Books: Comics Legend Harvey Pekar Channels Studs Terkel

Can a graphic adaptation of the master reporter’s Working interviews work?

THIS COMIC BOOK isn’t the most far-fetched attempt to repackage Working, the late Studs Terkel‘s signature work of oral history—that would be the 1978 Broadway musical of the same name. Harvey Pekar proves to be the perfect person to turn Terkel’s 35-year-old homage to the workaday world into something worth rereading. Pekar, after all, immortalized his life and times as a file clerk for the Department of Veterans Affairs in his indie comic series American Splendor (itself the inspiration for a movie and, recently, an opera). Collaborating with 16 artists, Pekar has edited a selection of Terkel’s first-person tales of drudgery and dignity, as told by baby nurses and grave diggers, prostitutes and stockbrokers. The quality of the art varies greatly, but the original words rise above the rough spots (even when presented in that goofily unproletarian typeface, Comic Sans). Some of the material is amusingly dated—barbers and hairstylists griping about dirty longhairs; an airline ticket operator weirded out by spending her day in front of “an electronic typewriter” that “can retrieve information—forever.” But the storytellers’ sense of unease that the bottom could drop out of the American Dream at any moment is all too familiar. Working remains an engrossing portrait of ordinary Americans and the perpetual tension between our desire to find meaning in our work and our need to be more than just our jobs.