Blood and Thunder: Harvey Pekar and R. Fiore

This letter by R. Fiore appeared in The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990):

Intellectual gunslinger, am I? Actually, I’m trying more for hipster; intellectual has a better benefits package but hipster has the better working conditions, and neither one pays for shit. (Oh, and I must apologize to the author of “A Good Shit Is Best” for the Anglo-saxonisms; I had no idea I was in the presence of old women.) As for gunslinger, well, hell, why not? Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, that’s me. Clearly Harvey Pekar thinks that there ain’t room in this town for more than one of those, and his initials are H.P.

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 have time for. (One example should suffice: Pekar says, “Fiore thinks I shouldn’t compare Spain and the Hernandez brothers.” In fact, I said that Pekar picked a grounds for comparison that makes Spain look particularly bad.) Instead, I would like to use his letter as an example of my main points, which were that he is a bad, self-serving, and dishonest critic. In it he shows no understanding of literature aside from an ability to drop names and look up words in the dictionary and citations in an index.

Let’s start with Animal Farm. Pekar admits that it’s based mainly on the Russian Revolution, but insists it is a general allegory about dictatorships (as if all dictatorships paralleled the Soviet one). He supports this statement only with a quote from one of Orwell’s biographers. I based my statements not on what his biographer might have said but on what the book says. In fact it is based on the Soviet dictatorship and no other. Napoleon and Snowball are based on Stalin and Trotsky and no others. There are simplifications and combinations of characters, but these are simplifications of Soviet history and no other. This is the way the book has been perceived from the start, particularly by leftists who were still aligned with Moscow (a large percentage of them in 1945) who were outraged by the book. Pekar’s defense is that Stalin and Trotsky are not “explicitly” identified. I say that when there is no mistaking the models, and when the characters are modeled on no one else, that’s as explicit as it has to be. Are we to believe then that if a book were to call the characters “Stalin” and “Trotsky” it would be explicit, but if the very same book were instead to call them “Linats” and “Ykstrot” it would be entirely different? Almost every incident has a parallel with the Soviet Union. Some examples: After supervising the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, Trotsky turned away from politics and toward technical work, so much so that Lenin chided him for it in his “Last Will and Testament.” In Animal Farm Snowball turns away from politics to the construction of the windmill. Napoleon’s dealings with the human farmers closely parallels Stalin’s dealings with capitalist and fascist states. After Snowball is exiled, Napoleon takes credit for his works, erases and rewrites his place in history, and accuses him of hatching plots with the farmers in order to acclimate the animals to the idea, then proceeds to hatch them himself. These are the tactics of Stalin. If Orwell meant to write a generalized allegory about dictatorships then he failed, and I personally believe that the book is seriously weakened by sticking too close to the specifics of Soviet history. The Soviet dictatorship engaged Orwell’s passions like no other, not because he was opposed to socialism, but because it was a betrayal of socialism, and cynically manipulated every progressive movement it could influence for its own narrow national interests. Even when he’s on his guard Pekar can’t avoid making mistakes; the barnyard revolution was not led by Napoleon alone but by Napoleon and Snowball, and Snowball winds up as the hero of the revolution. (Or is Pekar simply spreading Napoleon’s party line?) And Pekar has still not answered my question, why is this proper for communism and not for the holocaust? After all, Stalin killed more people.

Then we have the eternal pig question. In Pekar’s view, Orwell portrayed the leaders of the revolution as pigs because he wanted people to view them as coarse and greedy. And yet, Major presents the ideals of socialism, which Orwell shared, and shows the animals the way to freedom. Snowball acts heroically and intelligently. In actuality, the barnyard metaphor for bourgeois intellectuals is far more clever than Pekar can conceive. While they are the most intelligent animals in the barnyard, pigs serve no productive purpose until the day of slaughter; they don’t lay eggs or give milk and they’re of no use as draft animals. Finally, when they have sunk to the lowest level of degradation, they do not resemble pigs but men. Please, Harvey, before you make yourself look even more foolish, read the book.

Then there is the matter of genre fiction. Pekar reiterates a “definition” that is nothing but a laundry list of qualities that supposedly define genre fiction: commercial, cliché-ridden, contrived tricky plots, idealized protagonists, too-good-to-be-true heroines, and other stereotypical characters. How can this definition be applied? Is a novel that has any one of these qualities a genre novel? Must genre fiction have each and every one of these qualities? Is there a point system? Certainly there is cliché-ridden literature fiction with stereotyped characters and commercial potboiler fiction that is not genre fiction. Literature is filled with romantic, larger-than-life characters. Most of the women in Mark Twain’s novels are too good to be true (Becky Thatcher, Aunt Polly, and Joan of Arc, to name three), and the plot of Puddin’head Wilson is nothing if not tricky and contrived. Pekar identifies We as a genre novel, and yet it does not have the qualities by which Pekar defines genre fiction, so how could it be one?

Pekar’s “definition” is worthless. It does nothing to identify how the condition of creation of genre fiction differs from literary fiction. Pekar would have us believe that the genre and literary writer start out even, and genre fiction just comes out that way. In other words, in the 1930s dozens of writers suddenly and spontaneously began writing stories about lone wolf private detectives who hunted down gangsters and wealthy murderers despite the indifference or interference of the police, which they then sent to magazines that just coincidentally happened to be publishing this exact kind of story. He would have us believe “cliché” is synonymous with "convention," although since he doesn’t come up with a dictionary definition we must assume that the OED let him down in this matter. Genre conventions are parameters designed to appeal to a pre-sold audience that would be disappointed if the parameters were not met. In a Harlequin-style romance a pretty-but-not-too-pretty working girl falls in love with a handsome, glamorous, wealthy man who treats her callously and indifferently until she wins him over with her natural goodness. These are the conventions of the genre. Various genres allow more or less leeway within their conventions (very little in romances, a good deal in science fiction, though the more restrictive mystery genre is generally better-written). A genre writer tailors his fiction to the expectations of the readers and the buying patterns of editors. No matter how good a genre writer is, these restriction will stand between his work and greatness. A serious writer doesn’t face these restrictions; his work may be cliché-ridden, but the clichés are his own and not dictated from the outside. This definition is not of much use to Pekar because he can’t hang it on his rivals; nevertheless, it is the true definition of genre fiction.

We are also treated for the second time to Pekar’s list of the types of female characters that are just too unlikely for serious fiction. In serious fiction women must not be vivacious, excessively good-looking, have aunts who are wrestling champions, or play in punk rock bands. You could find dozens of women in any major city who fit most of these descriptions, but that is clearly not enough for Harvey. Even taking the least likely, the fact is that there are lady wrestling champions, and some of them must have brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters must have female children, and that is exactly how many girls there are with aunts who are wrestling champions. There are certainly a lot more of those than there are, for instance, monomaniacal one-legged sea captains on a quest to kill an indestructible white whale, of which there have been, in all of human history, fewer than one. Under Pekar’s theory, characters must not only be realistic but must pass a stringent test of ordinariness, in which each feature is minutely examined for being “too good to be true.” (Sorry, Ms. Prynne, too much bloom on the cheeks. All I can say is, there must be a lot of piss-ugly people in Cleveland.) Strangely, Pekar also seems to be haranguing Jaime Hernandez for a type of story he stopped doing years ago, simply in order to make him look bad. But Harvey wouldn’t do a thing like that, would he? Not Harvey. That would be dishonest.

“Locas: 8:01 AM” (1986) © Jamie Hernandez

On the matter of science fiction, while the term might have been coined in 1851, it was not in common usage even when the first science fiction magazines were started in the late ’20s, and didn’t become common coin until the’‘30s. While the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was dubbed science fiction retroactively (often to its detriment), it was not considered science fiction at the time it was written because science fiction did not then exist as a separate genre. Wells and Verne were simply writing fiction that employed and speculated upon the scientific and technological developments of their day. The genre was formalized into convention in the science fiction magazines, and these conventions were based largely on the work of Wells and Verne.

Someone ought to let Pekar know that it takes more to demonstrate a grasp of literature than to drop half a dozen names and assure the reader that they prove your point. If Pekar’s “going over” of Latin American literature had included actually reading it, he would know that poverty and want are far from its only subjects. Village culture in Latin America is treated not as a condition to be alleviated but a combination of European and Indian cultures that constitutes a new thing in the world, a thing to be proud of. One comes away from Garcia Marquez’s stories of Macondo not with a sense of poverty and oppression but of a richness beyond wealth. Certainly poverty is there, as it is in several of Gilbert Hernandez’s stories (and doesn’t “Poison River” make Harvey look silly?), but it’s not the sum total of existence. There are certainly books about poverty in Latin American literature, like Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and earlier novels of Jorge Amado. But there are probably as many about the middle and upper classes, like Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State, Moacyr Scliar’s The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes and The Centaur in the Garden, Jose Donoso’s Sacred Families, Jose Ibarguengoitia’s Two Crimes, and Clarice Lispector’s Family Ties, to name a few. Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, one of the classic Latin American novels, paints a picture of an Indian village that’s far more idyllic than Palomar. Pekar’s comments came not from a knowledge of Latin American literature but from a knee-jerk notion of what fiction about the Third World ought to be.

Both the original article and his letter are catalogues of Pekar’s critical quirks and habits. I notice a certain sort of half-truth that crops up repeatedly when the facts make him uncomfortable. Statements like “Spain doesn’t always write heavyweight realistic stories...” (in fact, probably more than half his career output is fantasy of one kind or another); “Jews were not treated as first class citizens in Poland...” (in fact, in the ‘30s up until 1938 they were considered by some authorities to be the most persecuted in Europe);  “ ‘Locas’ needs more than one character who gains weight to give it credibility...” (in fact, it has much, much more than that to give it credibility, and Maggie is far from the only character whose looks and proportions are not ideal). This is simply bad writing. It’s vague and it obscures rather than illuminates the truth. It reminds me of that statement we’ve heard from the state department so often: “The government of [Guatemala/El Salvador/Chile] is not perfect, but...” and “but” is the last word you hear about it. (Along the way Pekar claims that because he’s Jewish and his relatives suffered persecution not only is he an unimpeachable authority on the persecution whose statements can’t be questioned or added to in any way, but that he has the right to speak on behalf of all Jews as to who ought and ought not to be held accountable.) Also borrowed from the right side of the spectrum is his tendency to take one quote or one piece of evidence out of context and act as if this proved his entire point. One exchange from one story describes the entire character of Luba. Two critical letters in the Journal mean that the reputation of the Hernandez brothers has collapsed. This tactic is used most frequently by David Horowitz, the former left wing jerk from Ramparts who is now a right wing jerk for whoever wants to pay him. Keeping on this theme, there’s Pekar’s comics McCarthyism— Do you now or have you ever enjoyed a disapproved cartoonist? If you’ve ever expressed enjoyment for Harold Gray or — ahem — Frank Miller, then anything else you might have written is automatically invalid, whatever it might have been. When Pekar doesn’t like what a critic has written he tries to tar him with the fanboy brush.

“Ecce Homo” (1984) © Gilbert Hernandez

Next there’s Pekar’s penchant for self-contradiction, which I remarked on at length previously. He claims that he admires “cartoony” cartoonists, and yet on the very first page of his article he identifies the enjoyment of “cartoony” and exaggerated drawing as symptomatic of the low standards of comics critics and fans, and exonerates Crumb’s cartooniness only because of its accurately observed detail. He says his tastes are not limited to work like his own, but when he gets down to specifics he eliminates everything else (note Pekar standards for characterization, above). He 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. He claims that Spiegelman distorts his father’s story to make his father look bad, then claims he portrays Polish gentiles helping Jews because he couldn’t distort his father’s story.

Closely related to self-contradiction is the double standard, most obvious in the case of Spain vs. the Hernandez brothers. Characters in the Hernandez strips are judged against strict standards of ordinariness while Spain’s are lauded as being neither romanticized nor idealized. And yet what do we find in Spain’s autobiographical and historical stories? Soldiers of fortune, romantic revolutionaries, lady fighter pilots, motorcycle outlaws, all involved in exciting and violent action. And how believable is Big Bitch? To paraphrase Pekar, it’s a hell of a neighborhood. Understand, I don’t at all fault Spain for this, I think he has every right to portray characters like this. Unlike Pekar, I extend this right to the Hernandez brothers as well.

Maus by and © Art Spiegelman

And there’s the usual repetitions, designed to wear down the opposition. Once again he holds the Hernandezes’ industriousness against them. Once again he acts as if by writing about an important subject Spiegelman were somehow cheating. What he neglects to mention is the risks Spiegelman took, both by addressing the Holocaust in comics form and by casting it with animals. In either case he would have been accused of trivializing the subject had he not done it justice. I wonder if Pekar has ever stopped to consider that the newspaper and magazine critics who lauded Spiegelman are basically the same ones who Pekar depends on for his main-stream legitimacy. If these critics’ opinions have no validity, then where does that leave him?

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 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.

I was not saying that Pekar’s technique is invalid but that Spiegelman’s technique is superior, comparisons, of course, being invidious. (Nor did I say that Spiegelman is unconventional; I’ve certainly got nothing against conventional comics storytelling if it’s done well.) The subject of the column was not Pekar as a cartoonist-once-removed but Pekar as a critic. What I have to say on Pekar’s behalf can be read in the introduction to his interview in the book The New Comics, and since some of his comments on himself in the article in #133 bear a striking resemblance to what I wrote about him, I doubt he objected overmuch.

Pekar’s motivations should be obvious. When Pekar wrote his first review of Maus I thought it was merely cranky and eccentric. The tenor and type of his comments in #133, however, made it clear to me that Pekar was so incensed at the notion of other cartoonists being held above him that he would use any tactics to drag them down. Pekar envies Spiegelman because Spiegelman has attained exactly the sort of acclaim that Pekar wants. Spiegelman is 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. In the end this hysterical ranting will hurt no one but Pekar. I commented on it at such length because this sort of dishonorable conduct makes me angry. To use one of those vulgarisms that Pekar dislikes so much, when I see shit I say shit.

Continued: Harvey Pekar's response