Cleveland gave us the comic book as we know it. After all, it was in that industrial town on the lake that two scruffy kids who’d immersed themselves in the pulps, sci-fi and proto-superheroes of the Depression created Superman. From nothing and everything their creation emerged, incorporating every book and comic and movie Siegel and Shuster had read or seen.
The history is well known: superheroes flourished, then floundered, only to be reborn in the 1960s with new sensibilities, neuroses and attitudes. Comic readers, influenced by the shifting culture all around them, sought new things from their funny books. Underground comix came onto the scene and the idea of comics as solely a fantastic medium began to slowly erode. As sex, drugs and rock and roll permeated culture, many comics followed suit.
When superheroes’ monopoly on the art form began to wane, Cleveland again played a significant role. Instead of the starry-eyed idealism of Superman, readers of the 1970s were treated to American Splendor, the comic chronicle of writer Harvey Pekar’s ordinary existence.
Pekar’s star has shone brighter in the last couple of years. The film version of his long-running comic garnered much acclaim and brought renewed attention—not to mention new readers—to his work. But Pekar has little in common with his superhero fellow Clevelander. Pekar is the anti-Superman—not quite Bizarro, but reversed, dimmed. Truth, justice and the American Way are replaced in Pekar’s work with Anger, Frustration and Get the hell outta my way!
Emerging back into the limelight has created new opportunities for Pekar the comics writer. Vertigo’s The Quitter is his latest autobiographical collaboration with artist Dean Haspiel, a story that offers insight into a lifetime of always quitting but never giving up.
Much of Pekar’s work—now entering its 30th year—chronicles the ordinary events in his life with an effortless poignance, creating the connection between writer and reader that’s crucial to any autobiographical work.
One doesn’t necessarily get to know Pekar from his work, but he almost always evokes memories of someone you know, even if that person is yourself. He’s a worrier, a pessimist, the Grinch on Christmas and the eternal cynic inside us all.
The Quitter follows the formula of American Splendor—the author narrates his story staring out directly at the reader, glaring, slouched, hands in his pockets. This lends the story a sense of intimacy. Haspiel depicts the narrator as gruff and confrontational, making the narration seem more like an uncomfortable conversation that begins and ends each time the book is opened.
Here Pekar covers his early years on the streets of Cleveland—we see “our man” in high school, working sad sack jobs, fighting with neighborhood kids and his parents. Through it all, Pekar fulfills the book’s title—he quits jobs, sports and school over and over again in fits of anger and depression.
His reasoning is twofold: he’s always under appreciated and out of his league. He quits the football team because the coach won’t play him, despite an obvious talent. He drops out of school because he’s afraid he’ll screw up a difficult class. Pekar is confident in his skills, but only to a point, and he’s always afraid of falling on his face and looking like a jerk. This is the main crux of Pekar, at least as he depicts himself—he’s pissed because people don’t recognize his talents, but he doesn’t seem to believe he’s that talented at anything.
This back and forth beats at the center of the book and provides the propulsion to drive the narrative. It works for the story as a whole, but at times lacks the tension to keep the separate episodes engaging. At times the story reads like a laundry list of let downs, but the combination of Haspiel’s impeccable art and tight narrative focus rein in Pekar’s frustration.
Throughout the book our man feels as if there’s some external force working against him (his parents, society, etc.) but also manages to point the finger at himself in agreement. “I had to go screw it up,” he says after every false start at a new career.
This makes The Quitter a frustrating read. Even the most jaded cynic looks optimistic next to Pekar. One is almost tempted to scream at the page, “Relax! Things will be fine!” before realizing maybe Pekar’s onto something. After a book’s worth of complaining and putting himself down, Pekar ends his story more popular than ever. The success of American Splendor has afforded him a wider audience, additional outlets for his creativity and, most importantly to him, more money to support his family. Though writing comics has hardly been a cash cow for our man, it’s provided him with one of the few things in life he’s managed not to quit, and that has to count for something.
This isn’t as engaging as some of Pekar’s previous work, but it’s still a compelling read. Pekar’s insight into his own problems and neuroses provide us with new ways of looking at our own. Maybe it’s the long life he’s lived, or maybe there’s something in the water in Cleveland, but Pekar has a way of making the ordinary seem extraordinary, like Siegel and Shuster in reverse. The Quitter is a sprawling, touching and sometimes irritating work of a man whose made much of his life an open book. Here’s hoping he doesn’t close it any time soon.