By Harvey Pekar and Heather Robinson. Illustrated by Ed Piskor
Harvey Pekar’s greatest fame might be for his wildly uncomfortable guest appearances on the Letterman show and the Paul Giamatti film based on his autobiographical graphic novels. He is also a widely published jazz critic, who has also been known to broach more political subjects (a phenomenon we cannot object to). His latest graphic novel, Macedonia co-written by Heather Robinson, is such a departure, tackling recent events in the Balkans and wider themes of war and peace.
Macedonia is in fact very polemical. It certainly proves the dramatic challenges of providing historical exposition, often thinly disguised here as dialogue. Much of this background material is lucidly written, at times challenging preconceptions about the region. Even the term “Balkan” comes under scrutiny when Pekar and Robinson point out:
“The whole idea of the Balkans is only partly geographic. When the term came about in the 1800s, it was meant to describe Ottoman holdings in Europe . . . This idea persists that once a place is Balkan, it will always be Balkan. As if the place somehow imprints on its inhabitants a genetic destiny—one of war, fragmentation, and deceit.” (p. 25)
The basic narrative of Macedonia follows Robinson as she travels through the Balkan country, collecting evidence from its recent history to support her contention that war is not inevitable. It opens with her defending her major in Peace Studies to a skeptical Poli Sci professor (presumably one of the few conservatives on faculty at Berkley). While it is entertaining to hear him refer to her department as “all ideology,” their essential argument whether war is or is not an inevitable state of humanity seems like a bit of a straw man. Most critics of peace studies and peace movements would rather argue that the human cost of peace is often greater than war, as witnessed by the crimes of National Socialism, Communism, and Islamic Fascism. At times war may very well be prevented, but at what price?
There is much Balkan history and geopolitical analysis in Macedonia. As for actual plot and character development, it may leave some readers cold. Those who only read Pekar’s music writing will not find much of interest. In one scene Robinson’s friend Delisa jams with some Skopje street musicians, complaining of their chauvinist mind-set: “If I were a guy I could have gotten the guy to play his riff and it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But instead his friend was hitting on us and he’s showing off.” (p. 83) (Even in America, women musicians sometimes face these attitudes.)
However, Robinson’s carefully selected debate question does offer some interesting analysis in her Macedonian case study. It is true that Macedonia averted a Bosnian style war, but whether this was truly a case of peaceful strategies winning out over war is open to interpretation. As Macedonia explains, there was a very real armed Albanian insurrection. While short-lived and resulting in only a handful of casualties, it did lead to the Ohrid Agreement, which addressed the grievances of the Albanian minority. One might argue that this was so a swift and decisive victory for war, there was not time for the atrocities seen elsewhere in the former-Yugoslavia.
Conversely, the horrors of Bosnia could just as easily be attributed to strategies of “peace.” The UN’s record of defending its so-called safe havens” is simply tragic. Bosnians were also disproportionately disadvantaged by the UN arms embargo, as the Serbs controlled most of the former Yugoslav army (JNA)’s arms. Although in press materials Robertson says “They name streets after Bill Clinton” in Kosovo, one doubts they have the same regard for him in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since he twice vetoed Congressional resolutions calling for an end to the embargo. The eventual cease fire did not come until Bosnia and Croatian forces turned the tide against the Serbians.
It is true that Macedonia avoided the horrors Bosnia endured, even though Pekar and Robinson admit many of the underlying tensions remain. Much of that recent history, as recounted in Macedonia is fascinating. As an actual graphic novel, it is underdeveloped. Most characters are indistinguishable from each other, merely coming into the picture to announce their name, ethnicity, and designated geopolitical lesson to impart to readers.
The strongest aspect of Macedonia is the very real affection it expresses for the actual people of the Balkans. Macedonia actually makes readers want to visit Macedonia, when Pekar and Robinson write of Macedonians:
“Everyone teased each other. Told stories, interrupted each other. I missed interruptions. . . . Here, people get so engaged. They interrupt, they gesture.” (p. 128)
Ultimately, that fondness for Macedonia and its people gives the graphic novel heart, making it readable, despite its long passages of historical background and occasional ideological excesses (of course, there this the requisite slam on Pres. Bush, obligatory to the point of being boring). There is at least food for thought and debate here, something Robinson, to her credit, welcomes several times in the graphic novel.