A couple of years ago, I went to an awards event for new comics and was struck by how the vast majority of the nominated work was autobiographical. I walked out thinking that the comics medium seemed to be stretched out between two poles – mainstream superhero comics at one end and indie autobiographical comics on the other. A large chunk of Anglophone comics made today would go in one of the two piles.
Now I have a theory about why the comics medium has historically lent itself to superhero stories, and the outlandish more generally. Before the advent of cheap CGI it was difficult to visually represent these kinds of narratives on screen – they would inevitably end up looking shoddy and ridiculous. It is only with the rise of CGI in the late 90s that the superhero movie has become a genre in itself, with Marvel rolling out an extended cinematic universe that will go on and on for the next 10 years at least.
As theories go, this one is rather structural. There must be a certain amount of contingency to the rise of superhero comics, which I am ignorant of and have ignored. It also doesn’t explain why autobiography of all things is also such a popular genre for comic book creators to work in. If you really can do everything on a comics page, why settle for depicting your own humdrum life?
I picked up a collection of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour for clues to solve the riddle. The book begins with an origin story of a sort, explaining how Pekar got to start writing these comics in the first place. That story includes the famous quote about how you could do anything with words and pictures, and while a lot of superhero comics really do everything, Pekar chooses to do just one very particular thing – write about his own, very ordinary life.
It’s almost as if the action in superhero comics triggers an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of wish-fulfilment and power fantasies, Pekar is brutally honest about his own inadequacies and doesn’t shirk from unravelling the illusions under which he lives. Sometimes these are presented as bits of common-sense wisdom, but more often Pekar’s conclusions trail off into indeterminacy. The stories are both very precise (Pekar notes down material basically as soon as he lives through it) and rather casual. Events are the reverse of momentous. Some of them aren’t even very interesting.
So why do I keep reading? Pekar’s contrition builds up a very complete image of his personality. But more intriguing than Pekar himself is what happens around him. American Splendour is a great snapshot of what life was like in Cleveland in the late 70s and early 80s. The title may be ironic, but looking back from a vantage point of over 40 years it also kind of isn’t. Pekar ends up with a secure job which gives him plenty of time to collect jazz records and write comics. It’s not an opulent existence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not splendid. As he says multiple times: his problems are minor by most standards.
Pekar’s example seems to lie behind several canonical autobiographical comics, including Maus, Palestine, Blankets, and Fun Home. It also lies behind the work of creators who have moved away from autobiography. Adrian Tomine’s carefully structured short stories have their roots in the scribbly experiments of his first self-published autobiographical comic Optic Nerve. I read a collection of the very first issues last year, and it was all pretty bad – by Tomine’s own admission in his introduction. But they contained the same slight, honest narratives that Pekar produced. Palestine, while ostensibly non-fiction, has a powerful autobiographical thread. It’s almost as if Sacco is transitioning from writing Pekar-like comics to being a real journalist, one who should try to avoid becoming the story.
It could be that the dominance of autobiography in comics is just an example of path dependence. Crumb, Pekar, Spiegelman inspired other creators to work within the parameters they defined. A few contingent works set off a wave of influence and imitation until we get to today’s giant pile of autobiography.
I can’t resist looking for something structural behind it, though. I’ve located two possible tendencies. The first is that practicing cartoonists don’t need to look far for material to play with – Pekar’s example allows them to use themselves. The second is that all indie subcultures define themselves in contrast to the mainstream. Comics and superheroes are seen as interchangeable. It’s no wonder that indie comics react by focusing on what’s possibly the most un-superheroic genre of all.