Remembering the legendary author of American Splendor.
Harvey Pekar, who died this week at seventy, fancied himself a writer, and a lot of people would have called him one. I guess he was a writer — besides the American Splendor comics that finally made him famous and a cult hero, he wrote reviews of jazz records, and essays on the art of comics — but what he mainly was was a character. I don’t just mean in the "What a character!" sense of the word, either. Abetted by the many collaborators who illustrated his comics’ scripts, by the adapters who turned his material into stage plays and a successful movie, and by the magic of television, Pekar was able to turn himself into his own literary creation, an unlikely icon of enduring power and attraction.
This was not a minor accomplishment, and it may have been what Pekar, who never tired of grousing about his lust for high-toned literary respectability from the hoity-toity cultural guardians, may have unknowingly wanted all along. In one of the most memorable American Splendor stories, Harvey’s been feeling used and unappreciated because a big write-up of his work in The Village Voice didn’t get him nothin’. He then meets Wallace Shawn, around the time that Shawn had graduated from cult playwright and son of the editor of The New Yorker to art-house movie star thanks to My Dinner with Andre, and is shocked to learn that Shawn is barely scraping by himself. He’d been planning to leverage his new friend’s fame, and had never considered the possibility that being the toast of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section might not automatically solve all your problems.
I remember reading an article about Pekar in 1983 — in The Village Voice, as it happens — and sending away for all the issues of American Splendor that were still available. They came a few weeks later and I read them all in one gulp, but the "story" that made the biggest impact on me was the one that began with Harvey waking up on a cold morning, alone in bed between marriages, thinking about how much his life sucked, consoling himself a little by masturbating, picking out which of his worn-out, sorry-looking duds he was going to wear, getting dressed, and going to work, his actions accompanied by one pissed-off thought balloon after another. That was Pekar making, as bluntly as possible, the point that he was put on earth to make. It was the same point that Arthur Miller once managed to inflate to cosmic proportions by reducing it to four simple words: attention must be paid.
One way that he got that attention was through a deliberate clash between his content and the common perceptions about his medium. True, by the time that Pekar self-published the first issue of American Splendor in 1976 (with a banner on the cover reading "Big Bicentennial Issue," over an image of Harvey and a couple of other schlubs boring each other while sitting on a stoop), it had been well-established that comics could be about more than superheroes and talking ducks. And Harvey didn’t invent autobiographical comics. But previous autobiographical cartoonists, like Robert Crumb, were grappling with powerful obsessions and neurotic issues. By contrast, Pekar was out to make you care that there was an intelligent, resilient guy holding down a civil service job in Cleveland, diligently collecting jazz records and wishing that he could get a little more personal satisfaction out of his life. Cartoonists such as Crumb and Gilbert Shelton created satirical, sometimes mock-glamorous alter egos through whom they addressed the reader directly, but with Pekar, what you saw was what you got. He wanted full credit for the insights and information you got out of his comics, and if they just bored you silly, he wanted full credit for that, too.
They say it’s not what you know but who you know, and by some miraculous circumstance, Pekar happened to know Crumb, the greatest cartoonist of his generation. It was Crumb’s participation — he appeared on the cover of the first issue as a sort of underground seal of approval, and continued to contribute work to every issue of American Splendor until Pekar’s reputation was secured — that guaranteed his friend’s labor of love wasn’t going to slip completely between the cracks. Once Pekar had the clout to recruit illustrators himself, though, he seemed awfully inclined to have his work drawn by artists such as Gary Dumm and Joe Zabel, fellow Clevelanders with naturalistic styles who could be trusted to bring nothing in the way of impressionistic or eccentric personal touches to his scripts. As a writer, Pekar was a Dreiserian son of the soil, and he may have been overly inclined to see meticulous "realism" as the key to artistic greatness. Crumb has said of his own artistic breakthrough that he experienced a kind of "explosion" fueled by LSD and personal and professional desperation. For all his ranting and bitching in print, there was never any explosive feeling about Pekar’s work. He was any honorable slogger, advancing up the mountain slowing by the time-honored method of putting one foot in front of the other, then repeating.
It would have been out of character for someone who so doggedly identified himself as a prole to have done it any other way. His harping on class was an important part of his identity, and he wasn’t about to betray it. The first book collection of American Splendor, a trade paperback by Doubleday, had a cover drawing (by Crumb) of Pekar, appearing as a guest on a TV talk show, looking as if he’d just gotten dressed to go out in search of a working toilet. (That book is probably a collector’s item now, though I think the best book-length sampler of Pekar’s work is The New American Splendor Anthology) The joke wasn’t just that Pekar might become even a minor TV celebrity, but that he could become one on his own terms, without cleaning up for the powers that be. Ironically, Pekar’s publicity tour for the book led to several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the late ’80s, essentially an attempt to draft him into Letterman’s wacky collection of recurring cranks and oddballs. This ended with Pekar, in a fit of authenticity, asserting his control over his own persona and royally pissing off his host, even committing the ultimate sacrilege by expressing doubts about whether it was worth his time to be on TV.
To the reality-TV celebrities — from the cast of The Hills to Sarah Palin — who take the public’s fascination as their due, Pekar would seem like a survivor of a distant alien race, for one thing because of how hard he worked for his own degree of fame. The early issues of American Splendor are full of worries about money, but unless it was absolutely central to the story, they contain little about the non-financial cost to a working stiff of assembling, publishing, and distributing of his own annual publication. After two divorces, when Pekar found the marriage that would last to the end of his life, it was to someone who at last was drawn to him because of his work, not in spite of it.
Joyce Brabner, whose marriage to Pekar enabled the makers of the American Splendor movie to shape it as a love story, had been a community political activist who would apply her P.R. skills to promoting her husband’s work. Brabner may have influenced her husband in a certain reshaping of his priorities, as well as in the outlines of his public persona, which as he got older grew less threatening — more the lovably crusty old dear from the back room of Curmudgeons ‘R Us. But if Pekar’s sharper edges got a little soft and fuzzy, he never entirely succumbed to cultural respectability, and good for him. Beginning with the 2003 "Unsung Hero" issue of American Splendor, he spent more and more his last years writing about and adapting the work of other people, and I’d like to think there’s a kind of grace note in that. It’s gratifying to think that, after so many years and so many pages, Harvey Pekar finally ran out of things to tell us about himself.