Value Added?

          For me it was hard to wrench my eye from the  written texts to pay good attention to the graphic rendering.  By habit I’m drawn to the words, the “story,” just as when I watch a foreign film with subtitled translations, my eye goes to the words, even though they occupy only a very small part of the visual field.  I no doubt miss a lot of what’s going on for the eye.

          Graphic texts almost always require a two-stage reading for me:  language first, pix, or rather pix-and-text, second.  This feels like a very inefficient way to read; will I ever get so fluent that I can take it all in at once?  Actually, the better the graphic the less likely I can handle words and visuals in one operation.  Two media require two processes of apprehension.  But the two-stage process can be illuminating.

          I focused on the initial four sections in the graphic version of Working:  farm woman Katherine Haynes, coal miner Joe Haynes and wife Susie, farmworker Robert Acuna, and organizer Bill Talcott.  It’s worth observing that Pekar’s book is remarkably faithful to Terkel’s text. (I started going through the original text because I wanted to know what “adapted by Harvey Pekar” meant.)  Almost every paragraph in Terkel’s chapters, two of which (Acuna and Talcott) are fairly long, is included in the graphic version, almost always verbatim, though in rare instances sentence order is slightly rearranged.  It wasn’t until I focused on looking at the graphics that I became aware that the graphic panels determine pace, emphasis, and “volume” (loudness) of the printed text — the graphics slow down the word stream and highlight or suppress things in the original.  Should we think of the graphic version as a kind of performance of the original?

          The four sections I’m highlighting neatly illustrate how well or ill graphics can be used to render a story, whether or not it originally existed as a written text.  They also raise questions about what constitutes a faithful rendering — if a faithful rendering is indeed wanted (in this case I think it is) — and about when the graphic art does justice to its source and when it goes beyond the mandate of the original.

          Start from the low end in terms of quality, the Joe and Susie Haynes section, pp. 6-9.  The Haynes’ story is important and implicitly dramatic:  the backdrop is the advent of strip mining in Appalachia and the degradation of the environment and of the region’s economy and way of life.  Forefronted is a family conflict:  the Haynes’ son has come home after four Navy tours in Vietnam, and the only decent-paying job he can find is in a strip mine.  But his mother is adamant:  if he goes to work in one, he can’t live in his parents’ home. (There are two statements of this.)  It’s a matter of principle and she doesn’t budge.

          In the graphic version, this powerful story is planed down.  The graphic style is bland and monotonous, and salient details from the text are verbally expressed but not visually rendered, e.g., Joe Haynes has black lung, can hardly breathe, can’t get treatment paid for; he also has impaired hearing fro the noise in the mining process, which is suggested only in the somewhat repetitive depiction of the men at work. The last panel of the chapter mentions that even before this, Joe’s forebears were “sweated out” of millions of dollars (9).  But that is not visible.  Susie is made to look like a middle-class housewife, with nice hair and a nice kitchen (spice rack above the stove, towels hung neatly on the oven door, ruffled curtains on the window).  Maybe that’s accurate — perhaps some of the people living in the hollers managed a decent existence — though it doesn’t consort with the details of what’s happened to the couple or with Susie’s bitter militance (“if it’s not stopped by officials or government, we’re gonna have to take guns to stop it” [9].)

          The Aunt Katherine section that preceded gave a better picture of the hard-scrabble life in the region.  Perhaps the depiction of conditions in that section is meant to carry over to the Haynes section which follows, but I don’t think that disqualifies my verdicts about the graphics in the Haynes couple’s section.  No value added there.  Value diminished, rather.

          The Robert Acuna section is much richer, illustrating important details:  Spanish spoken (10-14, passim), the baby born in the fields (11), the hard labor, the stolen blanket, the spanking for the theft, the dusting with pesticides, activities of the strike, the arrival of labor-saving devices to replace the workers, Acuna’s “conversion” to Cesar Chavez (16-21).  It’s further “value added” that the artist has used a face from the “Mixtec codices” (11) to represent Acuna, linking him and the people he organizes with their ancestors and the proud traditions that animated many of the militant farmworkers of la raza.  The machinations of the patrones are briefly but clearly depicted (pp. 17, 22): the cartoon form allows for exaggeration (the patron as devil), the bosses’ attitudes toward the workers shown as no different from a meatpacker’s toward cattle marked for slaughter — see the large figures on p. 19.  The artist manages to include a lot of factual material as warrant for the characterization of the bosses. This is a very satisfying rendering/performance of the Terkel/Acuna text.

     Of the four sections I looked at, the most effective is the depiction of Bill Talcott, organizer, a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy whose brain gears engage  with the situation and tasks before him (see pp. 27, 32, and the pupils of his eyes on p. 33.)  The graphics are harsh, unsubtle, forceful.  They bring out the implications of some of Talcott’s general observations, e.g., see the left vertical strip on p. 33, which “makes graphic” Talcott’s comment that “School is a process of taking beautiful kids who are filled with life and beating them into happy slaves” (33); see also the “gloss” on the claim that “Middle-class women … are more alienated than lower-class women” (33).  Most powerful are the “puzzle pieces” on the shoulders of the organizer (36) and the three parallel illustrations on pp. 29, 35, and 37:

     –p. 29 is an unambiguous rendering of the bosses and their allies in a pyramid shape with a pipe or lever being driven downward, like sinking a mine, everyone squeezed by the guys at the top, and all overseen by a triangled eye — brilliant! — this is a motif from the back of the U.S. dollar bill);

     –p. 35, the columnar clenched fist composed of working men, with the lower arm bound (reinforced? constrained?) by the mention of women as potential allies, the columnar fist flanked by a motif of miilitant workers and hands joined in brotherhood;

     p. 37, above, two frightened figures protected from the hordes outside the door behind multiple locks and bolts in an arrow design pointing downward to a man atop a key who apparently has pushed open all the locked doors (in a domino-effect design perhaps alluding to the early mention, p. 34, that getting a park that people wanted was the key to winning people to struggle for bigger things; the elongated clenched fists are like guns.

          Propaganda, yes, but effective on many levels.  Value added to Talcott’s story!


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