction existed as a separate genre, before the term “science fiction” had even been coined. Though Zamyatin is hardly a household name to any American readers, science fiction readers are most likely more familiar with him than others because, when We has been in print over the last 30 years, it has been mostly published as a science fiction novel. Like his contemporary Karel Capek, Zamyatin is one of the few Eastern European satirists whose work has appeared in mass-market paperback, thanks to the fortuitous accident that it can be marketed as science fiction. Among literary scholars, Zamyatin is remembered less on his own merits than as a precursor of Huxley and Orwell; if not for 1984, it is highly unlikely that We would be remembered at all. Witness the fact that of the 40 books Zamyatin wrote in his lifetime, We is the only one that is generally available. Of course, this doesn’t prove that science fiction readers are receptive to literature. It’s a quirk; it doesn’t prove much of anything. It only serves to illustrate Pekar’s haphazard choice of examples. (If he weren’t so intent on getting fancy with obscure Russian authors, he might have thought of H.G. Wells, whose fantasy novels were models for genre sf, but whose realistic novels are largely ignored by sf readers.) Pekar’s attempt to differentiate serious and genre fiction is a muddled mess. Under the real definition of genre fiction matters are much more clear cut; any “top notch literary scholar” could tell you that no great novel will ever be written under genre conventions.

Pekar is trying to create a definition under which the only true literature is realist, and any deviation from realism is acceptable only if it serves explicit (and none too subtle) didactic purpose. (And it’s not merely reality one must stick to, but everyday ordinary reality; anything more exotic — or, for that matter, anything with any kind of dramatic structure — is suspect at best.) What is left out of this definition is self-expression. Ultimately, a writer has to tell the stories he has to tell, and they may not all fit in some narrow authoritarian definition of serious fiction. I think there’s a tendency to underrate Jaime because his work doesn’t parallel literary fiction the way Gilbert’s does, and a tendency to think of Gilbert as “the serious one.” But there is a strong element of human truth to even Jaime’s lightest fantasies. His highly adulterated versions of genre fiction mostly show that he can’t take genre fiction seriously on any level, and his fantasies are creations of his imagination and not genre formulations.

Take “Flies on the Ceiling” — a pure fantasy. It’s about transgression, and the inability to break away from the ideas one is raised with. Isabel Reubens [sic], a former youth gang member, now upwardly mobile: she is bent on assimilation; she has married one of her college professors and adopted middle class style and dress; she hopes to become a writer. And yet, though she outwardly seems to be succeeding, she is filled with an inexplicable feeling of dread, of wrongness. The middle class facade falls apart; she divorces, has an abortion, attempts suicide. In transgressing the gravest prohibitions of her culture, she only intensifies her sense of her own wrongness; though she doesn’t consciously believe in it, her cultural conditioning is so deeply ingrained in her that she can’t escape it. To dispel it, she goes to the source, to Mexico. A man offers her the life of a “good woman,” of wife and mother. He’s willing to accept her as she is, unconditionally; he doesn’t attempt to find out what she’s done or what she’s running away from. For a time, she accepts and is happy, but soon realizes that her sense of wrongness will not allow her to live the life of a “good woman.” Not only have her feelings of wrongness not left her, but she has surrendered the protection of Western rationality. Her fears manifest themselves more and more concretely (significantly, in two instances, in the form of a crucifix and of a priest) until she realizes that her fear is the fear of losing what she’s already lost. She can kill the fear by accepting the role that her culture has laid out for her, the role of a “bad woman.” But this “acceptance” means surrendering all hope of the life she’d wished for. And the amazing thing about it is, Jaime’s been laying the groundwork for this story for years. The first seed was in a story drawn before he even knew he was going to be a professional cartoonist. Because he has been building the foundations so subtly for so long, he can tell the story almost without words.

Though it is fantasy, it’s a serious story because it’s about serious matters. No doubt Pekar would say that since such a theme could be dealt with in a realistic manner there is no excuse for dealing with it in fantasy terms (there being, of course, only one right way to deal with any given subject). But if it were told in any different way, it would not have been Jaime’s story, the one that had been building in him ever since he started drawing comics seriously.

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

And a lot of Jaime’s is realistic; probably a larger portion of it than of Spain’s, if it comes to that. Pekar says that, “ ‘Locas’ needs more in it than one character who gains weight to give it credibility,” as if that were all there was. Anyone who has lived in the southwest can see what an acute observer he is of several races and classes and how they interact with each other, as well as all the fragmented varieties of family life. I seriously doubt that Pekar knows the first thing about the southwest, and his remarks about Gilbert give the distinct impression that he thinks Californians haven’t suffered enough to be the subjects of serious fiction. Pekar consistently disregards the element of personal experience in both the brothers’ work, which is rather odd since personal experience is generally considered more vital to a writer than what he has read. What I find most offensive is Pekar’s assertion that the (moderate) success the Hernandez brothers have earned must somehow have been gained dishonestly. To accuse them of pandering when they have built their readership from nearly nothing to a respectable but far from prepossessing number through the hard work of producing four to six issues of quality storytelling a year (a far more difficult schedule than anyone in the underground ever set for themselves), year in and year out, goes beyond the realm of critical privilege into character assassination. Anyone who challenges Pekar’s cheap shot tactics is dismissed as blindly worshipful, and yet Pekar will hold grudges for years over positive reviews that are not sufficiently adulatory for his taste.

By the end, Pekar begins to dimly realize what a hole he’s dug for himself, and tries to cover up a bit. He admits that he’s trying to advance his career, but only as a byproduct of advancing the art of serious comics. Well, not exactly. What he’s actually trying to do is redefine what constitutes serious comics in such a way as to put himself at the center of it. The main obstacle in this way is the feet that he doesn’t draw. This leads him to the ridiculous assertion that serious cartoonists ought to eschew exaggeration and only draw realistically. (This is one area where Pekar is firmly on the side of Marvel and DC fans, for whom “cartoony” is the ultimate epithet.) Without exaggeration, there is no cartooning. If comics are to take their place among the arts, it will not be by doing the same thing prose fiction does, but by doing things only comics can do. Of these, the most important is the cartoonist’s ability to create his own personal vision of the world and everything in it. Not being able to draw doesn’t disqualify you (particularly if one of your main collaborators is the best cartoonist around), but it does put you at the mercy of others. For instance, Pekar thinks he’s scoring big points on Donald Phelps when he reveals that a reference to The Maltese Falcon in an American Splendor story was not his choice, that he had told his artists to “draw a scene from any old movie they wanted to in the background.” (Perhaps he believes a properly prepared critic should have mind-reading abilities; certainly in the case of Spiegelman, Pekar seems to claim them himself.) But when you’re dealing with a serious artist, it is generally assumed that he has control of everything in the work. Under these circumstances, how is anyone to know what comes from Pekar and what’s delegated to the artists? And out of all the cartoonists whose genre-influenced work is supposed to be inhibiting the recognition of the medium as an art form, who are the ones singled out? Art Spiegelman and the Hernandez brothers, who have done much for the recognition of the medium. What comes across most clearly in the article is that Pekar has become so self-absorbed that he truly can’t tell when he’s making a fool of himself. He makes snap judgments based on capricious emotional reactions and grabs the nearest bit of evidence that seems to support them without pausing to consider whether it actually does or not. If the idea is to improve comics, this kind of criticism is irrelevant; and if the idea is to enhance his own reputation, it’s not going to do him the least bit of good.

Continued: Harvey Pekar's response