Legacy

THE LEGACY OF AMERICAN SPLENDOR: AUTOBIOGRAPHY COMICS

by Allen Ribo

American Splendor is an autobiographical comic book that chronicled the life journey of writer Harvey Pekar. A book that was integral to the underground comics movement in the seventies, it helped to inspire an interest in self-publishing/publishing independent comic books. Three contemporary comic creators come to mind when comparing Splendor to the modern independent comics: Dustin Harbin and Lucy Knisley.

DIARY COMICS vol.1

Diary Comics is an autobiographical comic created by cartoonist Dustin Harbin. The story chronicles his life as a workshop teacher, a nighttime cartoonist and a kung-fu practitioner. The similarity of this book to splendor is the evolution of his narrative; from a constant reminder about his lack of ‘skill’ to being a confident comedian in his episodic tales, they share the metamorphosis of finding confidence in their work. The difference is evidenced by his lifestyle; Dustin is often socializing with his friends and frequently discusses off-and-on relationships and a menagerie of Pop Culture references. Pekar was often socially isolated with the exception of the few friends he could rely on such Robert Crumb. An entry on kung-fu exercise fits the comedic tone of Diary Comics:

“I’ve been trying to gain some muscle weight lately. Sometimes I get really gung ho and work out twice in one day, doing weights in the afternoon…then kung fu at night. But then gorge myself on oreos after dinner.”

French Milk:

French Milk is a comic journal by Lucy Knisley, collecting entries of her personal experiences during her trip to France. The visual narrative shifts between photomontages, sketches and notes as it covers themes of French comics history, romance, food, architecture and the history of France. Knisley articulates about her experience with French pastries, her family relationship, the constant mention of missing her boyfriend, and extensive notes on art in France (architecture, paintings, etc). Some of the entries are humor-based, and others entries leave the reader sympathetic to her woes (such as her transition to life changes):

“10:47 pm- Then when mom tried to talk to me about financial responsibility while we were out walking by the Soldes, I had a total panic attack, and walked home sobbing and hyperventilating. Followed by a horrible headache. I became very disturbed and depressed and horrible.”

As the story continues, Lucy begins to appreciate the sights in Paris, improves her relationship with her mother (whom is with her for the duration of the trip) and expresses how love of the country when she travels back to the United States. In comparing this book to the life of Harvey Pekar, Knisley’s trip to France is a journey of self-exploration, filled with surprises both good and bad as it attributes to her maturation process. In Splendor, Harvey dealt with his compounding problems through the book and eventually found peace in his ‘chaos’ at the end of his career.

The journey of a comic creator and the willingness to open their lives up to the audience is a fascinating tale. For Dustin, Lucy and Harvey, they used the comic medium as a means to deal with their trials and tribulations as well as sharing their moments of happiness.

3 Responses to Legacy

  1. Hi Allen,
    I thought this was an interesting post because it shows the influence American Splendor had on creating the autobiographical comics genre. After I read this I looked up Lucy Knisley and found the following video which I think relates really well to American Splendor because she talks about how we’re in an age of communication and sharing our life’s stories. At 4:28 in the video Lucy says “It’s important to recognize important events in your life, even if they’re small or seemingly inconsequential – transitional events like a diet, a pregnancy, a sickness, a breakup or a trip. Actively recording and chronicling the events can help us see deeper meaning within our own lives and to understand ourselves better.” I think this shows the major difference between her graphic novels and Harvey’s, as Harvey’s don’t necessarily show transitional events, but includes stories from many smaller, insignificant events. It could be argued however that the time period American Splendor was written was a transitional event as a whole, as he went though many changes to get as far as he did. However I think her comment on how keeping an active record of these events helps us understand ourselves better is very accurate and this shows in American Splendor because Harvey is constantly reflecting on his life and the choices he makes.

    Lucy on Autobiographical Comics

    -Victoria

  2. Hey Allen,

    There is something about your article that has got me thinking how important the idea of an autobiographical or memoir style comic is. I think we’re living in a time when self publishing is taken for granted due to the access the internet provides for cheap exposure and distribution.

    Over the past 14 years or so, I’ve come across web comics from different artists who usually go the route of the strip comic and focuses on some part of their lives. Penny Arcade comes to mind which is about two friends who are also obsessed with games and gamer culture. The two creators use comedy as their major selling point and, through the digital medium, are able to connect to a readership that shares in the common theme of their strip.

    I guess that’s one of the burgeoning joys of the internet age, the ability of anyone, anywhere, at any time to reach out to a niche interest group that would previously been worlds away. I wonder if Crumb would have felt as isolated and alone if he had been publishing online if technological history had evolved slightly differently. The instantaneous feedback and interaction with ones fan base must be something much different than the letter mail adulation of previous generations.

    http://penny-arcade.com/

    Brian.

  3. Hey Allen,

    I really enjoyed the two memoires you linked us to since both artists and writers are new to me. I think that if Harvey had began writing in this day and age he would have definitely used the internet as a medium for his work. His style seems to constantly be in motion and moving fast, I think he was incredibly progressive for his time and published at such a speed that his work was always fresh and kept up with his audiences.
    He reminds me of Mitch Clem sometimes, one of my favorite web comic authors who started with a satirical comic about two punks called Nothing Nice To Say And eventually started documenting his own life in a new strip called My Stupid Life.

    I found myself more interested in My Stupid Life because of the pace, he basically published the entire process in which he proposed to his girlfriend, found work, found an apartment and other basic tasks we never think to jot down. He found satire and emotions in everyday life and I think he would have been a great punk contemporary of Harvey’s in this generation.

    – Bushra

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