Autobiography, comics and the Hollywood Machine

The following was my cack-handed attempt to introduce the film American Splendor at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham, and an aspect of the comicbook medium to those there for the film who knew nothing about comics. Delivered on 9th January 1994, it was at least mercifully brief so I’m not sure how much use it will be. You never know, though.

– Stephen

Good evening!

My name’s Stephen and I work as a till monkey behind the counter at a local comic shop called Page 45, so patently I’m overqualified to talk to you on the subject of American Cinema.

But Sam invited me – and offered me cash – so, you know, here I am.

The film you’re about to see is based on a comicbook, and unlike many recent comicbook adaptations, you’ll be pleased to hear that some considerable intelligence, inspiration and lateral thinking has gone into this film. Especially since you’ve already paid for your tickets.

This is no straight adaptation. The source material is a series of autobiographical comicbooks that have appeared sporadically over the last three decades, all written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by a variety of artists including Robert Crumb, king of the underground comix movement and the subject of a highly acclaimed bio-flick himself. In fact AMERICAN SPLENDOR might never have appeared were it not for a chance meeting between the two, and Crumb’s encouragement.

Because, on the face of it, autobiographical musings by a nobody don’t have Best-Seller Lists written all over them, and Harvey Pekar is certainly no one special. He’s not a doctor or nurse; he’s not a fireman, teacher nor a campaigner for social justice. Coming down the ladder a rung or two, he’s not even a footballer, actress or pop star. He’s just an averge Joe obsessed with the day-to-day minutiae – some might say tedium – of ordinary life.

In prose, overwhelmingly, autobiographies are the province of the famous perpetuated – if you like – by the stars in our eyes. The reason we read them is that we’re curious about these individuals’ histories and what makes them tick. If an autobiography comes from a novelist or a playwright it can be incisive and entertaining, whilst at the same time illuminating when it comes to a reading of their works. If it comes from David Beckham, it can be blatantly written by someone else.

In comics the idea is radically different.

There are very few celebrities – within or without the comicbook world – who have created autobiographical comics. Neil Gaiman, writer of the mythological fantasy called SANDMAN, has dabbled here and there, Dave Sim isn’t immune to appearing within his own 300-issue epic, CEREBUS, but the only real contender who springs to mind is Scotsman Eddie Campbell. As well as writing his own series about the greek demi-god Bacchus, set in the modern world, Eddie is the illustrator of FROM HELL, a complex, compelling and horrific work of historical extrapolation written by Alan Moore which – for reasons we’ll come to – bears absolutely no resemblence to the movie.

Campbell, however, is equally reknowned in the comicbook industry for his series of autobiographical tales which have covered everything from his early drinking years in British pubs to his family life in Australia, and even his own comicbook career. In fact HOW TO BE AN ARTIST [now available within the ALEC OMNIBUS – ed.], in which the mature creator sends a sort of letter back to his younger self, is possibly the closest you’ll find in comics to the film you’re about to see, messing around as it does with the fourth wall and playing all sorts of neat little tricks to keep the audience grinning.

The biggest difference between autobiography in comics and autobiography in prose is that in prose stardom is usually a prerequisite. In order to get a contract in prose, you usually have to be famous for doing something other than writing, hence all the ghost writers trying to make them look better. In comics, autobiographies are a genre unto themselves, a field full of individuals who have no special place in the wider public’s collective heart, but a genuine talent for putting pen to paper and communicating with wit or wisdom and sometimes both. Artists and writers like Harvey Pekar, who have latched onto the potent and not-so-strange notion that their day-to-day readership will be able to relate to their day-to-day existence as unextraordinary individuals.

There are dozens of these creators. There’s French-Canadian Julie Doucet whose feverish work focusses on her decidedly adult life including trouble with men, misadventures with tampons… and insists on combining sex and sharp objects in a way guaranteed to have most men guarding their crotches.

Chester Brown’s endearingly candid PLAYBOY deals with the legacy of a religious upbringing and an early, guilt-ridden addiction to pornography, whereas his friend and colleague Jo Matt’s PEEPSHOW series makes Chester’s confessions seem positively coy.

More recently a new guard have arrived, from John Porcellino’s moving evocation of teenage bewilderment in PERFECT EXAMPLE and Jeffrey Brown’s attempts to lose his virginity in CLUMSY then UNLIKELY, to Craig Thompson’s assured and enormous BLANKETS which has probably garnered as much praise this year as most other comics put together… and just walked away withTime Magazine’s best comicbook of the year award.

Why, then should there be such a thriving autobiographical scene in comics? Why are so many ordinary people unveiling their lives?

Simply because they can.

Cast your minds back, if you would, to the credits you endured at the end of the last blockbuster you saw. How long did they go on for…? You could write a novella during the time it took you to sit through that Matrix featurette. All those actors, all those make-up artists, lighting, clothing, scenery people; the sound, the casting, the special effects; the boys who fetched bagels, cleaned the caravans or gave the director blow-jobs.

The point I’m making is that there’s a lot of people you need to filter a film through before whatever’s left of the original idea hits the screens. And there’s a lot of people to pay for. So you need a damned big audience, you need to appeal to that audience, and you need to make as many of the lowest common denominators pay for your film in order to recoup your expenditure. Bleaching is inevitable.

Let me give you a prime example: James Bond: Licensed To Kill was originally called James Bond: Licensed Revoked. Which makes a lot more sense if you’ve scene the film. In it Timothy Dalton, the finest actor to play the part (he was, shut up, or my mother will beat you senseless), has his license revoked. He does not have a license to kill in that film. It’s taken away from him – revocation is the whole point of the film! Unfortunately the film company decided to change its name on discovering that noone in America actually knew what the word ‘revoked’ meant. Imagine what that sort of mentality does to the plots, script and pacing.

In comics, however, if you have something to say and the skill with which to say it, there is very little that need get in your way way. At their most basic, production costs can be as minimal as buying in your art materials, taking a trip to the local photocopier… then spending hours of fun with a staple gun. That way you get to produce as many as you think will sell – whether its 50,000 or 500 or 3. And that’s cost-effective. It may not be time-effective, but you can do it. The medium is accessible that way. It’s punk made pure: anyone can do it and with the minimum of outlay.

You don’t have to be rich and famous with friends in high places. You don’t have to get a contract, dilute the contents to appease your editor, or reach a mass audience to recoup a massive outlay. And at Page 45 we’re proud to sell a wealth of this locally produced intensity.

That’s one of the main strengths of the comics medium at its best: raw ideas without the constrictions of commercialisation. Because even if the comics are published by someone else, as in the case of GHOST WORLD, editorial interference at its publisher Fantagraphics was and remains virtually non-exstent, so you’re getting the absolute world according to Dan Clowes.

And even, even, even in the case of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN published by Time Warner’s DC or FROM HELL from Top Shelf in America, there are so very few people to appease or interfere with your work that Alan Moore can say precisely what he has to say, and has only an artist to help him transfer his ideas to paper.* Which is one of the reasons why – in both those cases – the original comicbooks, riddled with wit and new ideas, are like Shakespeare compared to the films they spawned.

I think the reason most of you are gathered here this evening is that you relish the prospect of the smaller film, the purer art, relatively free from the constrictions of mainstream compromise.

So I’d like to offer a moment of solidarity here and beseach those of you who have, until now, considered comics to be a lesser medium compared to film, to come into Page 45, to browse the shelves at your leisure, or come straight to the counter and ask for recommendations based on your personal tastes. It’s not a service you’ll find in book shops or even at box offices. But it’s one we relish providing.

Cheap plug over. Goodnight!

* [Editor’s note: at this point DC censored some Alan Moore comics and a certain pair of directors lied about an endorsement from Alan regarding the V For Vendetta film, so Alan quit DC. Again.]