American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

The joyfully downbeat stories of everyday life penned by Cleveland, Ohio native Harvey Pekar, who died in July 2010, elevated comic books from pulp to literary fiction. Pekar portrayed himself as a world-weary curmudgeon but when I met him in 2003 he was much more than that...
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Slumped into an easy chair in the lobby of a London hotel, Harvey Pekar looked plum tuckered. He had just travelled down from the Edinburgh festival as part of a whirlwind promotional tour for American Splendor , a film adaptation of his long-running comic book of the same name. The film doubled as affectionate portrait of his life (as filtered through comics) that artfully blends documentary with fictionalised re-enactments of his stories.

Pekar was a far more unassuming figure in person than his comic book id would suggest: a tightly-wired ape of a man with an intense glare, a thinning pate of mussed-up hair and crumpled attire. Dressed in denim workpants and a shapeless white t-shirt emblazoned with a poster for the movie Comic Book Confidential, his real-life avatar seemed similarly unconcerned by appearances. Contrary to his brusque persona on the page, Pekar’s Cleveland brogue rarely raised itself above a hoarse whisper. Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s wife, constant companion and biggest fan, sat curled up on the couch next to him like a house cat. Their relationship seemed to be one of mutual support and irritation. When Brabner figured her husband wasn’t promoting himself to the best of his ability, she would cut him off mid-flow, at which Pekar rolled his eyes in exasperation and sank deeper into his chair.

Pekar was almost single-handedly responsible for transforming comic books into an adult medium. Not ‘adult’ as in the sex-obsessed playground fantasies of ‘60s underground comics, but ‘adult’ as in a literate, thinking feeling art. Pekar wrote comics for grown-ups, largely about himself: a belligerent jew and blue collar intellectual with a fervent interest in politics, literature and music.

It all started for him in 1962, when he was introduced to underground comics icon Robert Crumb through a mutual friend. They immediately bonded over a shared enthusiasm for rare and obscure jazz sides. Crumb, then a 19 year-old illustrator of cards for the American Greetings Corporation whose family had just moved to Cleveland, showed Pekar some illustrations for a project he was working on, a graphic novel called the Big Yum Yum Book that reworked Jack & The Beanstalk into a fairy tale about a yearning adolescent sexuality (Crumb was still a virgin at the time). The young artist’s work made a huge impression on Pekar and got him interested in the potential of comic books as a literary medium. Although a fervent collector comics in his youth, he had since disregarded them as a childish infatuation. “But Crumb got me thinking about doing autobiographical comics of my own,” Pekar explained, “based on mundane occurrences which, I thought, when added up could have a major impact on a person’s life.”

Pekar was a far more unassuming figure in person than his comic book id would suggest: a tightly-wired ape of a man with an intense glare, a thinning pate of mussed-up hair and crumpled attire.

Taken individually, Pekar’s stories can seem rather unremarkable. But, seen as a whole, ‘American Splendour’ provides an extraordinarily rich description of the anxieties, trials and tribulations of adult life. Typically, nothing much happens in a Harvey Pekar story. There are wry character studies of friends, neighbours, colleagues and former girlfriends (like the vengeful ‘Ripoff Chick’), observational asides told with a dry humour (the self-explanatory ‘Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In Supermarket Lines’). However there are rarely any punchlines to these conversational anecdotes; many are based on routines he first ran by friends and acquaintances as a street corner raconteur.

“I would just work up these riffs, When we were hanging around the corner,” he recalled. “And I would get such a kick out of making other people laugh that I would practically memorise these things, tell a story to five guys then run around and tell it to five other guys who hadn’t heard it yet.”

Pekar titled his comic book with the same kind of understated irony that pervades his stories, mashing a reference to the ‘All American’ superhero comics of his youth with a nod to one of his favourite movies, Splendor In The Grass.

“I figured people wouldn’t really see my life as very splendid at all,” he deadpanned. “When I started I didn’t even figure anybody would want to publish my work. So what I decided to do was quit spending my extra cash on collecting records, save it up and use it to publish a comic book. I didn’t expect to make money off it for years, if at all.”

The first person he showed his stories to was Crumb, presenting them on pages of foolscap divided into panels and crowded out with crudely-drawn stick figures, hand-scrawled dialogue and instructions to the artist:

“Crumb liked them and asked if he could take them home and illustrate them. He had never illustrated anybody else’s work before and he never did again after that. So that made me look pretty good, getting an endorsement from Crumb like that; it gave me instant recognition.”

He published annual editions of American Splendor from 1976 on, apart from the period following a diagnois of cancer in 1990. During his treatment and recovery, Pekar and Brabner (and artist Frank Stack) collaborated on Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel about their personal ordeals set against the backdrop of a country readying itself for war in the Gulf. The book won several national book awards but the critical lauds never translated into commercial success. Even a rash of appearances on the David Letterman Show in the 1980s, as an irascible comic foil to the host (that turned Pekar into an unwilling national celebrity) had failed to stimulate sales. But Pekar persevered, self-publishing his project up until his illness, at which time he passed the reins over to an established comic book publisher.

The milieu in which Pekar wrote his stories had a tremendous impact on his writing: born, raised, and a lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio, a bleak urban environment in heart of America’s Rust Belt

American Splendor presented some fundamental problems for traditional comic book readers. Up until that point, comic books were a medium largely-concerned with escapism, Pekar grounded them firmly in reality: his reality as a working stiff employed as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital, in the rust belt city of Cleveland, Ohio. It was exactly the kind of environment that would inspire dreams , but escape wasn’t an option. Pekar was stuck there and he made sure to remind his readers that they were stuck there with him. There wasn’t any plot to speak of in his stories and the drama, where it occurred, was largely internal. But then, as Pekar explained, the antecedents for American Splendor didn’t come from comic books at all but from stand-up comedy and literature.

Pekar considered himself to be something of a literary scholar, with a particular interest in a seam of 20th century socialist Jewish-American literature (specifically that of Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs) that was also connected to the work of naturalist writers like Balzac and Zola. But he cited his most formative literary influence as James Joyce.

As the character that populated his writing, Pekar played up his kinship with the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom: the flaneur, or street-walking poet, who is an observer of the scenes and manners of city life. (Literary critic Walter Benjamin pegged the rude poetry of Baudelaire as the prototype for the flaneur, whose reckless dedication to his art provided personal fulfillment beyond the need for traditional notions of success.)

Pekar is also related to Leopold Bloom by heritage. Bloom’s father is identified in the text as a Hungarian Jew and Ulysses has been read as an allegorical novel about the emergence of Ashkenazic Jewry from Eastern Europe. Pekar’s father was an orthodox Talmudic scholar who habitually played selections from his collection of Jewish cantorial records every night before going to bed; his mother was a staunch communist who sent her nine-year old son out to canvas for Henry Wallace’s ill-fated 1948 presidential campaign. Together, they ran a Mom & Pop grocery story in Cleveland, Ohio.

The milieu in which Pekar wrote his stories had a tremendous impact on his writing: born, raised, and a lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio, a bleak urban environment in heart of America’s Rust Belt that seemed to be suffering from terminal depression through loss of heavy industry post-WWII. Cleveland is to Pekar’s American Splendor what Dublin is to Joyce’s Ulysses.

Pekar also owes elements of his literary style to Joyce, who cited a turn of the century French art critic called Eduoard Dujardin as inspiration for his use of the ‘internal monologue’ in Ulysses. Dujardin’s novel Les Lauriers Sont Coupés (translated into English as We’ll To The Woods No More) is usually-acknowledged as one of the first fully-realised examples of stream-of-consciousness literature that suspended the reader in the consciousness of a single character. Dujardin claimed to have been inspired by Wagner, translating the musical leitmotifs of his operas into a literary device to emphasise mood and character.

The musical idiom that touched Pekar’s ear was jazz. His first foray as a writer was as a jazz critic for Down Beat magazine in the 1960s. “Because he’s been this phenomenal jazz critic and writes so much about music, he’s got this tremendous ear for dialect,” says Brabner interjects. “He treats lanuage as music. And so he will start giving back the way in which that he hears.”

“I’ve had a lot of discouraging encounters with magazine and newspaper editors over the years, especially when I run across an editor who is a pretty lightweight guy, who’s just looking for something that will conform to a house style.”

Pekar’s dialogue rings with the improvisation of everyday life incorporating overheard conversations that capture the nuances of regional dialogue and dialect. In particular, Pekar was a huge fan of Cleveland-born free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, who purported to channel the feelings of the ghetto through the uninhibited squall of his tenor sax. Ayler appears as a topic of conversation in one of Pekar’s most popular stories, a two-pager illustrated by Crumb called ‘Ridin’ The Dog’ in which the writer found himself on a Greyhound bus with Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

“I was actually writing an article about them for a Canadian publication so I walked up and down the aisles and talked to them. The stuff that Sun Ra told me was strictly accurate, believe me. I asked him what he thought about Albert Ayler and he said, ‘[Ayler] thought he could play with white people.’ He went on to tell me about how they found Albert Ayler’s body floating in the East River, as if he’d still be around if he had listened to Sun Ra.”

Pekar’s in-depth of knowledge of jazz allowed him to mix it up with the musicians on their level, but his passion for his subject matter often caused personality clashes with editors. “I’ve had a lot of discouraging encounters with magazine and newspaper editors over the years, especially when I run across an editor who is a pretty lightweight guy, who’s just looking for something that will conform to a house style.”

In one 1983 story, ‘American Splendor Assaults The Media’, he vents his spleen over the futility of the power politics that conspire to make the freelancer’s life so difficult. But the truth is that ‘American Splendor’ allowed him both the luxury of being his own editor and the largesse to critique others (as well as himself) with impunity. Pekar’s stories often contained endless ruminations on his own behaviour. But it was a trio of stories published in 1978 beginning with “Awakening To The Terror Of A New Day” that established the theme that seemed to define Pekar’s character on the page, as well as his life: the working joe riven by existential angst.

“I wrote those when I was going through some pretty discouraging times,” he mused, “and, because they were autobiographical, they reflected my mood. But I got through, kept on going and I just dealt with life as it came to me.”

And it’s just as well he did, for what Pekar left behind represents an extraordinary and unique chronicle of an exceedingly ordinary life.

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