Studs Terkel’s classic account of the life of a migrant Mexican farm worker has been converted into a highly original comic format
Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation
Adapted by Harvey Pekar, Edited by
2009, The New Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
SIMPLE yet brilliant ideas often come from nowhere, just like the migrant workers from Mexico and Central America who descend on the fields of the southern US whenever they are required but whose ethereal existence means that their human condition is not recognised.
Harvey Pekar’s adaptation of a celebrated work of oral history into a comic book format that captures the “daily humiliations” of working life, particularly in the case of the migrant Mexican farm worker, Roberto Acuna, is a case in point.
The Mexican’s tale is transformed in this graphic format by Dylan Miner’s illustrations into a riveting account of the seasonal cycle that migrant workers and their entire families followed from California to Arizona. Its very inclusion in this volume was significant, providing a recognition that Mexican migrant labourers were rarely afforded. They were everywhere, yet they were nowhere. Needed, but not wanted.
Working, Studs Terkel’s bestselling effort to document the hopes and dreams of people in America doing what they do best was first published in 1974 to significant acclaim, appropriately subtitled People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
Terkel, a noted historian and broadcaster, explored the working lives of people in all walks and this and others of his books fitted into a rich tradition of oral history in the US. In his introduction to this volume, editor Paul Buhle provides a short but valuable summary of the evolution of oral history in the country. Working, now regarded as a classic, is a series of nine sections or “books” that take the reader through categories of working life beginning with labour on the land.
Book One included Acuna’s story, which gives the reader valuable insights into the advantages of being employed – but also the heartbreaking mistreatment his family received at the hands of the Anglo landowners. It represents an important statement about how Mexican immigrants fared in a society that was built on their labour but refused to acknowledge them. Acuna tells of how his mother was broken by the ceaseless toil of a lifetime picking crops, her humiliation at the hands of the growers, and the bullying he was subjected to. He recounts:
“I’d go to school barefoot. The bad thing was they used to laugh at us, the Anglo kids. They would laugh because we’d bring tortillas and frijoles to lunch. They would have their nice little compact lunch boxes with cold milk in their thermos and they’d laugh at us because all we had were dried tortillas… They wanted us to speak English in the school classes. We’d put out a real effort. I would get into a lot of fights because I spoke Spanish and they couldn’t understand it. I was punished. I was kept after school for not speaking English.” [p. 13]
Terkel’s own comments on the nature of work reproduced at the beginning of this adaptation capture well the underlying spirit of Acuna’s account and the objective of the book, and to this day must stand as one of the great statements about wage slavery. He writes:
“This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” [p. xiii]
Before this graphic version, Working had already been transformed into a musical on Broadway in 1978, which was telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1982, and had inspired a companion volume 30 years later, Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. It is refreshing that this graphic adaptation has been published by The New Press, a brilliant not-for-profit publishing house operated in the public interest that was established in 1990 as an alternative to the big, commercial publishers.
The contribution of Pekar, whose autobiographical American Splendor comic series was transformed into a memorable movie in 2003, has been to bring to this adaptation the insights into drudgery gained from a blue-collar lifetime as a filing clerk in the ageing neighborhoods of his native Cleveland.
Like Terkel, Pekar has sharpened his critical edge as a writer with his interest in documenting the daily struggles of ordinary people. In a country hypnotised by superficial images of success, perfection and conformism, this makes him a radical who mines a rich egalitarian seam distinguishing the creative independents from the corrosive corporates. Just as Terkel was once blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, Pekar’s confrontational style and vociferous criticisms of General Electric led to him being banned as a guest on the Late Night with David Letterman show.
In characteristically blunt style, Pekar prefaces the volume with comments that attest to his admiration for Terkel’s simple task and recapture the philosophy of the great man, who died just last year:
“I was especially pleased to work on this project because Studs Terkel puts a great deal of emphasis, as I do, in writing about quotidian life… But just because one writes about everyday life doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting: in fact, I find it’s most fascinating, because it is so seldom written about. Virtually every person is potentially a great subject for a novel or a biography or a film. Bravo to Terkel for documenting these fascinating lives.” [p. xi]
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books