It happened that I got into an argument about my low opinion of Harvey Pekar on a forum, so I hauled out a copy of COMICS JOURNAL #123 to peruse his essay "The Potential of Comics" for ammunition. The essay appeared in 1988, which is, FWIW, about a year before I grew frustrated with the JOURNAL's intransigent elitism and quit submitting anything to the magazine. In my view, Pekar's essay marked a lot about what was wrong with the JOURNAL: sloppy reasoning, self-aggrandizing elitism, and rhetorical distortions. I wrote a LOC refuting Pekar's essay back in the day, but I have purposefully avoided rereading it, to keep this analysis from being determined by whatever response I made in 1988.
Before I address the Pekar essay, though, I will say that I've made this part of the "DEAD-ALIVE" essay-series because the other two subjects of my analysis, Noah Berlatsky and Julian Darius, make an interesting contrast to Pekar. I've argued that both of these critics are overly invested in ideological readings of texts, but both show some appreciation for genre-comics if those works display some desirable content. In the critical terms that I advanced here, this makes both of them what I've termed "content elitists." Pekar, however, is a "form elitist," in that he can only praise a genre-comic if it meets some criterion that he associates with the forms of highbrow art/literature.
Pekar's essay, a call for greater variety in the comics-medium, begins by assailing a quote by Charles Schultz. In an interview Schultz pushed Pekar's buttons by saying, "Our medium will always hold us back. The same way as a burlesque comedian can never be Hamlet."
Now, if Schultz's somewhat muddled argument was that the comics medium could approach no heights greater than those of a "burlesque comedian," then I would agree that the creator of PEANUTS was wrong about that. Nevertheless Pekar attacks Schultz like a pit-bull, claiming that Schultz should have blamed his own limitations and that Schultz "trivializes his own insights" by incarnating real-life problems in the forms of "cute little kids who are drawn extremely simply."
I'll pass over the fatuity of this judgment, which was answered by various critics back in the day. Pekar then attempts to disprove Schultz's offhanded dismissal of the comics medium by presenting his own mini-history of the comics-medium, starting with "fine art" figures like Peter Breughel and William Hogarth and eventually working his way to the early comic strip-medium. In keeping with his rhetoric, Pekar finds early comic strips typified by works that show the overall potential of the medium. Pekar does not mention those extremely popular strips whose appeal lay the kind of simplicity Pekar dislikes in PEANUTS: there's no MUTT AND JEFF or BLONDIE in this mini-history. Instead Pekar mentions only those strips that he believes "were aesthetically successful even judged by pretty rigorous standards." Pekar does not expand on these "standards," but the strips he cites include most of the darlings of the form elitists: POPEYE, LI'L ABNER, GASOLINE ALLEY, and LITTLE NEMO, with a few dark-horse entries like ALLEY OOP and MOON MULLINS.
Now, many of these praiseworthy strips clearly owe their legacy to popular idioms, particularly LI'L ABNER, which was spawned by the hillbilly-humor subgenre, and POPEYE, a comedy-adventure strongly indebted to the burgeoning adventure-strips of the period, particularly WASH TUBBS. But what Pekar is praising is those strips' apparent aspirations toward minority art, as when Pekar praises Frank King for his synthesis of "contemporary fine art and cartooning techniques." Without such tony appeals to highbrow form, though, a comics-work holds no importance in Pekar's ledger. This priority shows itself clearly in Pekar's overall dismissal of early comic books, because they did not follow such literary luminaries as "Melville, Dostoevski, Proust and Joyce," but pursued rather pulp authors like "Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Dashiell Hammett and Sax Rohmer." Frankly I rather doubt that most of the comic-strip creators whom Pekar lauds knew Proust from a hole in the ground, any more than did the average comic-book creator. But comic strips gave the superficial appearance of being in tune with the highbrow arts, and so such comics serve as a rhetorical device for Pekar's views on the potential of the medium. Notably, the only Golden Age superheroes Pekar praises are Plastic Man and the Spirit, because "both Cole and Eisner satirized the costumed-hero idiom to some extent."
To be sure, Pekar does trounce some of the sacred cows beloved of elitists, as when he finds the EC writers inferior to some of his favorites-- Elzie Segar, for one-- though he does not choose to cite any specific reasons for the latter group's superiority. From the 1950s Pekar leapfrogs to the "mid-60s," focusing purely on the growth of underground comics. It's not surprising that he has nothing to say about any developments in the popular idioms during that period, whether the innovations come from Jack Kirby or from John Stanley. It may be a bit more surprising that he has nothing further to say about comic strips after the 1950s innovations of Schultz, Walt Kelly and Jules Feiffer. Did comic strips somehow lose their "pride of place?" It would seem so, for as soon as underground comics are mentioned, their catalogue of their glories takes up most of the rest of the essay, not without a mention of Pekar's own AMERICAN SPLENDOR, of course.
Pekar does not really supply any logical arguments as to why any of the artists he names are superior, and his essay's rhetoric might have been better served by a focus on the work of one or two creators. At every turn he validates creators in terms of their highbrow credentials, as when he claims that "[David] Boswell is far more well read and better educated than the average comic book writer." Finally, after spreading this cornucopia of quality before his readers, Pekar more or less winds up by discerning some "hopeful" signs in then-current mainstream publishers, thanks to their publications of the works of such authors as J.M. DeMatteis (when in concert with artists like Jay Muth and Mark Badger), Val Mayerick (a frequent collaborator with Pekar in the day), and Bill Sienkiewicz.
It was certainly Pekar's privilege not to like anything but works that either seemed to aspire to highbrow status or that mocked the inferiorities of mere popular idioms. But like many other comic book elitists, he merely lists a catalogue of things that he likes and makes only a desultory effort to unify them under any sort of theoretical umbrella. In the highbrow world Pekar so esteems, this would be a ridiculous way for any critic to practice criticism.
And, no matter what limitations the comics medium may or may not have, it's ridiculous in this sphere as well.