What I’m Reading: Roundup

On Free Comic Book Day back in May, I picked up some of the sale books at my local comic shop. Let’s go over a couple of those:

The Building Starting in 1978 with his A Contract With God, Will Eisner, already a legendary comic artist, pioneered what we now call graphic novels. He did about one a year until his death, mostly stories set in New York ethnic neighborhoods.

In The Building, Eisner interweaves four stories of characters attached to a 1920s Bronx highrise that’s being torn down to make way for a modern office tower: an anonymous clerk who turns to helping children any way he can after a terrible accident, a former beauty queen who falls in love with a penniless poet, a ruthless real estate developer whose one sentimental attachment leads to a bad business decision, and an amateur violinist who always dreamed of playing music for a career. On the day the new building opens for business, the four have recently died, but their legacies (and possibly ghosts?) combine for one final surprising episode.

The only other of his graphic novels I’ve read is A Contract With God, which struck me as beautiful and profound. The Building is similar in form, with the interweaving stories and the same ethnic New York setting, but somehow this was thin and fairly predictable compared to that earlier book. I did like the story of the former beauty queen, Gilda Greene, who eventually settles for a conventional marriage to a wealthy man but never falls out of love with her poet. But overall, I didn’t think this lived up to Eisner’s first graphic novel. I’m not sure if I’ll bother with any of his others at this point.

American Splendor: Another Day Harvey Pekar, who kept his day job as a file clerk at a Cleveland Veteran’s hospital nearly until the end of his life, was for decades one of the most important underground comics creators. (I wrote about the American Splendor movie based on his comics and life here.) Harvey didn’t believe in superheroes, fantasy, or power trips–his stories are all about the everyday problems of him and his friends. Neurotic, chronically short of money and self-confidence, but with a tremendous empathy for others, Harvey makes his way through his comics just trying to do the best he can.

This volume is from a period in the early 2000s I wasn’t previously familiar with. After three decades of self-publishing his comics, Harvey did a four issue series with DC’s Vertigo imprint. Other than possibly somewhat better production values, it’s about the same as everything else of his I’ve read, though–closely observed stories of the small victories and defeats of his life, beautifully drawn by a variety of top underground comic artists. (Harvey only wrote the comics, but he had a who’s who of established and up-and-coming underground pencilers and inkers in his rolodex, including in this volume Richard Corben, Bob Fingerman, Gilbert Hernandez, Chris Samnee, and many others.)

I think my favorite story in Another Day was the episode where he spent an entire Saturday trying to unclog a toilet, constantly on the verge of defeat and ready to call a plumber, but thinking through the problem and trying one new thing after another. Finally, after hours, he succeeds, and as the toilet successfully flushes, he lifts the plunger above his head and cries out, “Today, I am a man!”

I can heartily recommend this to practically anybody from teenagers on up (some profanity might make this unsuitable for younger readers, though, who are also likely to find the subject matter boring.) But if this volume isn’t available, that’s not too important. Practically anything by Pekar is more or less the same, but all more or less great.

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