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Food for Thought

Pekaresque Adventures

Tim Madigan on aesthetics and identity in American Splendor.

“Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” Harvey Pekar

When considering the ontological status of the comic book, it was once natural to think of superheroes battling all-powerful villains; Archie and Jughead battling wits with Principal Weatherbee; or Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig battling Elmer J. Fudd in the forest: in short, the assumption was that comic books were kids’ stuff, and not to be taken seriously by world-weary adults. Much has changed in the last 20 or so years, with the rise of the graphic novel, but many of these – including such seminal works as Frank Miller’s T he Dark Knight, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Ed Kramer and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – still deal with superheroes, albeit in complex and ethically-shaded ways. But while the comic book has primarily dwelt in the world of fantasy, there has always been a strong regard for realism as well, detailing the everyday adventures of ordinary individuals. Examples can be found in the works of Will Eisner, Milton Caniff and Frank King. This realistic strain is perhaps best exemplified today by Harvey Pekar’s magnum opus, American Splendor.

Best known now for the film version from 2003, American Splendor began in 1976 as a self-published yearly comic detailing Pekar’s life as a file clerk at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. It is a chronicle of his life: his boyhood, growing up as a ‘greaser’ in the fifties (although the term was not then in vogue); his varied relationships with women, and his eventual marriages (he’s been wed three times and each wife puts in an appearance in Splendor issues); his reflections on politics, literature, jazz, work, and life in general. Pekar is a down-to-earth guy who tries to record things as they really happened. He is reflective without being preachy. In his story ‘Rip-Off Chick’, for instance, he tells of his on-again, off-again relationship with a woman he describes as being “basically a worthless person” then adds “Dig me, casting stones.”

One cannot accuse Pekar of pandering to his audience. He does nothing to spruce up the often grim realities of his day-to-day existence. Many of the stories deal with his money woes, his anxieties about growing old, his health issues (including several b outs with cancer), and his tendency to say the wrong thing at inopportune moments. Splendor stories like ‘Old Cars and Winter’, ‘More Stories About Old People and Hospitals’ and ‘The Big Divorce Issue’ (with its memorable cover, showing Harvey plaintively asking his soon-to-be-ex ‘You’re dumpin’ me? Why? What’d I Do?’) are hardly likely to appeal to comic book buyers who are more accustomed to seeing covers with Spiderman battling Doctor Octopus or Betty and Veronica fighting over who gets to date Archie that Saturday.

Yet for all their apparent harshness, one can’t help but admire Pekar’s attempts to show life as it really is: for the most part unglamorous, often tedious, but nonetheless worth living. His stories remind me time and again of Samuel Beckett’s famous words “I can’t go on/I’ll go on.” It is the meaningfulness of simple pleasures which really come across in these tales. In one of them, Harvey, who portrays himself as a diehard cheapskate, comes across a secondhand store which sells good shoes for fifty cents a pair. He’s in heaven!

Pekar has a fine ear for dialogue, and some of the best stories in American Splendor involve his interactions with members of the working class – a part of society which is all too seldom dealt with in literature, let alone the specialized area of comic books. Thus he expands the comic book field, showing what it is capable of doing and pointing out new horizons for fellow authors and artists. The comic book can detail a credible, realistic story without resorting to the hero having to attain mystical powers or supernatural strength (and Pekar is a hero in these tales). Pekar’s honesty, his eye for detail and his sympathy for the human condition places him in the same category as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, George Ade (a particular favorite of his) and Henry Miller. And the fact that it is by no means ridiculous to place a comic book author in such ranks is due entirely to the quality and integrity of American Splendor.

Much praise is also due to the various artists. The stories are all collaborative efforts. Pekar works closely with the men and women who depict his autobiographical texts through their artwork. Probably the best-known of these is Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and other famed underground comics (and recently the creator of a comic rendition of the book of Genesis!). The two first met in Cleveland in the 1960s, and it was Crumb’s wild visions of a nervous, bug-eyed Pekar that first gave Splendor its prominence.

It is interesting to compare how the various artists portray Pekar and his world: in some of the stories he appears quite handsome, resembling a slightly manic Ben Gazzara; while in others, particularly those drawn by Crumb, his appearance is more akin to a raving lunatic. In most he is much like the schlubby Everyman so ably portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film version. The movie nicely demonstrates this when Joyce Brabner, later to become Harvey’s third wife, wonders which, if any, of the artistic renditions she’s seen will most capture the flesh-and-blood version she’s soon to meet for the first time.

I first met Harvey back in 1985. At the time I was a graduate student in philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As a child I had been a big comic book fan, but had long since put them aside and felt I had given up such childish things for good. My friend Craig Fischer, then a graduate student in English at the same institution, convinced me that comics were worth reconsidering, and that several important works were expanding the field in ways previously unimaginable. We wondered at the intricacies and unexpected twists of the Watchmen series, and the dark and disturbing variations on the Batman story which Frank Miller was coming up with in The Dark Knight. But while I admired these works, as mentioned earlier, they were still essentially superhero stories. However, when Craig showed me American Splendor, I was persuaded that the comic book world could indeed develop narratives in a more mundane but equally exciting way. How could someone growing up in Buffalo, New York not love a work that dealt with stories about old cars not starting on a winter’s day? That was something I could truly relate to, and something I’d never before seen in a comic book.

Craig and I took several pilgrimages to Cleveland to meet the master. I well remember the first occasion, where we burst into his apartment crammed wall-to-wall with LPs and books, holding up a six pack of beer and offering to take him out to get an order of chicken wings. We were shocked when he told us he neither drank alcohol nor ate meat. Thus were our preconceptions shattered. He also told us that he had been invited to appear on Late Night With David Letterman. This seemed to us a great opportunity to alert the world to his work, but Pekar astutely said that the only reason he’d been asked to come on was to make fun of him, and that instead he was going to aggressively attack Letterman. It seemed to me that this was exactly the wrong thing to do, and I can well remember watching the first appearance of Pekar on the Letterman show with fear and trembling. His strategy, it turned out, was spot on: it was so unexpected, and so entertaining, that he appeared sev eral more times. This itself became grist for the American Splendor mill, and led to some memorable television experiences.

What I have most learned through both reading American Splendor and getting to know its author is that life is far more complicated than one can imagine, and that the simplest events can have unexpected profundities – something which James Joyce referred to as ‘epiphanies’. As the comic book and the movie based upon it ably show, Pekar’s everyday life has been totally unpredictable; but then so are all our lives. One of the constant themes of the work is personal identity: who is ‘Harvey Pekar’? One facet of the man I have come to know is seldom dealt with in the stories: he’s an intense reader with an interest in such avant-garde novelists as Edouard Dujardin, Andrei Bely, Flann O’Brien and Dubravka Ugrešić. This deep intellectual side might be more difficult to depict graphically than the cantankerous guy impatiently caught behind an old lady at a supermarket or the obsessive collector of jazz albums or the angry author dealing with his various editors, but it is one more piece of the total person.

There are many levels to Pekar’s personality which go far beyond those captured by his work – as he himself is quite conscious of, and as is witnessed in the story called ‘The Harvey Pekar Name Story’ (well depicted in the film). In it, Pekar reflects on the fact that for many years there was another Harvey Pekar listed in the Cleveland phone book, who he was not related to or connected with in any way. Soon a third with the same name appeared, the son of the other Harvey Pekar. For years he wondered who they were and what they did, but never followed this up. Then both of the other Harvey Pekars died in the space of six months. “Although I’d met neither man, I was filled with sadness. ‘What were they like?’ I thought. It seemed that our lives had been linked in some indefinable way.” He is nonplused to see, a few years later, yet another Harvey Pekar listed in the directory. “What kind of people are these? Where do they come from, what do they do? What’s in a name?” he reflects. And then he asked the ultimate philosophical question: “Who is Harvey Pekar?”, followed by a panel masterfully drawn by Crumb, of our Harvey Pekar reflecting wordlessly upon this.

I met up with Pekar recently and asked him to reflect upon his work. He said: “I read comics as a kid, from around the age of six to eleven, but by eleven I found I could predict the plot. I stopped reading them then. In 1962 Robert Crumb moved to Cleveland. I saw his stuff and was blown away. The underground movement that Crumb was involved with was important, but it left too much out. There never was a realistic movement in comics. There was this huge gaping hole that to me was obvious. I thought ‘Shit man I should do this before someone else does it.’ I’ll at least be a footnote in history.” Impetus enough for starting a comic book with his own life at the center.

After a few years’ hiatus, American Splendor is once again being published. One can continue to follow the slings and arrows of Harvey Pekar’s existence, and thereby come to better appreciate the turns in one’s own life. It’s difficult not to feel empathetic with such a ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ kind of guy. Harvey Pekar – file clerk, jazz critic, urban dweller, movie star and author – is an authentic working class hero, even if he can’t leap buildings in a single bound.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2009

Tim Madigan’s greatest regret in life is that he has never appeared as a character in American Splendor.

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