Get Lit: Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, by Harvey Pekar

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I don’t know much about Harvey Pekar. I’ve never seen

American Splendor

. I never read his comic book. I know him primarily as

a nut job

who used to go on David Letterman and make Crispin Glover

look sane


So maybe I’m not the best person in the world to be reviewing his newest book. But the art of reviewing is putting aside prejudices and biases and looking at a work on its own terms. Which brings me to the book at hand, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, written by Pekar and various former SDS members, with art work mostly by Gary Dumm.

As the title suggests, this is a book about the radical ‘60s organization known as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And I’ve got to confess, I found this to be a rather strange read. First there’s the format, a graphic history it’s called. Essentially, it’s a serious historical document done in graphic novel form. Second, there’s the way the story’s told, with the first quarter of the book being a summary of SDS history and the rest consisting of the tales of various SDS members.

The press release accompanying the book refers to this as a sophisticated handbook of a misunderstood organization. But I found it to be a confusing mush of history and art which gives a rather superficial treatment of a rather serious topic.

For those not familiar with the SDS, they were a group of college students in the sixties who protested against racism, Vietnam, the draft, the oppression of women, and many, many things. I know that sounds rather superficial and it is, because, truthfully, A Graphic History doesn’t go into much more detail. We read, and see, tales of FBI oppression. Of campus strikes. But throughout the book, SDS seems to be a group of spoiled college brats who want to be Marxists or Communists or Pacifists or anything but conservative.

I’ve been criticizing A Graphic History, but I’ve got to point out where it does well, which is in the first quarter of the book, the quarter for which Pekar is primarily responsible. And what I like about what Pekar does is that he doesn’t sugarcoat or romanticize SDS. He tries to give an objective history of the organization and the era, just as would any historian.

The SDS as shown by Pekar is a disorganized entity that can’t decide on what it wants to do, what it wants to be, or how it wants to operate. It’s a bunch of kids with supposedly good intentions who can’t decide if they want to have a national organization or a series of local, college based groups. They want to help the poor until the poor don’t like them, then they want nothing more to do with the poor. They can’t decide whether to concentrate on just the war, or on racial matters. Women don’t matter. They can’t decide whether to just protest, or whether to storm campuses. And when they do act, they’re often confused about why they’re acting, and what the ultimate goals of the actions are. They embrace the Maoists, and then try to kick them out. They embrace the Black Panthers, and then try to get rid of them. The local branches fight with other local branches and with the national leaders. The local branches fight within themselves, as does the national branch.

The Pekar-authored section is only 53 pages long. And this section, due to its brevity, must skip from place to place, from year to year, within comic panels. This is a problem because it looks as if, if need be, Pekar could’ve really given a good history of the organization and the era. But instead, the next 156 pages skip from year-to-year, day-to-day, person-to-person, as various SDS members tell their individual stories.

And this doesn’t work. Not for me, that it is. Just as I’m getting involved with the problems in Austin, we skip to Iowa then move to New Orleans and just as I get involved in the New Orleans story, we move away from it forever to get a few pages of a riot in Madison, Wisconsin.

I don’t know much about SDS. I know that one of Jane Fonda’s ex-husbands was a big shot in the SDS. I know that the authorities didn’t think much of them. But SDS is ill-served by A Graphic History. The work is a disorganized mess trying to do too much with too little. From what I read, this could actually be true of SDS itself. But I honestly don’t know if this is the reality of the SDS, or the result of a poorly organized book.

I’m still not sure if Pekar is a nut or not, but I really would like to see what we he could do with this story if he were the only one telling the tale. Maybe someday he’ll get that chance. Until that day, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History is a mess to be avoided. – John Royal

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