Harvey Pekar’s new graphic novel, Macedonia, an experiment outside of the author’s comfort zone of pointillist autobiography, informs and even inspires but ultimately wanders too far afield from the author’s strengths and ends up a noble failure.
Macedonia is essentially an “as told to” book, with the Balkan experiences of Heather Roberson, a passionate young peace studies major at Berkeley, filtered through Pekar’s words and forcefully illustrated by Ed Piskor.
Roberson’s guiding ethos, one with which the idealistic retired Cleveland file clerk and comic book pioneer Pekar clearly sympathizes, is that war is not the inevitable consequence of human conflict, that given the will and sufficient institutions, people can channel their grievances, disputes and resentments away from armed violence. Roberson calls war “a complex system made up of all sorts of people acting for their own reasons” that is neither natural nor inevitable.
In defending her thesis, Roberson cites the recent success of Macedonia, the landlocked country in the former Yugoslavia, which seemed certain to plunge into civil war in the wake of the Kosovo violence. As the perky illustrated version of Roberson exclaims to a skeptical political science professor at Berkeley, “Albanian rebels were arming, guns were coming over the border from Kosovo and Albania, the government was preparing for all out war! But then NATO went in and disarmed the Albanian fighters and the rebels were given amnesty. And I think a lot of their claims were addressed.”
Roberson decides to visit the region herself in an effort to uncover the details, very poorly covered by the mainstream press, of how armed conflict was avoided and to check up on the area’s progress first hand.
Wow, real on the scene reporting from a troubled and exotic locale basically ignored by the mainstream media, where against all odds, a brewing civil war was somehow averted? This should fall right into Pekar’s sweet spot!
In his best work, Pekar conveys the vagaries of daily experience as if each detail were a potential source of meaning and wonder – albeit meaning and wonder filtered through a flinty and habitually self-doubting personality. Whereas most adults become jaded to the particularities and fabric of everyday life by sheer repetition, Pekar seems to awake daily with perpetually curious, obsessively honest eyes, and the ability to write down what he sees without flinching.
The writer has displayed these talents over the last 30 years through his autobiographical American Splendor series of graphic novels, which were made into a celebrated film of the same name in 2003. Though Pekar clearly felt vindicated by the creation and gaudy critical success of the film, as powerfully and touchingly conveyed in his 2004 offeringOur Movie Year, his contrary nature also felt discomfort and even guilt over all the attention, and anxiety over his ability to live up to it.
It should not have been a surprise, then, when the author turned his attention to a subject other than himself last year with the release of Ego and Hubris: The Michael Malice Story. But in Malice, Pekar found a fascinating and difficult alter ego whose life in many ways paralleled his own two generations later. Malice worked beautifully because Pekar’s approach and the form of his writing – observational first-person chronological narrative — remained essentially the same.
In Macedonia, however, Pekar isn’t able to connect as deeply with his subject, doesn’t seem to be able to really see through her eyes, and in fact spends far too much time pedantically explaining HER subject, which is, admittedly, quite complex. Pekar seems to spend half the book giving background, explaining policy, telling the history of the region and the conflict, relating conflict resolution theory, which is cumulatively too dry and overwhelming for all but the most wonky reader to absorb.
Once we are on the ground in Macedonia with the brave and committed Roberson, things pick up notably and we are able to feel her combined sense of bewilderment and accomplishment as she endures cultural derangement, makes friends, interviews governmental, educational, NGO, and notable personalities on both sides of the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian divide. I admire and appreciate her efforts to put her life where her ideals are, and to convey her perspective and experiences to the best of her ability. Sadly, the filter of Pekar renders her story less immediate than it could, or should, have been.