Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day: The Comics of Harvey Pekar

A talking head confronts the reader in a panel of American Splendor: On the Job (Dark Horse Comics, 1997). He’s a middle-aged blue collar intellectual, Semetic, vaguely analogous to Woody Allen sans glasses. “I’m Harvey Pekar. I was born in 1939 and have supported myself as a Cleveland V.A. Hospital file clerk since 1966. From 1972 on I’ve written American Splendor, an autobiographical comic book series.”

True to his word, Pekar’s funded his book through his day job — and filled it with episodes from his day job, and with passionate, sometimes fatalistic, mental excursions — while supplementing his income as a book reviewer or a jazz columnist for Down Beat. Until the mid-’90s, he annually self-published Splendor. In recent years, the title has been picked up by Dark Horse Comics, a house better known for licensed movie properties and blood-and-guts stuff like Sin City.

After reading an issue or two of American Splendor, you won’t be able to say, “Harvey, we hardly knew ye.” In fact, you’ll know him better than some of your blood relations.

Splendor primarily deals with daily reality at its most pedestrian. I’ve always guessed that the title was originally chosen either as an ironic comment by a guy in a shitty Cleveland apartment, or, more likely, as a reference to the sublimity of routine existence. (As an example, an early strip was a celebration of freshly baked bread from a neighborhood bakery.) Whether or not any given reader can personally relate to his unvarnished self-portrayal, Pekar reliably activates the shock of recognition.

We all have a private timeline; a literal or figurative scrapbook charting our life experiences. Outside of individual family archives, pop culture usually provides the soundtrack or wallpaper for most of us. Proustian sensual recall is brought about by a particular Top 40 tune or TV show theme from childhood, or from a first favorite comic book purchased from a drug store spinner rack. We’ve marked the decades by following (and discarding) a broad number of comic books, whose styles stand as chronological narrative statements.

As one of the most intimate of mass entertainment media, comics can take on intensely subjective associations during this progression. Yet, historically, comic book writing which features unadorned personal revelation has been the exception. The industry as we know it instead relies on the raw or refined pulp visions that have informed the medium since day one. (Come to think of it, wasn’t Superman also a Cleveland homeboy?) I should qualify that by noting the contributions of the independent press, which — while it doesn’t have the same commercial clout indie music or film does in relation to those respective mainstreams — thankfully exists in little pockets of barely self-supporting activity. The DIY economics of indie book publishing allows determined creators to do whatever the hell they want.

The contemporary wave of independent comic books began, roughly speaking, as sort of an Eighties butterfly hatched from the chrysalis of the Sixties/Seventies comics underground. Harvey Pekar has been chronicling his experiences since the underground era, as one of the few writers exclusively concerned with naturalistic subject matter.

Metaphoric biographical elements were used often enough as narrative springboards during that time of gonzo antiauthoritarian experimentation, as cartoonists spoke directly through their characters. But, in my opinion, a personal, literate “voice” would have been an anomaly when our hero was beginning his long career. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to point to Pekar as a major, sustained influence for the current epidemic of straight autobiography in comics form. In other words, we have him to blame for a lot of post Gen-X cartoon navel-gazing.

Pekar has always worked from an assumption that the best in writing and artwork can attain a level of expression greater than the sum of its parts. He uses a stable or artists-for-hire to illustrate his anecdotes. American Splendor has gone through several generations of artists by now, a veritable who’s who of comics illustration. Robert Crumb, Spain, and Frank Stack are only a few of his better known collaborators; each of the artists does his own version of the “Harvey” likeness. (This approach reminds me of a life drawing class I once posed for. At the end, fifteen or so different images of “me,” drawn in various shapes and mismatched angles were scattered throughout the room.) The overall effect, from story to story and book to book, is prismatic. While Pekar — as editor and publisher — allocates drawing assignments in manageable chunks to his artists, Pekar — the philosopher and storyteller — coincidentally demonstrates the complexity and multiplicity of his own character, as well as that of his supporting cast.

Pulling this off is no small thing. In From Off the Streets of Cleveland: The Life and Work of Harvey Pekar (Comics Journal #97), Donald M. Fiene points out just how unusual Pekar’s achievement is, in comics terms, considering that he surrenders the typical “consistency in character depiction…so essential to traditional comic art, (with, in one example, up to) nine different versions of the same character’s face…in one comic book. Surely this is the most prodigious violation in cartoon history of the sacred, iconic nature of the comic strip character.”

While, admittedly, I’m a sucker for cleverly structured conceptual art — in whatever medium — the real test isn’t in the set-up or presentation, it’s what the creator does form that point on. American Splendor takes us into the life and mind of this thoroughly independent cuss. He’s got a basically compassionate, poetic nature, but let’s face it: life’s conflicts and aggravations pluck at his last nerve. What with his unceasing struggle for recognition as a writer, and having to hustle to keep body and soul together under normal circumstances, let alone in the face of serious health problems…well, it gets ugly. That’s not to say there isn’t an occasional minor-keyed triumph along the way.

American Splendor‘s prosaic, often bleak, yet transcendental qualities aren’t really something I would want to try and convey to someone a step removed from the actual work. Pekar goes through the day writing down snatches of dialogue he hears in an elevator or on public transportation, or notes the idiosyncratic banter he engages in with a co-worker, to later be transposed into graphic form. Longer vintage pieces have involved mooning over love, or the lack of it, or helping a buddy move across town, lugging the crates of jazz LPs you’d expect to find in the abode of a compulsive collector. Or the story of a hellish road trip: on an overnight drive, returning to Cleveland from a visit to some out of town friends — Harvey and his wife, Joyce, suffer along every hazardous mile — while his oblivious former host sleeps through the same span of time. There’ve been a lot of these stories over the years.

Pekar’s hard-scrabble life has been an object lesson; comics impresario as social Darwinist. Pekar’s house trained, but he’s also a driven bastard. In his misspent youth, he pulled scams and rationalized them after the fact. He continues to voyeuristically exploit friends and acquaintances for the sake of his slice-of-life accounts. Plus, he’s appointed himself every overdue editor’s worst pain in the neck, though I’m not sure that that’s actually a failing. Here’s his monologue from a cover in 1990. “In the ’90s I’m gonna be harder on everybody…th’ vast inert masses ain’t buying my comics, stupid ass editors don’t wanna print my stories and articles…I gotta push more than ever, really sweat things outta people! I wish there was another way, but my fabled charm ain’t gettin’ the job done.”

As for his neuroticism, anality, kvetching and self-loathing (and, conversely, his swagger) — which I’ve observed as sometime characteristics of the descendents of Jewish immigrants (and also big components of non-Jew R. Crumb’s makeup) — well, Pekar accents that stuff deliberately. “I err on the side of making myself look bad,” he’s stated. “People are always talking about me being cheap, gloomy, inconsiderate, and having a bad temper. It would be crazy for me to whitewash myself. In that case, nobody would want to look at my stuff.”

Lest I make too much of the perils of Harvey, an American Splendor cover for 1995 shows off Pekar’s fundamental positivity — something which must have helped him through all the trials he’s encountered. Seeing a dandelion sprout through a grungy asphalt parking lot, he says, “Ah spring. And with it–the birth of hope.”

And, if you were he, you couldn’t stay sane without a keen sense of absurdity. In 1996’s American Splendor: Comic Con Comics, he’s shown manning a table at the San Diego Comic Convention when Matt Groening comes over to visit. Harvey’s sincerely glad to see Groening after several years, but he can’t keep his self-promotional reflex in check. he comes across as a pushy, though ingratiating weasel. “See, I noticed…a list of yours in a magazine of the 100 greatest people, and I was only number 96. You meet a few more people that impress ya, and I’ll fall completely off it.” Pekar would like to “solidify my position, and maybe move a few notches up,” and so asks whether there’s any way that Groening would be willing to bounce his old friend cartoonist Lynda Barry, to make room.

Pekar came into national media attention and minor fame as a recurring guest on The David Letterman Show. For all the “glamour” and exposure that it represented, it was, I’m sure, more important to him as source material for his comics than for any chance of TV stardom. The “Dave” plotline is a running obsession in Splendor, a story of open defiance and head butting. Letterman was still on NBC at the time. He saw Pekar as an eccentric, the ‘Cleveland File Clerk who Puts Out Comic Books on the Side;’ sort of a “Stupid Human Trick.” Pekar was obligingly colorful during his first visits. He and Letterman ultimately fell out over his insistence on using his air time to castigate NBC owner General Electric for its corporate malfeasance. The man’s so uncool, he rules!

What I hope to do in writing this is to call attention to some of the most powerful issues in the Splendor oeuvre; as it happens, they’re among Pekar’s recent output. These include:

The full-length graphic novel Our Cancer Year (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994)was co-authored by Pekar and wife Joyce Brabner, and drawn by Frank Stack. This tightly-focused narrative is as monstrous and heavy as comics get. And it’s all the more appalling and affirming for being a true account of Pekar’s 1990 bout with cancer. As Our Cancer Year goes on for eleven chapters, there’ll be no attempt to recount it here. Suffice it to say that one man’s struggle is put into universal context.

Frank Stack, Splendor‘s frequent artistic contributor nowadays, is perhaps the most acute of Harvey’s legions of interpreters. Stack — a professor of art at the University of Missouri — is a legend of the underground himself, since his early days at the University of Texas at Austin, when he went by the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon to avoid being lynched for his comic The Adventures of Jesus. He uses a Matisse-like pen and brush technique, honing moody tonalities and textures for pages that are so reliant on dialogue that they might otherwise be static.

In Our Cancer Year, at some point during Pekar’s wretched chemotherapy treatments, he all but blacks out under the influence of psychoactive drugs. Brabner is unable to rouse him, even with violence. He thinks, “I keep blinking in and out of consciousness. Who am I?” A balloon with the American Splendor logo appears to him. He goes to his wife, already frazzled and beside herself, and asks, “Tell me the truth. Am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book called American Splendor?..or am I just a character in that book?”

The theme of identity in the face of disability is carried through in American Splendor: TransAtlantic Comics (Dark Horse, 1998). One typical weekend, he wakes, plagued with his own worries and foul thoughts, “What do I have to do today? What do I have to worry about?” And, “Well, I gotta keep goin’, if only to distract myself from thinkin’ about dying.” He receives a thick, intriguing package from England. It’s a lengthy letter from Colin Warneford. “Dear Harvey, this may (or may not) be the first letter you’ve received from someone with autism…in fact, Asperger’s Syndrome or ‘high functioning’ autism, rather than the more well-known type of person with autism who has a low IQ, or leaning difficulties…but since people with the condition can’t always ‘speak for themselves,’ the media representation of the condition is very poor. To get to the point, I’ve always had what you might call a “mission” to write autobiographical work and get before a readership.”

Warneford is shown in his own realistic, densely hatched drawings throughout the issue, writing in his local cafe — in flashbacks and in real time — observing life around him, being befriended or harassed for being different. He writes and draws (exquisitely, by the way) from an overwhelming need to reach out, for reinforcement. “You live in fear, you live in a state of complete bewilderment, and at times you feel so desperate for a sense of connection with someone (anyone) you’ll write to someone you’ve never met in the hope they’ll write back, so you get a sense of having reached out.”

I’m sure Pekar inspires this response, in varying degrees, from many of his readers. Again, comics being the intimate form that they are, this is probably true of many favorite creators. We feel that we know them, personally, and have a right to consummate that connection to them. Obviously, for a ‘let it all hang out’ dude like Mr. Pekar, this tendency can only be exaggerated. I haven’t had adequate space to devote to Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s third wife, constant foil, and collaborator, but if I recall their story correctly, they began corresponding because of the comic book, before finally meeting. Hell, I’ve been on the phone with him — ironically, at my own place of work — offering him reassurance over something that seemed important at the time. We all own a slice — perhaps great hunks — of his life.

The most recent issue of Splendor is subtitled Bedtime Stories. The book is largely taken up by Interviewing the Interviewer, which traces a series a phone calls between Pekar and a local journalist doing a follow up piece on him. He quizzes her on her life and about the sheer adversity involved with simply getting by. “Oh, God, God,” he thinks, “I’ve gone through so much crap since I was your age — God I just hope you won’t have to.” To brighten the mood, lest things get too stridently Kafkaesque, the real story of Bedtime Stories is how Pekar and Brabner become foster parents to Danielle, the precocious twelve year old daughter of divorcees. The book actually only touches momentarily on this new family relationship. (Our Cancer Year also dealt with Brabner’s compassionate sheltering of human strays, to the social benefit of crotchety old Harv’.)

The main point to me is the sense of hope and renewal that Danielle represents for her foster father. Like any other interaction within Splendor, it’s fraught with emotional liabilities. But there’s no getting around her overall positive influence. It isn’t often that your heart bleeds for American Splendor‘s woeful protagonist, since that would only deepen the discomfort of having to identify with him. But, on the other hand, you don’t get to feel happy for him often enough, either.

Comics scholar Dan Cross gave a paper at 1999’s International Comic Arts Festival entitled Perverts, Weenies, and Other Losers: Ethos in Autobiographical Comics. In it, he posited that Pekar, and his progeny, use rhetorical devices dating back to the ancient Greeks. In particular, Cross referred to Plato’s doctrine that “any degree of distortion (such as to reflexively portray a person in a flattering light)is dangerous and wrong. The purest rhetoric is the one that represents the writer’s true soul.”