Monday , December 4 2023

Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor: Unsung Hero

The focus of the most recent trade collection of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series, Unsung Hero (Dark Horse), may initially throw readers coming to Pekar’s comics from the currently released American Splendor flick. Instead of the autobiographical thoughts and travails of Cleveland’s most famous file clerk, Hero recounts the Vietnam experiences of a young black soldier, Robert McNeill, as recollected by the war vet some thirty years later. Narrated to Pekar (who periodically is shown jotting down notes but otherwise stays out of the picture) it’s the story of an ordinary guy trying to survive harrowing combat.
Mishandled by the school system, McNeill is driven to enlist in the U.S. Marines, thinking: “I’d come home looking sharp and everyone would look up to me.” The war isn’t even part of his young boy scenario. When he actually enters basic training, McNeill gets an immediate hard shot of reality (“The first day, when I got to Paris Island, I just knew I had made a mistake.”) He unsuccessfully attempts to escape boot camp, then finishes training only to learn that his unit has been assigned riot patrol duty in Watts. The riot duty is cancelled but not before the young black soldier has had to struggle with the thought of taking up bayonets against black Americans.
Pekar, as listener, editor and scripter, charts the teenaged soldier’s progress through the military. In the process he does more than just present a Vietnam reminiscence: he shows the steps and attitude changes an ordinary guy must undergo to survive both war and life in the military. It figures that this would be the most intriguing part of the story for Pekar. Though Unsung Hero doesn’t stint on depicting battle action once our hero actually gets to Southeast Asia, it’s even more detailed in describing McNeill’s state of mind throughout the whole experience. The book effectively conveys how both frightening and wearing war can be. Having showed how well he could dramatize his own fears and desperate wishful thoughts in Our Cancer Year, Perkar now turns his ear to a young G.I. whose only goal is to make it through his tour of duty alive.
Thus, our reminiscing vet devotes as much time to the military’s unsuccessful attempt at quashing the wearing of black armbands by black soldiers in the field and to an R-&-R in Thailand (“a black man’s paradise,” he’s told). A strenuous night of guard duty is meticulously recreated: having been warned by a little Vietnamese girl that the Viet Cong are “coming,” the nervous McNeill sees signs of V-C movement in every shadow – and we believe him. In another episode, he’s given a Navy Commendation Medal for saving the other men in his squadron, though at first it’s up in the air whether he’ll receive any military acknowledgement for his deed since it occurs in a place where the squad is not supposed to be. That the Marine gets a Navy medal is taken by McNeill as a sign that “they really didn’t want to give me a medal, but the overwhelming support of my squad made them give me something,” though it’s just as likely that it was a bureaucratic snafu.
Unsung Hero is illustrated by David Collier in a style that starts out emulating R. Crumb (Pekar’s most famous collaborator), but eventually finds its own distinct look. At times, I got the sense that the artist has a clearer sense of setting than the people populating it (some of the figures are dangerously indistinct), but you can see him definitely taking control during moments like McNeill’s fright-filled night of guard duty. One of the characteristics of Pekar’s comics from the beginning has been the variable level of the artists working with him. Collier, who has shown a surer hand on his own wholly self-written comics and stories, is not the weakest artist to illustrate American Splendor, but you can’t help wondering how much better this book’d be in the hands of an artist skilled in depicting war’s gritty day-to-day.
But Pekar’s comics have always been less about the art and more about the written voice: he’s a literary comics person in a field that tends to critically elevate the visual. I like that Pekar has expanded his field of focus. Earlier American Splendor sometimes gave other folks around Harvey the chance to tell a story, but more often these were presented as quirky little dramatic monologues than full-blown life stories. Unsung Hero shows Pekar moving into areas of graphic reporting that I find promising (perhaps he was inspired by his collaborations with Joe Sacco?) I don’t see him abandoning autobio entirely – a recent Entertainment Weekly strip attests to that – but it’s good that he’s expanded his range of vision.
“And, you know, I didn’t make my mind up about whether we should’ve been in Vietnam until a long time later,” McNeill says on the book’s last page, but we’re not told what that conclusion was. Just as well. Any more information would likely detract from Lance Corporal McNeill’s story: for a guy so attentive to the words people use, Pekar is equally aware of the things that don’t need to be said. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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