In The Beginning…#5

A Different Kind of Hero

The popular preconception of comics is that they’re all about costumed crime fighters battling super-villains and saving the city / world, but of course there is a lot more to comics than just superheroes. So this month I reluctantly took off the spandex and cape to look at three very different titles with very different kinds of heroes.

First up, the acclaimed American Splendor. If you’ve never read it, you might recognize the title from the movie of the same name. If you didn’t see the film, you probably at least saw a trailer. The movie is biographical, it is about the life of a guy called Harvey Pekar who creates his own comic book. It shows how he created the book, how he lives, the success and struggles that his comic brought him and how it helped him to meet his wife. It also deals with his struggles with cancer. The comic book is autobiographical. Over the years, it has covered pretty much the same ground. In the film, Harvey Pekar plays himself but he is also played by an actor and sometimes he is hand drawn with just a voiceover. It is a slightly confusing but engaging film.

The beauty of the Pekar character is that really he’s a bit of a loser and a grouch with it. He’s stuck in a dead end job, he suffers from ill health, he’s neurotic and so is his wife. He’s never going to save the world, he’s just looking to triumph over the every day annoyances that plague us all. When he does succeed, you’re glad because, hey, at least someone out there is winning for once. Pekar recently started a new four-part run of American Splendor on Vertigo, so I decided to give it a try. Each issue contains a handful of short stories, brief snapshots of Harvey’s mundane life. Shopping for groceries, losing the cat, unblocking a toilet. When he gets it right, the toilet story for example, Pekar is like a good stand up comic, making just the right observations. Because Pekar’s life is so mundane, his experiences ring true with our own lives (unless you’re a supermodel or a rock star or something).These are often gently amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but entertaining all the same. Sadly, there are fewer hits than misses; these stories don’t often seem to go anywhere or make any point. They’re just stuff that happens.

The real joy of American Splendor is the artwork. Each black and white story is drawn by a different artist, allowing you to compare and contrast the depictions of Harvey and his family from one to the next. It’s fascinating to see the way different artists draw the same character. Each one is unmistakably Harvey but, at the same time, entirely different from the next. It’s fascinating. Definitely worth picking up an issue, even if you don’t become hooked on the series.

Over the past year or so, probably my favourite comic book, the one I most look forward to has been Fell. Fell is the brainchild of Warren Ellis. Ellis has a varied history in comics and has done superheroes but Fell is something different again. It’s a stylish detective comic about a police officer called Richard Fell who is exiled to work in the lawless Snowtown after some mysterious indiscretion.

Each week he has to solve some bizarre, often gruesome case, each based on a true life story. Although each issue gradually builds up Fell’s surroundings and supporting cast in Snowtown, they are all one shot stories that you can pick up and read without having to know the character’s back story or what happened last time. Another thing about Fell is that it’s smaller than the average comic. It’s tightly scripted and has nine panels to a page in order to save on pages. No half or even full page splash panels here. The idea is, if you can make the comic smaller you can make it cheaper. So anyone on any budget can walk into a store and pick up a cheap comic that they can enjoy without committing to a series. Great idea right? Of course, this whole value-for-money premise would fall down if the comic wasn’t up to scratch. Luckily it’s brilliant, dark and moody with great, distinctive art by Ben Templesmith. It’s got everything. Crime drama, a budding love interest, terse dialogue, enough intrigue to keep you coming back and even a dark sense of humour. There is no excuse for anyone with even the vaguest interest in comics not to pick up a copy of Fell and see for themselves.

Lastly, I recently picked up The Complete Maus, collecting both volumes of Art Speilgelman’s acclaimed Maus books. The books follow the story of the holocaust as retold by Speigelman via the memories of his own father, a jewish holocaust survivor now settled in America. By showing his father as a grouchy old man in the present day Speigelman gives readers a figure they can relate to in the horrific, outlandish horror of Nazi Germany. It is an engrossing and excellent book.

Speigelman makes the bold artistic decision to draw the Nazis as cats and the Jews at mice. If this visual metaphor seems a little too simplistic, even childish, don’t worry it’s purely a neat visual device. Speigelman doesn’t oversimplify his father’s complex story. Of course, the Nazis are the bad guys but it isn’t all the black and white goodies vs baddies stuff you expect in some superhero titles. The most interesting thing was how scared everyone was. You might tell yourself that you would’ve stood up to the Nazis if you’d been around then or that you’d have helped other people out but the truth is, for all the bravery on display in Maus, people were terrified and the main priority was looking after you and yours.

In a way, Speigelman is lucky with his source material; his father’s experience seems especially rich and exciting. Still, if his father’s story seems almost implausibly heroic you never suspect embellishment. That’s not least because Speigelman is so unflinching in his depiction of the present day, from his difficult relationship with his father to the old man’s own casual racism. Besides, having the source material is only half the battle, Speigelman makes his father’s story accessible and deeply sympathetic.

So if you thought comics were all bulging biceps and tight pants, maybe it’s time you looked beyond the big superhero names and took a closer look at what else comics have to offer.

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