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Twee Radicals

January 17, 2008

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History
Written (mostly) by Harvey Pekar, art (mostly) by Gary Dumm, edited by Paul Buhle (Hill and Wang)

I hate to inaugurate my comics reviewing on the S/Hitlist with a pan, but, wow, this is dire. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since the American Splendor movie, it’s that Harvey Pekar does one thing excellently, and that’s transforming his own life into comics. He’s also pretty good at writing jazz and literature reviews–his workingman’s take on avant-whatever can be bracing–but when someone else hires Pekar to write something, the results are usually toast-dry.

This hagiography of Students for a Democratic Society, edited by leftist writer Paul Buhle, starts out with a lengthy, yet perfunctory, history of the radical organization, for which the comics format does nada. Basically: Disillusioned younger folks in old-time leftist organizations form SDS in the early 1960s; the organization organizes war and union protests and helps out in the inner city; as expected, there’s a in-fighting and politicking within the group; and things peter out in the late ’60s/early ’70s.

The information contained within this fast-moving history is nothing that can’t be found in SDS’s Wikipedia entry, and, worse, there’s no point of view or individual voice. It reads just like a Wikipedia entry, too. It almost comes alive when Pekar shows up to do some of his trademark ranting, but those moments are very few (two) and even further between.

SDS gets better once it moves out of the history and into personal stories of organization members. But these stories are pretty boring, too, not to mention often self-aggrandizing: “So, what do you do?” “I work on the revolution.” Once you’ve heard one story about some middle-class kid getting involved in the Movement, you’ve pretty much heard them all. Pekar’s flattening prose style doesn’t help either, squeezing any personality out of these vignettes.

Worst of all is the art by Gary Dumm, a longtime Pekar artist out of their shared hometown of Cleveland. Dumm draws like a reporter assigned to cover the county school board writes. This is OK if something exciting happens–Dumm shines here some when drawing police beat-downs–but otherwise you might find more scintillating prose in the meeting minutes. The artist’s figures look like stiff dolls rather than real people, almost like a parody of the type of newspaper cartoonist who draws Mary Worth or Judge Parker. Dumm does seem to like drawing Tom Hayden, however. Whenever Hayden and his hair appear, it’s like George Clooney showing up on the set of the local morning news show.

There is a saving grace, though, and it has nothing to do with Pekar, Dumm, or Buhle. Cartoonist Nick Thorkelson–brother of Monkee Peter Tork!–shows up on pages 91-95 to show everyone how a book like this should have been done. Thorkelson, of whom I’ve never heard but who’s apparently a Movement artist of long tenure, performs like a real cartoonist here: Instead of just drawing his story of traveling to Kentucky to help out in some miner strikes as if it were a storyboard, he uses the tricks of his trade–visual metaphor, silhouettes, sound effects–to tell a rollicking tale. And, he’s just a plain great scribbler, in the tradition of Lat and Sergio Aragonés.

So, if you’re interested in the SDS, find a book with some oomph in it, a strong point of view or personality, important scholarship–something. If you’re looking for nonfiction comics worth reading, take a peek at Thorkelson’s story (and his web site), or pick up some Pekar books that are more self-centered, but don’t stop here.

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