American dreams

Comics - Geoff Dyer on how the comic-strip superhero has become a metaphor for self-transformation

Michael Chabon's epic novel of the golden age of comic books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, begins with Sam Clay holding forth about the similarities between escape artists and superheroes. As far as he is concerned, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Harry Houdini in a packing crate embody the same art of metamorphosis, "of transformation".

In the past couple of years, more and more superhero comics, which are, at heart, about metamorphosis, have themselves been transformed - into movies. Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil and Hulk have been turned into films of variable quality. Thor and the Silver Surfer are presumably waiting for their big breaks. There is nothing new about the idea of adapting comics into movies, but perhaps there is a synergy between the transformations depicted in the former and the technological means that the latter now have at their disposal to make comics work on screen. Back in the 1960s, the option was either to turn the comic into a cartoon (Spider-Man) or into a sitcom-panto (Batman). In the late 1970s along came Superman who, it was enthusiastically claimed, would make us believe that a man could fly. The main effect of the film was actually somewhat less than special: it convinced us that he couldn't.

We were always conscious of a jolt as we switched - pre- and post-phone booth - between two distinct levels of representation. Digital and computerised mani-pulation, on the other hand, has dissolved the distinction between the real and the artificial. We enter an inherently elastic universe in which anything can turn into anything else without so much as a by-your-leave. Mr Fantastic, the rubbery, gizmo-obsessed leader of the Fantastic Four, resembles nothing so much as a digital effect waiting to happen.

For their part, comic-book artists have long drawn inspiration from the movies. In Chabon's novel, the work of Kavalier and Clay soars to dizzy new heights after they attend a screening of Citizen Kane. They are following the example of real-life comic-book artists who have sought to recreate the camera's endless fluidity of movement and focus, to free their medium from the staccato regimen of fixed panels. Arguably, this was taken to an extreme of aesthetic expressiveness by Jim Steranko, who used the opening pages of the first issue of Nick Fury: agent of SHIELD (June 1968) to stage an exquisitely wordless cinematic sequence featuring Fury (or at least we are led to think it is him) breaking, Bond-like, into an island citadel.

Comics, by then, were in the grip of a larger cultural metamorphosis: they had become works of art. As early as 1963, Roy Lichtenstein showed that comic panels, writ large, could hold their own in art galleries and museums. More recently, it has become clear that they also work to stunning effect on the big screen (as when Ang Lee uses panels from The Fantastic Four in The Ice Storm).

Ironically, the least likely transformation in the history of comics is ostensibly the most modest: that of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor into a minor motion picture. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, this thoroughly eccentric undertaking won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was received ecstatically by critics in the US. The opening sequence shows a bunch of kids trick-or-treating, all but one of them decked out in superhero costumes. The exception is the young Harvey Pekar, who is dressed as . . . the young Harvey Pekar. When a woman dispensing treats asks him who he is meant to be, Harvey immediately puts her straight: "I ain't no superhero, lady."

In effect, this is the gruff epigraph of the film and the comics on which it is based. The first issue appeared in 1976, a dead-pan transcript of Pekar's adult life as a file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. What we had in essence was a superhero comic without the superhero: the humdrum life of a Peter Parker minus the transition into costumed heroics. Even that is to overstate things, for although the likes of Peter Parker and Dr Don Blake (Thor) may be beset by problems - emotional, financial and, not least, questions of identity - they are all essentially middle class and college-educated. Pekar, on the other hand, is stuck with a dead-end life in a dead-end job. Instead of inventing a comic-book alter ego, he has the idea of a comic book that will simply reproduce this life more or less verbatim.

There is one slight problem: he can't draw. Fortunately he has become friendly with the underground comic artist Robert Crumb (who himself became the sub- ject of a documentary by Terry Zwigoff in 1994). Crumb agrees to illustrate Pekar's script and the result quickly gains a cult following. The first of a series of transformations is under way, all of which are embedded in the film's conception and structure. Pekar himself crops up from time to time as a grumbling guest and commentator on the various adaptations to which he is being subjected. Then we have the actors - Paul Giamatti and James Urbaniak, playing Pekar and Crumb, respectively. But we also have on-screen examples of panels from the comics which, because they have been illustrated by various artists over time, offer myriad sub-transformations of their subject. These multiple levels of representation are constantly mutating into each other. Needless to say, as things progress the comics - and the film - feed off the process of serial adaptation that they initiate and document.

The first page of Chabon's novel trumpets the way that the superhero comic is both a metaphor and a product of a mythic American ideal of self-transformation (embodied, in literature, by Gatz becoming Gatsby). Pekar, on the other hand, becomes an award-winning author and, after his grouchy appearances on David Letterman's show, a celebrity by virtue of remaining wilfully, intransigently - and heroically - himself.

All of which begs a question: how did this unexceptional life become so exceptional? Aside from the issues drawn by Crumb, much of the art is adequate, basic. The writing has nothing to distinguish it and, most surprisingly of all, American Splendor is not even funny. In short, the whole phenomenon is a mystery. This is the final, exquisite irony: that the tale of an apparently luckless life ends up embodying the parable of hope that is spread by wins on the Lottery or the Pools. Superhero comics always explain how the superhero acquired his superpowers, but these powers invariably result from an accident - as when Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider - emphasising that it could happen to anyone. In this way, even luck becomes incorporated into a democratic vision of self-transformation.

Geoff Dyer's most recent book, Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, is published by Abacus

American Splendor (15) is on release at selected cinemas nationwide