Paul Buhle: The Comic Monger
Paul Buhle edited Working: A Graphic Adaptation, a comic-book version of Studs Terkel’s oral history masterpiece, Working, in which Terkel interviewed a host of Americans about their jobs.
Buhle recently retired from his decade-long stint at Brown University as lecturer of History and American Civilization. He’s a veteran of the publishing world, who has written or edited 41 books, founded and edited two small magazines and several oral history projects, and written widely in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Caribbean, including works for The Nation, The Village Voice, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tikkun, Against the Current, and many smaller publications.
What do you hope people take from Working: A Graphic Adaptation?
That oral history touches something, some chord, in the daily lives of ordinary and extraordinary people, chords that rarely get touched, voices rarely heard, otherwise. I spent forty years doing archival scholarly work on labor history, radical history and cultural history, and that was almost my intention: to reveal the lives of ordinary people. Comics do it better than I could do in prose.
Do you think the people that Studs Terkel interviewed for Working are simply their jobs?
No, I think Studs’ subjects are the people, but he has chosen to see them through the most problematic part of their daily routine, or at least very different from home life, happy or unhappy. This makes Working different from his other works, aimed at other kinds of experiences.
Did you make updates to Terkel’s original Working?
Working: A Graphic Adaptation is taken directly from chosen stories in the book — edited as need be for comic art scripts, either by Harvey Pekar or by the artists themselves, with occasional strong suggestions by myself, the editor.
Why translate Terkel into drawings? What is added?
This is a very good question and goes to the heart of all artistic adaptations, including illuminated versions of the Bible drawn a thousand years ago. What do pictures add? The answer is that the artist, at whatever level, adds something of herself/himself, because they have a ‘different’ way of ‘seeing’ the ideas, and must edit and adapt to what they feel is the key impression. It is often forgotten that Studs did much longer interviews and edited them down, insisting that he had located the corpus. The artist is further refining, in a sense similar to poetry condensing meaning generally.
How did you go about editing a graphic novel?
The hardest part is getting a proposal together and convincing a publisher to lay out the advance necessary for the artists to go to work. Many proposals are offered, few accepted, because the field is new, because the book business is suffering, and because production costs are high, prices mostly limited to what people under 30 are expected to be willing to pay.
I encourage artists to take as much autonomy as they want, within limits. And where Harvey Pekar is involved, I work with him week by week on various aspects of the project. As in working with writers, a great deal of this is personal, and familiar to me because I was only 22 when I began publishing the SDS journal Radical America, being in touch with writers, frantically trying to cut corners and make it work. Forty-some years later, it’s still frantic but I still enjoy it.