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Leo Hupert: Working

Working By Studs Terkel and Harvey Pekar & various artists

Published by New Press
$59.95

Reviewed by Leo Hupert

According to a blurb on the back cover, Studs Terkel's Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece of oral history has been a book, a radio drama, a Broadway musical, probably a TV series and is now a graphic novel - or rather a graphic interpretation. Novel doesn't fit the bill in this case.

Terkel collected verbatim accounts from more than 100 ordinary, everyday Americans – farmers, miners, waitresses, actors, garbos, domestics, crop pickers – and put a selection together in his book Working, first published in 1974.

Twelve of the 28 interviews selected for this graphic version were adapted by Harvey Pekar perhaps best known for his comic series American Splendor – which was also compiled in graphic novel format, and turned into a movie as well. Pekar gets front cover billing and contributes a three paragraph preface using the adjective ‘quotidian’ in referring to his and Terkel's work.

Pekar's American Splendour stories are intensely, obsessively personal.Yet here he is adapting, probably for the first time, the intensely personal details of the lives of others recorded by a third party, artistically interpreted by a fourth. It works wonderfully. The strength and conviction of the people recorded by Terkel shines through. However, there is a nagging feeling that the interviews from Working appear to provide a path for those interviewed to have a good gripe and rail at the world about them and the circumstances they find themselves in. Not without good reason, I've got to add, but, at times, it borders on having a good whinge. Not that there's anything wrong about that.

When I first picked up the 200-page magazine-size paperback book I thought great, this looks really good, Pekar has adapted it (got sucked in there) it has to be good and it is. I like the lack of colour. Black and white suits the harsh, honest truth of the lives revealed. But the price $US22.95 ($NZ59.95) seemed a bit steep particularly seeing the book is published by The New Press, “established in 1990 as a not-for-profit alternative to the large, commercial publishing houses... operates in the public interest rather than for private gain... committed to publishing works of educational, cultural value... often deemed insufficiently profitable.” Check them out at www.thenewpress.com.

Pekar adapted 12 interviews (I baulk at saying stories) and Sharon Rudahl adapted and drew eight. Obviously most of the artists and adaptors have strong social realism leanings. Rudahl from Wimmen's Comix, Peter Kuper has adapted Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, drawn a neat comic called The System and since 1997 has drawn Spy vs Spy for Mad Magazine (but he also used to work on Richie Rich comics). Sabrina Jones (Isadora Duncan and Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World), Terry Laban (Unsupervised Existence, www.labanarama.com), album cover illustrator Pat Moriarity (www.patmoriarity.com) and Ryan Inzana (Johnny Jihad RyanInzana.com). The more mainstream artists include Danny Fingeroth (Spiderman), Peter Gullerud (Warner Bros and Disney), Bob Hall (Marvel, DC, Valiant) and that's not all of them. There are plenty of interviews left for several sequels if The New Press feels inclined.

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The Book of Genesis
By Robert Crumb

(publisher : Norton )
$60
reviewed by Leo Hupert


If a sequel to Working does come out a sequel does come out, and I hope there is one, then it would be great to see at least one of the interviews adapted by Pekar's occasional collaborator Robert Crumb. Even better still perhaps Crumb might be inclined to adapt Terkel's more famous work Hard Times now that he has finally finished his illustrated Book of Genesis.

Yes, you may well have noticed The Book of Genesis illustrated by R Crumb has been released in New Zealand, in fact world-wide, in hardback, published by WW Norton $US24.95 ($NZ60) and, like Working, printed in USA. It includes all 50 chapters, adult supervision is recommended for minors and according to the front cover slipjacket it is the first book of the bible graphically depicted! NOTHING LEFT OUT!

I started off really keen and couldn't wait to see all that wasn't left out reading a chapter a night and savouring Crumb's artwork but I did get bogged down and the book has been put further along the shelf though not out of reach, yet. I will finish reading it. It's just such good work, every black and white panel a masterpiece. It needs to be read slowly, appreciated. After all it is the “culmination of five years of painstaking work”.

Crumb says he approached the work as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. He says he has, to the best of his ability, faithfully reproduced every word of the original text which he derived from several sources, including the King James Version, but mostly Robert Alter's 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses. He admits to doing a little intrepretion of his own but only if he thought “the words could be made clearer” and has included a commentary on each chapter in an eight page section at the back of the 200 page book.

In his introduction Crumb admits that you please everybody and apologises in advance to those he feels may be offended and/or outraged by his efforts. There are some awkward passages in the Book of Genesis and even experts argue over their meanings and the context in which they have been used. Crumb points out the obvious when he says the text is very, very old.

Best thing to do is to go out and buy it before it sells out.

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Jitterati
By Grant Buist

$14.95
reviewed by Leo Hupert

While you're out there enjoying the summery weather why don't you pick up a copy of Grant Buist's Jitterati. Selling around Wellington for only $14.95 including a DVD and a sample bag of Havana coffee. The A4 size 76 page magazine collects Buist's Jitterati cartoon strip which featured in City Voice and now runs in Capital Times.

For those of you, like me, who escaped seeing it, it's refreshing to be surprised, disturbing to be out of touch. Guess I don't get around much any more.

Jitterati is anchored in Wellington and is liberally interspersed with explanatory notes making connections easier to make. Buist and his characters eat in the same places, see the same graffiti (probably draw it), drink at the same places, we've probably unknowingly passed each other in the street on numerous occasions.

There is even an index at the back of the book. If you want to look up Auckland socialites see page 58, strip a. How about David Byrne 68c, or Guillermo del Toro 72b, maybe Joe Sacco 43c. Entries with lots of references include: braying toilet, bypass, chocolate, coffee, LOTR (of course) and recession.

Buist finishes off saying he hopes there's enough to stop people reading the whole thing in five minutes and saying, “Is that it?” He can rid himself of such Pekaresque paranoia. I'm sure those who have followed his strips would love to revisit them in this collection and those unfamiliar with his work, like I said before, will be more than pleasantly surprised.

The DVD has all the strips and two animated cartoons. One features that luscious word ‘orange’ and the other features Fitz Bunny slightly reminiscent of the Powerpuff Girls. For more on Jitterati go here, and if you want to read Buist's blog this link should get you there.


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ENDS

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