Sunday, December 31, 2006

Harvey Pekar, "The Quitter" (2005)

Surely by now you've heard of Harvey Pekar... right? He's a lifelong inhabitant of Cleveland, OH who became "known" for his comic series American Splendor. Decades before millions of would-be writers began publishing their thoughts and documenting their lives on blogs, Pekar was setting down tales of his workaday existence in the rust belt city of his birth. He's no cartoonist... he storyboards his ideas and enlists competent atists to illustrate them. In fact his early (1960's) acquaintance with Robert Crumb paved the way for his long-term success in alt comix. Pekar got a look at the young legend's work, and was convinced that the medium had vast amounts of untapped potential. Why should comics be relegated to stories of masked superheroes? Pekar decided that the autobiographical content of a working stiff could be just as enlightening and amusing as any bllack-and -white tales of fantasy. Crumb agreed with his friend, and went on to illustrate a bunch of early issues of the American Spendor series.

In 2003 American Splendor (the film) was released. Directed by Terry Zwigoff (another of R. Crumb's social circle), the movie outlined the major events of Pekar's hard-knock life. Suddenly after several decades of toiling in near obscurity... Pekar became well-known. He had flirted with celebrity before... notoriously engaging with the host of the David Letterman show in the 1980's. These appearances were contentious, as Letterman consistently struck a patronizing tone with our working class hero. Pekar was ultimately banned from the show after ranting about NBC's parent company General Electric. For awhile he was once again cast from the limelight. Zwigoff's film, with the aid of lead man Paul Giamatti, portrayed its subject with empathy and affection... and served to humanize Pekar. I, along with many others across the country, began to discover the back catalogue of an intriguing anti-hero. The astonishing success of the movie (it won awards at Sundance and Cannes) was followed up by a rash of new work and re-released collections. I tore through back issues of Pekar's series, as well as newer work such as Our Cancer Year (1994) and Our Movie Year (2004).

I've since learned a lot about Pekar's life. To be honest, my initial thoughts were that his work was a bit slight. Yet there was something appealing about the quotidian accounts of his life, and my appreciation steadily grew. It's surprising how interesting the life of a file clerk can be. The levels of self-exposure and sincerity in his work make for a fascinating read. They help create a compelling depiction of a little-documented time and place. Most of his adult life was recorded in the American Splendor collections. We learn about his interests in Jazz and literature, and about his relationship with his wife and adopted daughter. He shares stories and observations of his co-workers and others that he interacts with. We see his struggles with money and notoriety. But as I slowly covered his entire oeuvre, I was always curious as to why he never wrote much about his childhood. This great hole in Pekar's work is finally addressed with The Quitter.

The Quitter demonstrates Pekar at the top of his form. The artist recruited for this volume (Dean Haspiel) is slightly better than the workmanlike professionals Pekar usually gets to illustrate his comics. It's fairly standard mainstream trade paperback work, but with a hint of classic melodrama- along the lines of Will Eisner. It gets the job done without compromising the quality of the writing. Pekar's coming of age turns out to be (at least) as interesting as his later life. He writes about his relationship with his immigrant family, and the scrappy approach required to make it in a tough neighborhood in decline. He also drops the inside dope on his early attempts at making a living. The title refers to the many false starts that Pekar suffered throughin his youth- college, a trip to NYC, the navy, and diverse menial jobs.

This fine work ends where American Splendor (the film) begins... at possibly the most pivotal event in Pekar's life. Harvey meets R. Crumb, and his life is irrevocable changed. With the publication of The Quitter, we no longer have to wonder about Pekar's formative years. He's no longer a complete enigma, pre-Crumb. Perhaps he needed the decades of maturation in his craft in order to give this material the attention and effort it deserves. It is certainly a fine success, and balances accounts for a great comics icon.


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