Monday, May 16, 2011

31 Days of Comics #16

American Splendor: Unsung Hero
By Robert McNeill, Harvey Pekar and David Collier

Harvey Pekar’s usual American Splendor comics manage to be both infinitely fascinating and utterly mundane. While his stories of finding the right panel beater and looking for a lost book that is sitting under his phone are incredibly tedious, his detailing of modern life in the late 20th century will only become more interesting as time goes by. People will be reading Harvey’s comics for centuries, and they will only become more and more poignant.

Before his recent death – an event that was totally unsurprising, even though Harvey wasn’t as old as he always made out – Pekar would occasionally turn that idiosyncratic eye for detail on somebody else’s life. He produced a number of fine comic biographies, including several on his favourite blues artists, but he is also the perfect vehicle to tell the story of Robert McNeill.

Lance Corporal McNeill fought in Vietnam, earning a Navy commendation medal for bravery and resourcefulness. McNeill was just another soldier fighting a war he didn’t understand, but he has some stories to tell, and Harvey is there to listen.

Like all good war stories, Unsung Hero shows how futile and pointless any war is: Lance Corporal McNeill is killing people he doesn’t hate, obeying orders that come from people he does actually despise. Death is lurking outside every tent and LZ, and the randomness of it all is the most horrifying thing.

But Harvey’s no-bullshit credo also means Unsung Hero is full of the tiny insights that often forgotten in war movies. McNeill talks about the natives’ anger behind their smiles, the dangers of running into a hornet’ nest in the hostile jungle, his copious marijuana use (and the fact that it causes him to break down during a firefight), and the spooky detail of a little girl coming up to the fence and telling him that ‘VC come tonight’, leaving him to stew in paranoia for days until the attack does finally come.

While there are racial tensions in the story that seem to be about to blow up at any moment, McNeill is more concerned with getting through his tour and heading back home. His irritation at having to do a special handshake called the Dap is especially funny, especially when he says he only did it because they called him an Uncle Tom if he didn’t.

By the end, all those other things don’t matter, and all McNeill is worried about it getting back home. His conviction that he is going to catch a bullet at the last minute overrules everything. Even though he is sitting there telling the story to Harvey 30 years later, his paranoia gives the final pages a real tension, and there is true relief when he really does get out of it all.

David Collier’s art for the story is a textbook example of non-flash storytelling that gets the job done. There is a crudeness that fits McNeill’s razor-sharp ramblings, but never any confusion about what is going on, although there is a nice Alfred E Neuman at one stage, and a sadly beautiful moment where McNeill watches his buddies take fire up on the hill, when he’d dodged one of his last nights up there.

The loss of Harvey Pekar was a harsh one, but with comics about his own life and the lives of people like Robert McNeill, he has left an inarguable record of the Way Things Were. That’s a hell of a legacy.

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