American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (5/5)
“Cleveland: You’ve Got to Be Tough”: this unofficial slogan of that industrial city off the shores of Lake Erie was smattered across t-shirts in the 1970s. In the following decades a lot has changed, but the one thing that has remained constant is our perpetual underdog status. Our sports teams don’t win championships and even several decades removed from the collapse of America’s industrial engine, we’re still the butt of jokes. But that’s not to say that we don’t take pride in the city. Fully expecting to lose, every year plenty of Cleveland sports fans crowd into the Jake or the Browns Stadium. We also have our share of famous artists from the region that we like to name check from time to time, from Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison to Oscar winner Trent Reznor. But perhaps no single artist better epitomizes the city than indie cartoonist Harvey Pekar.
Harvey Pekar was a lifelong resident of Cleveland. As recounted in the collection American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, he first became interested in the medium of comic books after striking up a friendship with underground cartoonist, and occasional greeting card artist, R. Crumb. But unlike Crumb and other underground comic book artists who found their way to the one of the coasts where they found a reasonable amount of recognition, Pekar remained in Cleveland his entire life, toiling away as a file clerk in a local VA hospital while managing to pump out a series of often understated, always brilliant autobiographical comic shorts.
In some sense, Pekar is Cleveland and Cleveland is Pekar. Much like his home city, Pekar is a perpetual goat, slogging through the years and struggling to maintain a grip on himself. Most of the comics written for American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar were published in the 1970s and 80s, a time when the wide open possibilities found in the 60s counterculture were beginning to collapse. Likewise, Cleveland’s economy, which had once helped fuel the postwar boom, had capsized.
So we often find Pekar pontificating on the different racial factions of Cleveland and the rise to power of conservatives following civil rights. In one particularly affecting comic, Pekar relates the story of Emil, a European immigrant who worked in Cleveland’s steel mills. Emil begins his time in Cleveland as a union radical, but as white flight and economic depression take over the city, his attitudes change displaced by a racist view of the white and black culture clash of the 70s. Pekar of course sees Emil’s views on race as absurd and more than a little naïve. Emil doesn’t seem to realize the sort of racial tension that have built up in the African-American community over segregation and discrimination. But he tells Emil’s story empathetically as a missed chance for shared understanding. In a later story, “Jury Duty,” Pekar recounts his experience being chosen for everyone’s least favorite civic duty. He finds himself being co-opted by an out of control judicial system that overlooks crimes of the wealthy and powerful while judges have become increasingly draconian on the poor and powerless. Pekar decides that he cannot be a part of this out of balance system and stymies the judge and prosecution by telling them that he wouldn’t feel right determining someone’s guilt when he has no control over what punishment is dished out. In these moments his life as a sixties radical peeks through the grey of oil shortages and Reaganomics.
But Pekar isn’t normally cited for his views on large socio-economic issues. He is instead well known for looking at the quotidian aspects of life that seem to be constantly nipping at his heels. Pekar’s narratives often eschew the traditional structure of the short story, which are often comprised of three acts, a climax, and a denouement. Some of his shorter works, which are usually around a page or two, consist of mundane small talk heard on the bus or around the office. He might take on the subject of the punishingly long hours of a weekend with nothing to do where he dreads work on Monday morning but still cannot stand the lost time of the weekend. Mundane trips to the grocery store or helping a friend move can sometimes transform into a meditation on art and commerce or an existentialist crisis. Or these trips might just include a wry observation or two. Pekar feels no need to provide a clear justification for why these narratives exist. Instead, many of them feel as if they are little moments cut from a much larger reel of his life. And when a stray observation is used to tie up the end of the narrative, it’s thrown out there as nothing more than a possibility, as if Pekar is telling us, “This might be the moral of the story. Take it or leave it.”
Because of its everyday subject matter and occasional pontifications, the arc of Pekar’s work is impossible to parse with just one or two comics. These larger collections of American Splendor, then, are an ideal format for really digging into Pekar’s work, and The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar is an especially helpful starting point. While the American Splendor series consistently returns to subjects that directly affect Pekar’s life, the comics gets a lot of mileage out of these limited topics, and often his own life becomes merely a jumping off point for a whole host of issues. Pekar himself is not an artist, and has had to rely on wrangling others to illustrate his work. This has actually helped bring out the many facets of American Splendor in a way that a single artist would be insufficient. And each artist seems better suited to different aspects of Pekar’s work. R. Crumb, perhaps his most famous collaborator, brings out Pekar’s interest in racial, linguistic and cultural difference among the disparate ethnic groups of Cleveland, from Jews, African-Americans, Eastern Europeans, and Italians. Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm do a fantastic job of illustrating the nooks and crannies of urban life in Cleveland. Gerry Shamray, perhaps my favorite artist in the collection, delves into Pekar’s mental state, portraying a man at odds with himself, a man who is capable of great insight while at the same time unable to fully clamp down on his emotional distress.
And it’s this contradictory nature of Pekar that makes him a fascinating subject, despite the fact that he lacks the obvious trauma or grand life narrative that characterizes most memoirs and autobiographies. Pekar often pits his words and images against one another. In one story, “Ripoff Chick,” he describes a frustrating courtship of a somewhat daffy girl who’s unselfconsciously new age. While Pekar’s actions towards this woman are often troubling and always hilarious, he’s increasingly critical of his own behavior. Pekar freely admits that his disdain for this woman is at odds with his goals of, essentially, making his way into her pants. And so this split between Pekar the desperate curmudgeon barely containing his rage and disdain towards others brushes up against his exacting critical eye. This contradiction is easy to relate to. We aren’t all word boxes floating above our lives commenting on the world, just as we are not brains disconnected from our bodies. Instead, in our daily lives we are a bundle of emotions and energy that we sometimes have little control over. It is only in reflection that we can maintain a measure of repose. It is to Pekar’s credit that he puts himself in the crosshairs, dissecting not only those around him but his own anxieties as well.
But what is arguably the greatest achievement of Pekar’s work can be found in his somewhat ironic title. Most artistic works that use “American” in their title, or merely take on the mantle of an essentialized American experience, play in the arena of the upper middle class. Think American Beauty or American Pastoral, or even works by authors like Jonathan Franzen or John Updike. As a college dropout who purposefully chooses a tedious day job so that he can actually own his free time, Pekar does not easily fit into the normalized view of who the “idealized” American is. Instead, Pekar undercuts the totalizing effect of American as an adjective by linking it to his largely idiosyncratic life that, paradoxically, ties into experiences shared by many in the United States but are largely invisible in American art. And that’s the genius of Pekar’s work. The mundane, individualized aspects of Pekar’s art feed into universal existentialist questions that we all must confront. Somewhere between Anton Chekov and Jerry Seinfeld lies Harvey Pekar. And the world is much better for his having lived in it.