“Why Studs Terkel?” asked the man on stage at the Wisconsin Book Festival Sunday. “Why Harvey Pekar?”
Indeed. Paul Buhle, an oral historian and emeritus professor from Brown University, was asking the questions, having enlisted cartoonist Pekar of American Splendor fame to adapt Terkel’s mighty Working as a graphic novel.
“Harvey is exactly the kind of person that Studs looked for” in his interviews, Buhle said, and the kind of person the WPA writers interviewed in the 1930s. Pekar worked as a wage slave for 37 years, a file clerk in a VA hospital in Ohio, unknown and yet full of stories. (He interviewed many of the patients he met in the hospital.) At the festival, Pekar spoke with trademark honesty and humor about his little pleasures: a flattering remark, a bit of cash, and the spice of getting back at somebody who’d slighted him. He also talked about his love of jazz, his biggest literary influence (Henry Miller), his respect for Terkel, and how listening to comedy radio in the 1940s shaped how he approaches pacing and rhythm in his comics.
His discussion included Terkel’s legacy as an oral historian and beginnings on the Federal Writers’ Project. He said he wanted to bring the stories of Working to new readers in a new format.