One of the most interesting genres within the diverse world of comics is the autobiographical comic. Pioneered by the legendary Harvey Pekar and others, these comics are a fascinating application of the comics medium to short storytelling. We all know that comics started out as short newspaper strips, which gave rise to a hard-hitting and fast form of episodic storytelling, as well as creators who went the other way, reducing the size of the story to fit the frame itself, telling seemingly nonsensical and almost anti-narrative anecdotes and observations. In prose, this sort of writing fell through the cracks in the pre-blogging era. But what Pekar re-discovered in the 1970s, and what others have elaborated upon since, is that comics are uniquely suited to telling this sort of short, observational story. It’s something that comics do better than any other medium (although modern experimental TV shows like Louie come close), and it is justly celebrated.
Tony Wolf’s web-based comic Greenpoint of View is a worthy addition to the canon. Written and drawn by Wolf himself, the comic details a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he moved to the Brooklyn neighbourhood and witnessed its transformation and gentrification at the rise of hipster culture. Simply as a study of popular culture and social history, this comic already has tremendous value after two issues.
In the first, Wolf describes coming to Greenpoint in 1996 and getting used to the local population, with many people of Polish descent lending the neighbourhood some colour. He mentions that the local park, McCarren Park, is exactly 1/100th the size of central park, but like so much else in this small community, they wear that comparison with pride. In fact, as Wolf observes, it’s the mix of small-town charm and urban availability that made communities such as these such a treasure in New York, as he was able to see the Citicorp Tower in the distance while the local buildings provided a very different kind of experience. These communities had yet, in 1996, to be really touched by the homogenizing hand of corporate shopping centres and the trickle of gentrified hipster irony had only just begun.
Hipsterism, and its rise, are very much a part of Wolf’s story. “People always forget it started with the trucker hats,” he notes as he describes how hipster culture appropriated the accoutrements of the blue collar worker and reflected it back with ironic detachment. Pabst Blue Ribbon, pointless nostalgia such as a vintage photo booth and the afore-mentioned trucker hats were all on prominent display in Enid’s, a local bar that catered to the new hipster community. In the first issue, Wolf describes how Enid’s was soon joined by Matchless, a competing bar across the street, and how the two establishments did bloody economic combat in the streets of Greenpoint (giving Wolf the chance to render out a great western gunfighter panel).
Wolf’s writing is good and his art is equal or better, recalling the best of Joseph Remnant in his attention to texture, shading and the way with a simple line he can evoke small-town Americana without seeming overtly sentimental.
After introducing the neighborhood in the first issue, Wolf goes internal for the second issue, presenting a series of panels of him walking alone through McCarren park, literally dwarfed by his own shadow in an effective frame. This is so reminiscent of Pekar, in all the right ways, that it requires some commentary. Pekar’s defining motif is him, walking alone, speaking to an unseen “camera” (the audience), delivering his thoughts. He “walked the earth”, so to speak, part of the milieu but removed from it enough to offer insightful commentary. Lots of people, myself included, enjoy long walks alone, and often have profound thoughts that evaporate the second I walk back in the door. The talent of writers like Pekar and Wolf is that they can hang on to those memories and present them with poetic insight in our favourite creative medium.
It’s in fact a random encounter with a band in the part that forms the bulk of issue #2, as Wolf describes how he met, listened to, and later bought the albums of a quirky band called The Vitamen. (Pekar, we should note, was also a music fan who wrote extensively about the bands he loved.) (And, just to toss in a bit of biographical resonance, just last week I had almost the exact same thing happen to me on Granville Street here in Vancouver, when a band sold me a CD right there on the street, based on the Pink Floyd T-shirt I was wearing.)
In any case, Wolf’s rhapsodizing about music (“It replenishes me,”) is part of that quiet, inner contemplation all thoughtful people experience. In the final frame, as Wolf walks slowly into the distance of this small but mighty Greenpoint park, we’re encouraged as an audience to sit and think for ourselves, drawn into that contemplative mood. I adore this sort of comic for that and other reasons, and I’m looking forward to seeing what further adventurous non-adventures and observations await from the Greenpoint of view.