Friday, January 11, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Macedonia

This article was originally published at in 2007.

You have to hand it to Harvey Pekar. After the success of his movie and the sales of the American Splendor collections, Ballantine gave him the opportunity to do three new graphic novels. The first was Our Movie Year, which was self-explanatory. It was less a single coherent work than a collection of stories he had already done elsewhere related to the movie, plus some new work. These were classic American Splendor stories, featuring quotidian experiences and observations by Pekar. For his other two books, he went in a very different direction. For Ego and Malice, he told the story of someone he had met who he found fascinating. Harv's done this sort of thing before, because he's always been as interested in telling someone else's story as much as his own. Macedonia, however, is a bit different.

Pekar has always been a working-class intellectual, and politics have always been part of what he's written about. It's no surprise that one of his most frequent collaborators has been Joe Sacco, the preeminent narrative political journalist in comics. Sacco's masterwork is Safe Area Gorazde, about the near-destruction of a mostly Muslim town in Eastern Bosnia. Sacco lived in Gorazde, talked to its residents, and told their story through a series of sharply-created vignettes. The book was not just about war, but about the nature of ethnic conflict and the mania it inspires. When Pekar learned about Roberson, an undergrad at Cal-Berkeley, and the nature of her research, he realized that he could create a story that would be a sort of mirror image of what Sacco did.

Roberson was a Peace Studies major and when she got into an argument about the inevitability of war, she brought up the example of Macedonia. Conditions were in place for an ethnic civil war to erupt in this Balkan state and tensions were certainly high. However, it didn't happen, and Roberson decided to travel there for her thesis project to talk to as many people as possible as to why. Pekar asked if he could see her notes when she returned from her trip, and created a script that Ed Piskor illustrated. I did an interview with Piskor about the Macedonia gig, where he described some of the special challenges involved.

There's a pleasantly rambling nature to the narrative that reflects the fact that Roberson went over to Macedonia not knowing a single person, nor establishing a single contact. This was kind of a crazy way to approach the experience, but it was calculated to a certain extent. After all, her entire thesis revolved around the idea of the rule of law having a primary role in establishing peace between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. She wanted to test the accessibility of state organs that anyone should be able to turn to so as to avoid disputes.

Roberson does indeed quickly make contacts, including with a local artist who was leading a disarmament campaign. She makes instant bonds with several deans and professors from Southeastern European University, built for Albanians. Part of the reason why an agreement was reached between the two sides was that an access to education was promised for Albanians, along with a police force that was representative of demographic realities in a given area. Roberson was able to speak to a police trainer about this topic. One reason why Roberson was able to gain this kind of access was that many people she talked to were eager for contact from the outside world. They wanted their stories told, wanted to feel like part of the greater world community rather than an isolated state.

Roberson may be an idealist, but she wasn't starry-eyed in what she saw. Tensions still existed. Disarmament was still a process. Macedonians thought the worst of Albanians, treating them as savages. Albanians, given a leg up in certain areas, didn't exactly turn the other cheek. The possibility of violence was always there. She spoke to plenty of folks on the street about what they saw, in addition to officials who were trying to put the best face on things. Despite those difficulties, one thing was abundantly clear: war would have only made things worse, not better. A quick trip across the border to Kosovo made that abundantly clear.

As a comic, Macedonia has certain bumps. One reason why Sacco is so successful with his projects is that he is the reporter, writer and artist. With Macedonia, the comic is a couple of levels removed from Roberson's actual experience. Pekar boiled down her notes and conversations to a script, and Piskor had to take something that was a long series of talking heads into something interesting to look at that also flowed as a story. In addition to the static nature of the story, Piskor had the additional task of somehow illustrating page after page of background information on an enormously complex conflict. The beginning of the book drags as a result of Roberson giving us the history of the conflict in the form of a conversation with her boyfriend, and Piskor runs with this conversation and shows them driving around, cooking--in motion, giving the reader something to look at.

The lack of structure in the narrative also hurts the flow as a reader. Some kind of arbitrary chapter breaks might have been a good idea or perhaps reorganizing the narrative into a series of vignettes like Safe Area Gorazde. That said, Pekar's skill as a writer really comes to the fore in the last forty or so pages. His ability to bring to life the variety of characters Roberson encounters is Pekar at his best. In particular, the French professor Fabian was hilarious--a nasty cynic who was nonetheless enormously generous. Pekar has always especially excelled at fish-out-of-water stories, and Piskor's non-idealized character designs are a perfect match for the odd people that Roberson meets.

Though Macedonia has some structural and narrative problems, its scope and ambition are both remarkable. After the first forty pages, the book starts to build momentum. In the last forty or fifty pages, the reader is totally swept up into Roberson's experiences and the people she meets, and there's a tangible sadness when she has to leave. The last page sums up the themes of the book, as Heather notes that she left herself vulnerable in trusting others, but the result was meeting dozens of people who were enormously kind and generous to her. She was amazed at the openness and frankness of those she met, something she missed at Cal. Saying, "I'd rather end up bruised than untouched", she sums up not just her own outlook on life, but also the outlook necessary for not just peace, but understanding, to blossom in Macedonia.

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