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Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation

Harvey Pekar

(New Press; US: Apr 2009)

Studs Terkel helped establish oral history as a popular literary form: with his radio show on Chicago’s WFMT and his many books, he proved again and again that there was meaning, even poetry, to be found in the most ordinary of lives lived by the most ordinary of people. Now selections from his 1978 bestseller Working, aptly subtitled People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is available in a graphic adaptation by Harvey Pekar and 16 artists which successfully illustrates the voices of Terkel’s workers while providing new layers of meaning through the artist’s interpretations of the stories.


Pekar is the logical choice to adapt Terkel’s book, since his original work largely deals with the daily lives of ordinary working people: most often himself, but also friends and family including his coworker Robert McNeill. As the title of his long-running series American Splendor (1976-2008) implies, Pekar finds splendor where others might see only the daily grind of existence, and has a gift for finding the telling anecdote or quotation to illustrate a point or typify a character.


Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation presents 27 interviews with everyone from “John Fuller: Mail Carrier” to “Mario and Bob Anichini: Stone cutters” and “Brett Hauser: Supermarket box-boy”. It’s not taking anything away from Terkel’s original work to say that this volume comes across as a period piece: it’s like a time capsule from an era when most workers were male and females were relegated to a few sex-typed occupations (prostitute, waitress, nurse).


Some of the jobs represented no longer exist, or have changed vastly: imagine a proofreader for a magazine working exclusively from hard copy! Of course that is a reflection of the original publication date, and but it does mean that the characters in Working are not particularly representative of today’s workforce. Information technology is barely represented, for instance, other than by an airline reservationist complaining about a new-fangled computer reservation system.


The period atmosphere is amplified by the fact that Pekar retained stories from a goodly number of curmudgeons complaining how things aren’t what they used to be. Two hair stylists rant about how “It’s the style for young women to look like a witch on Halloween!” and “Today you have a whole society where a young man can raise a beard, wear crazy clothes, one shoe off and one shoe on—no one bothers to look at him!”, while a garbage man complains about how wasteful people are, “not like years ago, when people used everything”. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but more likely some did and some didn’t years ago, just as they do today.


On the other hand, many of the worker’s concerns are as timely today as they were in 1978. Terkel’s original preface, included in this volume, makes it clear that he believed work was oppressive for most people: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” If anything, the situation of most works is worse today than it was in the 1970s when the term outsourcing didn’t exist and many workers still enjoyed remnants of the post-World War II social compact which dictated that a fair proportion of the benefits of worker productivity should be shared with the workers rather than being skimmed off by the bosses.  Massive increases in healthcare costs have also added a new level of coercion to the worker-employer relationship, as many people endure oppressive work because it’s the only way they can get health insurance for their families.


Not surprisingly in a graphic adaptation involving 16 different artists, a variety of artistic styles are represented in Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation, adding interpretation, dimension, and context to the words. Sharon Rudahl draws eight of the interviews, drawing on Thomas Hart Benton to present the story of a varied cast of characters from “Aunt Katherine Haynes: Farm Woman” to “John Fuller: Mail Carrier”,  and “Ruth Lindstrom: Baby nurse”. Dylan A.T. Miner salutes the Mexican heritate of “Robert Acuna: Farmworker” by drawing him as a character from the Mixtec codices: the parallel between the Mixtecs, famed for resisting both Aztec and Spanish imperialism, and Acuna’s articulate description of the oppression and resistance of modern farmworkers, is entirely appropriate. Lance Took uses a jazzy collage-like style for the free spirit “Dolores Dante, Waitress”  as well as the musicians “Hots Michaels: Bar Pianist” and “Bud Freeman: Jazz musician”.


Studs Terkel has passed on and the combination of circumstances which allowed his unique style of work may never exist again: they included law and philosophy degrees from the University of Chicago, employment with the Federal Writers Project, and a long run on local radio and television in Chicago where he could develop his ideas and get paid for it at the same time. But we need an update to Working which will present the reality of the modern workplace in America: a good starting point for anyone considering that project is Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation.

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To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche; to become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Harvey Pekar was both.
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