75 Books, Books #43-48

Book #43 was Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter. As Pekar keeps a great prolificity in his post-retirement years, it’s been fascinating to see him investigating millieus other than the immediately contemporary and the immediately personal. In The Quitter, a book chronicling Pekar’s boyhood, there is no madeliene tea per se, but there are certainly specific incidents, presented without adornment, which explain a good deal about Pekar’s rage and misanthropy. The book’s unflinching attitude towards 1950s racism and Pekar’s efforts to fit in are puncutated by Dean Haspiel’s sharp lines and the book’s careful attention to period detail. Pekar’s no hero, nor should he be, but he’s certainly an interesting and misunderstood figure, a flawed everyman who remains as important a fixture in comic books as superheroes. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #44 was Harvey Pekar’s Ego & Hubris. If Michael Malice did not exist, it would be necessary for Pekar to invent him. And yet he does exist, portrayed by Pekar as an opinionated, platitude-spouting loudmouth who, nevertheless, lives an independent existence not unlike Pekar, playing by his own rules in a manner that, however off-putting, is defiantly nonconformist — even if Malice is a Republican. Or possibly a centrist. Or perhaps none of these things at all. Malice’s unrepentant dialogue grows wearisome after a while, but Pekar is nothing if not a faithful reporter and Malice’s ironies and contradictions make up for Ego & Hubris‘s occasionally flagging narrative. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)

Book #45 was Hal Niedzviecki’s Hello, I’m Special. Niedzviecki believes that the act of being “special” is a conformist sham. He suggests that whole cottage industries have sprung up overnight to maintain this ideology and lobs several arrows at America and Canada, often in direct contradiction with his previous volume, We Want Some Too. Niedzviecki is often an interesting cultural critic, citing such interesting examples as voyeuristic online wrestling matches (a prescient example of the “amateur as star” in light of the rise of YouTube), but I’m not sure I buy his overall argument, which is laden with a dichotomy (special vs. conformist) that doesn’t account for gray areas. His assumptions assume that humans are guided almost exclusively by solipsism or exhibitionism and, while these are certainly values that are ineluctably associated with pop culture, I found Niedzviecki a tad too cynical for my tastes. It is, of course, quite possible to escape some cultural trappings if you apply a baseball bat to your television (or, if you aren’t so violent, perhaps just keeping it turned off). Or perhaps one can look more to books and everyday obervation as sources of inspiration. But I still found Niedzviecki an interesting guy to talk with. (Podcast interview.)

Book #46 was Yannick Murphy’s Here They Come. This McSweeney’s “rectangular,” along with Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, has helped to restore my faith in McSweeney’s as one of the most vibrant independent publishing houses today. Murphy’s imagery, which is blunt, beautiful and often heartbreaking, fuels the story of a girl living in impoverished 1970s New York, who allows a hot dog vendor to fondle her developing breast, contends with a mentally troubled brother, a home laden with refuse, and a crazy mother who shouts “Merde!” at almost every troubled moment. The book is often episodic and its ending is anticlimactic, but it effectively puts the real into the hyperreal. (Podcast interview.)

Book #47 was Ron Hogan’s The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!. I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Hogan’s online work and, as a caveat, he is a pal of mine. And with Stewardess, he’s created an unusual coffee table book that explores a period of cinema that serves as an enjoyable photographic counterpart to John Waters’ books on trash cinema, perhaps scratching the hairy underbelly of Peter Biskind. I would have liked to see Ron offer lengthier text expressing his clear affinity for 1970s cinema (in particular, The Muppet Movie). But perhaps he might be persuaded to do this at a later point in time. (Podcast interview.)

Book #48 was Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. I realize there are a lot of Pekar volumes here, but I did want to do a thorough interview with the man. Our Movie Year is, alas, more of a Pekar grab bag. This is both good and bad. We get many uncollected Pekar stories here, including his infamous spats with David Letterman and what happened to Pekar after the American Splendor movie. But many of the sections involving cultural figures are more tailored for word-only essays (and indeed many of these were expanded from Pekar’s criticism) and carry the distinct whiff of padding. Still, Pekar is Pekar. And even a mixed volume of Pekar carries more honesty than most graphic novel memoirists seem capable of. (Podcast with Pekar and Haspiel.)


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