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Wow, where do I begin? I couldn’t resist the novelty of this, but I feel a little dirty after having read it. This is pretty much a fairy tale, not a biography. I don’t think the authors had any intention of writing a realistic biography, but how do you write a “fictional biography” (as a graphic novel no less) about someone like Kurt Cobain? I don’t know.
The book is told from Kurt’s first person perspective looking back on his life after he has committed suicide. Obviously from the very beginning, liberties are taken imagining what Kurt might have to say and what he was thinking. The last few days of his life are a mystery and so certainly the authors here are imagining, just as other biographers have imagined, what happened in that time period.
I have read about many of the major scenes in this book in other well-researched biographies. Other information and dialogue appears to have been taken directly from interviews. The questionable material is much of Kurt’s inner dialogue and his thinking process. Since the book is told in the first person from his perspective, that can be a problem for discerning readers.
The artwork is okay, but I think it is hard to capture the grunge scene of the early 90s in glossy comic art. It was kind of anti-glossy, you know? The religious symbolism- Kurt with halos, Kurt with a crown of thorns, Kurt at the last supper/drug intervention- is ridiculous and only serves to perpetuate the rock icon myth, which he loved and despised at the same time. The man was mentally ill and self medicated with heroin. He was a brilliant songwriter and musician, but he was not sacrificing himself and he certainly wasn’t innocent.
All in all I see this being something teenagers, who don’t know the facts, would like. It’s all about the fairy tale rock-star-rebel-hero myth, which angst ridden teens eat up. I know because I used to be one of those angst ridden teens, and I was coming-of-age when Nirvana exploded. Looking back, the music has weathered well. It’s still brilliant. All of the rest, well… I guess I’m getting old.
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I know some will think I’m committing heresy when I say I did not like this nonfiction graphic novel. I imagine some of my dislike is due to the fact that I’m also reading So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, which also details a character’s battle with cancer and how it affects her care-giver. So Much For That (fiction)is just a phenomenal book on all levels. I know the supposed beauty of Harvey Pekar’s writing is the simplicity, but when I read it in conjunction with Shriver’s book, it just made Our Cancer Year seem flat, amateurish, and poorly written.
Pekar and Brabner’s account of Harvey’s battle with lymphoma is poignant enough, but it takes some time to get to Harvey even going to the doctor. The first quarter of the book is all about Joyce’s friends and dealings with the international peace movement, which seems completely disjointed and… well, self-centered. Characters just appear and the reader is supposed to care about them because Joyce tells us in a few panels that they have had tough lives and are good people. We get brief updates on these characters through the book, but again it’s like someone telling you about a friend of a friend who you don’t know… while the main character (and her husband) is writhing on the floor from chemo treatments. And essentially, it all comes across as part of Joyce’s political agenda, which really should have been a completely unrelated book. SPOILER ALERT: These people, who we really don’t know, come to visit at the end and it helps “heal” Harvey’s depression. I imagine learning that he beat the cancer has something to do with it.
The dialogue and inner-dialogue throughout seems very, very simplistic and unrealistic. There are parts where I felt like I was watching that scene in all CSI episodes where they over-explain everything they’re doing so everyone with a fifth grade education can understand it. It just doesn’t work well in literature, which is disappointing because Pekar is a literature lover.
I wanted to like the book because I have heard so many times that it is a classic, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed like poor writing to me. I have not read any of the American Splendor series, so I have no way of telling how much of this book is Pekar’s writing and how much is Brabner’s, whose character I didn’t care for. I saw the movie adaptation when it came out years ago, but honestly the only thing I remember is that Robert Crumb was Pekar’s friend. Maybe watching it again would give me a better appreciation for the graphic novel.
I read the first volume of Maus by Art Spiegelman several years ago. It is a classic in the graphic novel medium, and I felt I didn’t need to add much to the plethora of reviews and praises out there in Internet land with my amateur musings. The book is part of college English and history curricula now. But honestly, now that I have read the second volume, I think Maus II is the better book. I think the two volumes are now technically considered to be one book, but volume two was published in 1991, five years after volume one. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.
A lot has been said about the book’s value as a Holocaust narrative, and how it illuminates the cost war has on families generations later. The second volume picks up the story of Spiegelman’s parents as they enter Auschwitz and are separated. Spiegelman’s father recounts his time in the prison camp and his eventual release. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book. I have seen it mentioned many places, and it is true: the last page of volume two is heartbreaking.
There are still many who don’t give the same weight to good graphic novels as they do to traditional literature. I have to stress that Maus is not just a graphic novel or comic book. This is literature, deep and wide and heavy. If you have never read a graphic novel, do yourself a favor. Pick up both volumes of Maus and read them. I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for the medium. You can find Maus II here.