A graphic adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working seems like such an obvious idea once someone else has put it on the market. It is the kind of project that has to make every up-and-coming comics writer wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But underground comics veteran Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and editor Paul Buhle did think of that, and the result is a brilliant reimagining of Terkel’s career-defining work.
Terkel’s Working, with the apt subtitle People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, was originally published in 1974. In it, the oral historian provided a wealth of interviews with people from all walks of life—from businessmen to athletes to a prostitute—digging into what makes the professions significant for each of them. The in-depth interviews offer insight into everything from the commonplace details of the jobs to existential ponderings.
Pekar translates these interviews to the graphic medium with help from a wealth of talented artists, while he adapts much of the writing himself. The formatting of the book remains the same. The graphic adaptation is divided into nine-subsections, or categories, with a few interviews comprising each. Every artist converts one or two interviews into several pages of comics, using verbatim interview text as dialogue to let the characters tell their stories.
The art helps the reader visualize these people and the work they do. Readers will likely gravitate to certain styles more than others, as they are all strikingly unique in this collection. For this reader, Peter Gullerud’s work on “Jack Spiegel, Organizer” is the highlight of the bunch. More so than any other artist in the collection, Gullerud envisions pages rather than panels when putting together his art. Panels connect in a very special way, giving structure to the work matching the idea of the organizer, who brings together the proverbial cogs to form a stronger unit to stand up for workers rights.
Every artist has a different approach, and it keeps things interesting throughout. It also plays into the idea of Terkel’s work. Common themes are evident throughout, but every person and every job is unique. Each person has a different story to tell, important in its own way, and the artists capture these distinctive characters.
Terkel’s work has an important place in oral history literature—it is still relevant today—and Pekar’s adaptation takes that seminal work and molds it into something both entirely fresh and true to the source material every step of the way. It offers old readers a new way to experience Working and makes it accessible to an entirely new audience. It is everything an adaptation should be.
Reviewed by William Jones on July 24, 2012