Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Passing: Callahan + Pekar

 Images from “The Night, They Say, Was Made For Love’ and “My Sexual Scrapbook” copyright John Callahan (1993 Quill)

One of the more notorious and controversial gag cartoonists died recently: John Callahan drew on such touchy and decidedly non-PC subjects such as mocking cripples, quadriplegics, drunks, addicts, sex and religion. Along with his 1989 autobiography “Don't Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” (referring to his most infamous panel with a tipped-over wheelchair), “Digesting The Child Within” and several other anthologized collections, there are a couple of animated cartoons based on Callahan's work (and life): Nickelodian's "Pelswick" and the Canadian/Australian-produced show "John Callahan's Quads!

Shocking and offensive to many, the crudity of his content matched the wandering scrawl of his art: spastic linework and clumsily rendered images compliment his equally vulgar and gleefully immature humor. He frequently went where most other cartoonists would fear to ink, in no small part due to his savage cynicism born from hard, personal experience – following an accident which left him a quadriplegic at age twenty-one, and subsequent dealings with alcoholism and history of sexual abuse.
“My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands. Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” 
So when it came to having the unabashed right to satirize the afflicted, Calahan wallowed in the depiction of the people whom he knew best and probably relished in exacerbating the discomfort most folks feel when confronting uncomfortable, disturbing and taboo aspects of human nature.

Art by Robert Crumb

Also dead this month is Cleveland cultural landmark Harvey Pekar, who was best known for writing the classic “American Splendor” series produced from 1976-84, also from exposure in the 2003 biopic of the same name that was nominated for an Oscar and won both the Cannes and Sundance festivals. The flagship artist most associated with Pekar’s series was of course Robert Crumb, and in the forward to the 1986 onmibus anthology (Ballantine) Crumb says:
“ What Pekar does is certainly new to the comic book medium. There’s never been anything even approaching this kind of stark realism. It’s hard enough to find in literature, impossible in the movies and TV. It takes chutzpah to tell it exactly the way it happened, with no adornment, no great wrap-up, no bizarre twist, nothing.”

 Art by Kevin Brown

Unvarnished, introspective soliloquies that provide a grimy, voyeuristic peek at the private musings of a bitter man. Pekar never flinches from brutally honest autobiographic portrayals of the seemingly inconsequential details that pile up like the endless accumulated crap piled upon the average joe over the course of any given domestic day. What to most folks would seem to be mostly mundane, if not tiresome, commentary interspersed with rants and self-pitying diatribes, is actually just a mere fraction of what most folks think and feel about the banalities of common existence. 

Art by Sue Cavey
The end result is an insightful, in-depth profile, warts and all, of someone we can all relate to, and quite often, whether we wish it or not there are aspects of his personality in us all, stripped away from all the cosmetic, commercialized fodder the popular media swill has to offer. These books are of the sort that aren't on the coffeetable but sit instead on the nightstand or out in the outhouse. The perfect aesthetic counterpoint in pairing Pekar's stories with Crumb's artwork aside, the impressive (and frequently overshadowed) stable of talent that Pekar attracted to illustrating his stories was diverse, and they each provided a unique marriage between the text and image: the sort of synthesis which close collaborations can bear out over time. Taken as a whole, these separate stories begin to assemble a far deeper portrait of Pekar, as would different interpretations of the same subject matter would be if drawn by different artists.

Art by Gerry Shamray

In one of my personal favorites, a 1984 story penned by Pekar and drawn by Crumb, “Hypothetical Quandary” excerpts one particular sequence of events over the course of three pages – Harvey leaves his apartment, drives to a local bakery, orders some stuff, walks out of the store, and stands looking around the street before walking off. The juxtaposed text is an internal narrative that only uses thought-balloons in 12 of the 16 total panels of this piece. After that, there’s only one spoken word-balloon (“A coupla those, anna rye bread…”), one caption box (“Sunday morning”), and three non-verbal beats/establishing shots, one of which is simply sniffing a fresh loaf. Pekar is musing over the possible call-back from a big-time publisher who has expressed interest in his work. The agonizing delay has causes Harvey to doubt first the legitimacy of such an inquiry, then fantasizes about the effect potential success would have with fame and fortune, and in turn frets over the hypothetical loss of the very lifestyle which affords him the material and perspective to write honestly about the reality of day-to-day struggles. The debate stalls out with a typical insight that it’s all just a pointless gesture of futility to even bother thinking about, and it ends with him smelling his rye bread and closing out the last panel with the inner exclamation “Ah, fresh bread.
I think this is the mental and emotional equivalent to gold-mining: mucking out the rare, single flake of something precious after hours of sifting through tons of dirt... blindly hoping to eventually unearth enough to make it all worthwhile, but been at it so long it’s just become, for many people, mindless routine. Even capturing the nuanced inflection and poignant pauses of secluded moments that fill all our boring-ass lives is an exercise in empathy and patience, two notable qualities that lack in the majority of entertainment these days.

“There is drama in the most ordinary and routine of days, but it’s a subtle thing 
that gets lost in the shuffle…” – Robert Crumb

Art by Gregory Budgett/Gary Dumm

The recent passing of these two cartooning figures also sparked related observations on another aspect of their respective careers, what Comic Riffs blogger Michael Cavna in his post "The Value of a Hometown Cartoonist" terms “hyper-local” cartoonists: artists whose work, quoting Jim Borgman, is “intimate and uninterested in pontificating to a broad audience.” Their work is an often overlooked and unappreciated attraction which has long been either ignored by the mainstream press or rendered worthless by the cheap marketing tactics of syndicates.  

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” - Harvey Pekar

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