by Peter Byrne
Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation, adapted by Harvey Pekar, edited and introduced by Paul Buhle, with many hands collaborating, The New Press, NYC, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59558-321-5 (pb), 197 pages, $22.95.
(Swans - September 7, 2009) The voice of Studs Terkel no longer shuffles back and forth over Chicago. Celebrity chatting America has deprived the generic little guy of any reincarnation. Studs hangs around only as a fading memory of decency in indecent times. He's like the shadow on the city map where the Union Stockyards used to be. No memorial stands to all that approximate English and the anonymous right arms that labored there.
So all praise to Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle who had the brilliant idea to do a graphic version of Studs's book Working. (The full title of the original was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.) That on Labor Day 2009 it's in bookshops as the politicos stir their pot of rhetoric is irony worthy of the man who said, "I want a language that speaks the truth." Will even the flabbiest-mouthed public servant dare to speak of "honest toil" on this first Monday of September? I think not. The fact that the workers Studs talked to at the end of the 1960s still stomached the phase, though with a dyspeptic wince, says something important about the Pekar-Buhle endeavor: It's a history book. The interviewees were not all young when Working came out in 1974 and most of them talked about their pasts. Many clearly felt that the adjustment of mores in the 1960s marked a moment of discontinuity in their lives.
In short, the people Studs listened to are not today's Americans. The interviewees were fresher and harder, but also less cynical and knowing. You don't feel the weight of electronic sludge in their speech. They weren't so sure that the "system" is the work of nature, God, and other infallible economists. They are, with Studs's help, talkers that still look you in the eye.
There's something homemade about Pekar's recipe, which is the quality that made his comic book scripts remarkable from the beginning. He was doing it himself in Cleveland unconcerned about how others did it in their hometowns. Here he adapts or shapes into narrative a dozen interviews from the six hundred and forty pages of them that Studs put together. Most other collaborators adapt one or two and usually do the art work as well. The length of the pieces goes from two to eighteen pages. We note from the start that we are in for an asymmetrical ride. All the more so because we land in the midst of sixteen different artists, each with his distinctive style. The artists handling more than one interview don't have their work grouped together because the book isn't organized artist by artist but according to the different facets of working life. We meet one artist and his style and then lose sight of him till he surprises us later by turning up again. Since it's the style of the work that weighs heaviest by far in graphic narrative, our ride will proceed by jolts. Here again variety trumps symmetry. According to your mood, you can call it an abundance of riches or a disorientating labyrinth.
This anthologizing twist makes the book a happy hunting ground for insights into the melding of narrative with graphic design. Or to put it as one of these working people might, what kind of story can graphic art tell? For an answer it's instructive to look at the work of collaborators who deal with more than one kind of material.
Sharon Rudahl does so in her adaptations of and artwork for eight interviews. Her crowded, lumpy style keeps us ever on edge. She pushes her characters' faces into ours so we can't ignore them. Rudahl's story of "Maggie Holmes, Domestic" works best. That's because the black woman's attitude lacerates us. There's nothing more dramatic than smoldering anger. We listen intently to learn which rule of polite hypocrisy Maggie will break next. "Aunt Katherine Haynes," whose experience tips over into pathos, suits Rudahl too. We are indignant about her life, even if the old woman isn't. But when Rudahl recounts the life of a curt hair stylist, a happy mail carrier or a nervous jockey, her stories go flat. They become banal illustrations of what the interviewee is saying. The stylist says hair styles repeat and Rudahl show us six of them. The cute dreamy horses she draws in "Eddie Arroyo, Jockey" are not those that he fears will throw him and break his back.
Lance Tooks, responsible for three adaptations and their art work, is an even better example of what graphic narration can and cannot accomplish. His style has an art deco flavor, pursues elegance throughout, makes solid black invoke suspense, and leaves plenty of breathing space around objects to allow for telling compositions. His long story, "Dolores Dante, Waitress," is the best thing in the book. Its excellence comes from the way Dolores's words are strung out on a clothesline of action.
In his introduction Paul Buhle sets down a potted history of what he calls "oral history" and points out that its beginnings were not only in words but in dance and song. This should alert the reviewer to avoid the red herring that tends to distract critics of graphic storytelling: The larger the proportion of text to drawing -- the rule of lazy thumb has it -- the less successful the piece. But the number of words in fact doesn't matter. The essential in a good graphic story is that the character dance and sing whatever words there are.
Dolores assails us from the first with her temperament. She's not being interviewed; she's performing. We hang on her remarks because they surprise and delight us; we feel they could get her into trouble. She seems to be improvising, inventing. Her job calls for a rigorous routine and while complying she embroiders the edges with outlandish role-playing that could easily -- we fear -- go too far. In truth, she's teasing the interviewer and us. That makes what she says dramatic -- a story that grips. She explains that "It would be very tiring if I had to say, 'Would you like a cocktail?' and say that over and over." She makes it interesting by offering less familiar clichés like, "The coffee sounds exciting" and points out, "It becomes theatrical and I feel like Mata Hari and it intoxicates me." That's dancing.
What's Dolores going to say to the big spender who plays God by asking her what she wants as a tip? Or to the conventioneer who offers her the key to his room? We can't wait to hear her put-downs. However, she lets slip that, "Just a waitress at the end of the night I feel drained." She has done everything "with an air" and "on stage," and not only in the restaurant but for her interviewer and us. She's been telling a story with a beginning (her sprightly originality), a middle (her enchanting of the best people and her ordeal with the others), and an end (when she reveals it's all pretty much of an act and admits she would be inclined to make a rough road for herself wherever she might land).
When Lance Tooks takes on the interview with Bud Freeman, the jazzman, his material changes. It's not that Dolores had a tray in her hand and Bud has a tenor sax. She constantly dialogues with people and her attitudes are reactions to individual encounters. Bud Freeman keeps to himself and puts on an untroubled front. He recalls his unhappiness on the too-busy nightclub circuit, but that, ever since he has achieved more control of his time, he loves being a musician and never wants to have another life. We can be happy for him but remain uninterested in his story because there simply isn't any. His remarks about creative work and improvisation ring true but remain only remarks, not drama. Lance Tooks can ape a jazz collage, drawing half a dozen views of a saxophone and of Freeman swinging on stage, but that isn't the "dance and song" that Paul Buhle identifies with oral history. It's not the kind of music Dolores makes.
But if a good graphic story can't be made out of stark expressions of opinion, subject matter that partakes too much of the literary novel is pretty much impossible to render graphically. The artist Jane Reilly ran into difficulty with her portrayal of "Idleness and Barbara Terwilliger." Reilly has a clean, serviceable style that keeps fantasy in reserve at arm's length. She attempted to render Terwilliger by concentrating on her facial expressions. But Terwilliger is middle class, well heeled and without the limitations on her freedom that simplify the working-class characters interviewed. Terwilliger has a one-way conversation with her interviewer -- who for some reason is shown as present -- on such matters as her guilt, her fixation to do good, her occasional need for solitude, the inadequacies of love, and the need for an occupation to stabilize her life. Reilly can't really put across any of this with the slender means at her disposal. It comes out in bald remarks that make Terwilliger seem like a scatterbrain. And Reilly's attempt to suggest interiority by altering the line of an eyebrow or the pleat above Terwilliger's nose only underscores the failure.
The introductory pages of Studs Terkel's Working offer an historical survey of their own. First we read excerpts from Studs's original presentation. He touched the key issue of the worker's love-hate relationship with his job and, as a man of the '60s, was not afraid to appear highfalutin and quote Freud. But Studs also revealed his debt to Richard Hoggart's trailblazing 1957 The Uses of Literacy. Studs in Chicago clearly learned a lot from the British author who took a close look at his own working-class forebears and neighbors. Hoggart, who saw beneath the abstractions of ideology and current popular stereotypes, stands for what was best in the post-WWII Labour Party.
Paul Buhle, in addition to being a veteran editor of graphic non-fiction, is the author of many books on American social history. (Not Jewish, he nevertheless mastered Yiddish and wrote the valuable three volumes of Jews and American Popular Culture.) His introduction places oral memoirs in an historical perspective. He calls attention to the very visual nature of Studs's work and how his experience of 1930s theater and then radio-shaped his approach. For Buhle, Harvey Pekar is the natural successor to Studs. Both hailed from blue-collar cities and made detail, for which they each had a sharp eye, illuminate their work. While Studs sharpened his teeth on Red Scare America, Pekar was the sour reflection of Ronald Reagan's vacuous smile. Just as Studs wakened readers to the poignancy of oral history, Pekar's early efforts opened the way that would legitimize non-fiction comics as an art form.
Pekar's own too brief preface offers a couple of egregious bum steers that hopefully are only the product of his fabled truculence. "The so-called normal aspect of human existence is underemphasized in every form of literature...." Since when? Homer and Shakespeare are as full of the quotidian as they are of gods and royalty. Traditional fairy tales likewise: The Three Bears have a conversation about porridge, if I remember correctly, and Cinderella is about getting the right-size shoes. "Virtually every person is potentially a great subject for a novel or a biography or a film." Not unless by "potentially" Pekar means they have a Studs Terkel to film them or write them up.
But, quibbles apart, it's hard to close this feast of a book. When one finally does, a kind of musing sets in. What would these American workers of 1970 think of their fattened up descendants of 2009? "Billy Talcott Organizer" (dynamically rendered by Peter Kupper) would be surprised to learn that bosses no longer smoked big cigars and jammed their corpulent selves into suits that looked like armor. They jogged now and said things like "I understand your pain," while doing you down all the same.
"Brett Hauser, Supermarket Box Boy" (prototypal Pekar hero done up in doomed black by Ryan Inzana) would nod knowingly at contradictions like those he had noticed forty years before. He watched shoppers pacified by piped music that included the Cuban Revolution song Guantanamera and selections from the change-your-life epic Hair. They passed a shelf where Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice was on offer. Today the shoppers would sign a petition against world hunger before they emptied their heaped cart in the back of their four-by-four. They would discreetly ignore the straggle of antiwar protesters just as they had looked the other way when the grape pickers had tried to buttonhole them.
In a word, those workers of yesterday would surely still be griping on this third millennium Labor Day and have plenty of reasons to do so. But what would hurt and discourage them most would be that there was no one listening. There was no more Studs Terkel to make a human story out of their groans and exasperation.
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