Monday, April 20, 2009

American Splendour, or the Cognitive Dissonance of Place

Growing up in the Gulf and in India, comics meant Amar Chitra Katha, Tintin, Asterix and the occasional MAD magazine. The year I was born, neighbors who were moving back to the U.K sold my parents a stack of magazines, records and plateware-- this is how I discovered Beano, Buster and the Dandy in 1992, comics that were already old enough then that the paper had turned a fragrant, faded brown.

But that was the full extent of my knowledge of comics-- as far as I was concerned, they were stories and characters created to entertain, amuse and instruct; some were based in history or myth to varying degrees, while others taught me factoids about pop culture in the U.K and U.S-- the candy kids ate, what a soda fountain used to mean, the role of the ham burger.

And then there are comics like American Splendour.

Call it conditioning, misdirected Socialism, or anything you'd like-- growing up, I never imagined you could make a comic about life as you knew it. As a kid, I never imagined a comic could be anything but funny, or action-filled. Even the comic strips that came closest to real life like Chacha Chaudhary still told stories where the bad guys always lost.

I'm a bit of a reverse fan of American Splendour-- I saw the movie before I read the comics. Though I did read and own Persepolis, part 1 and 2 before hearing about the movie, if that's any redemption.

Fact remains, folk like Satrapi and Pekar changed my perception about what can be put between two covers. Whether as comics or as graphic novels, artists who revealed bits of their life for their readers impressed me with their courage more than documentaries on Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi (May their tribe increase) ever could, mainly because as people, these artists and their characters aren't figureheads in historical situation, they aren't called upon to be leaders, saints or good examples. Instead, they are extraordinary in that they choose to put their story out there, however fraught with disillusionment or a sense of failure. And thus they are shining geniuses. Non-warriors in sweat pants with ink stained fingers.

Pekar created a title that would inflict as much irony as possible in two words. Cleveland, OH after all is not exactly a city that invokes a starry, let alone spangled American Dream, however post-modern. And yet, there is no better word for the entirety of his work, or the emotion the comics elicit other than Splendour. Because what makes Pekar's world remarkable is what makes the rest of America the Unsung, America the Unloved, America who's not on prime time worthy of a most secret joy--

Pekar's America is the America folk on the outside never see. It's Ginsberg's Sunflower. It's Stewart O' Nan's Night Country. It's the folk who trek to Burning Man. It's the people who drive in search of Highway 66. It's late night convenience stores. It's the surfers who ride tanker waves off the Galveston coast. It's parades and festivals and street performances. It's the America of small towns and mill towns, open country and highways, streets and avenues that the tourists and news channels always miss.

Maybe it's because I'm constantly trying to understand what home means to me. I can't live in a town or country without rationalizing why I'm here and not there. So maybe this is all just cognitive dissonance, an attempt to justify why I'm here and not in India, or Oman, or anywhere else I've previously been.

But there's something to be said for being msafiri. Wander long enough and you tend to start craving a common denominator, some artifact, expression, sound or food that helps you enter new communities, communicate with new people. We carry our perceptions of how ourselves and certain other things should be, such as sandwiches, or greeting people you really don't want to but have to, or when it's okay to ask for ketchup. All of this becomes our identity, a big, invisible radar that picks up on other people's stories and situations. Think of it as a whimsical form of high context communication.

Which is why while watching American Splendour earlier this morning for the nth time, I couldn't stop the empathy from flowing.

Yes! This is how I want it to be for myself, this is how it should be-- unapologetic, sometimes cowardly, filled with doubt, searching for the right thing to do and always opening life up and picking out threads that have appeared before, that will continue despite me, that means something to someone else. And perfect endings be damned.

I wonder whether such stories could ever happen in India. Probably not. The sense of community and carefully charted out social roles there, the carefully guarded circles in the artistic and political world, the threadbare laws that govern privacy, intellectual copyrights and collaboration, the lack of supporters for any sort of underground creative movement all comes together to mean one thing--There is no particular god in India that protects the loser, the underdog, the manic-depressive 9 to 7evener, the awkward comic book nerd with no social skills, the lone outcast who puts his or her ass out on the line without fear of censorship or criticism because she or he basically has nothing to lose, or doesn't care anymore.

Does this make living here, in this non-tourist, non-urban, non-indian immigrant part of the United States any more appetizing?


But it does mean that by not creating art, despite being as free as I am right now of any sort of censorship, self-inflicted, group-inflicted or otherwise, I am an even bigger failure than I first imagined.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe we have a break-through.

Think I'll go finish editing that story now.


Jugal said...


because i can.

Chenoa said...

Jugal seems to be channeling Ryan Sohmer of LICD :D

You gotta love epiphanies :)

The Wizard of Odd said...

Learned today that Pekar died.
July 12, 2010 was his number.

Damn it, Harvey. Only you would die in the middle of a heat wave, goddamit. When people were too busy and too hot to notice.