Getting Better Than They Are: Harvey Pekar Obituary

‘The backlash starts here’, Jurgen Fauth writes, opening review of the 2003 film American Splendor, an adaptation of the long running (32 years in total) comicbook series of the same name.

The film had already by this time garnered a number of prestigious awards for best screenplay and best film from the Film Critics associations of Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York. As well, Best Screenplay and Best Film were lavished on American Splendor by the National Society of Film Critics, and Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writers’ Guild of America. This in addition to winning the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance and missing the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay after narrowly being beaten by Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

When Fauth concludes his review then, by pronouncing that in relation to the comics the film is ‘simply superfluous’, his piece reads like the work of a giant-killer. There is almost a bravery here. This is a critic contesting work that is culturally preeminent, a critic questioning the position of that work, and a critic engaging his audience with an intellectual honesty. In 2003, American Splendor appears as an edifice to an already engaging cultural complex. How did it come to be this way? Why had it persisted for, at that point, near on three decades?

Fauth throws up questions that should by necessity be asked by any critic, of every work reviewed. But Fauth’s questions, are also very telling. ‘The backlash starts here’, Fauth writes. Even the act of engaging Pekar’s lifelong struggle to communicate the vagaries and complexity of a human life, cannot escape the sheer enormity of Pekar on the cultural horizon. The only reason a backlash is needed, is because American Splendor began to move from profound impact into ubiquity. American Splendor was entering the mainstream of popular culture.

American Splendor of course, did not arrive fully-formed. Not the Shari Springer Berman-, Robert Pulcini-directed biopic showcasing the painstakingly crafted performance by Paul Giamatti, neither the, until then, 27 years of comics storytelling which Pekar himself used to engage dozens of artists.

By 2003 Pekar had intermittently released 31 issues of the groundbreaking comics series, American Splendor. The series itself had already been a lifetime, one carefully rendered in perhaps the clearest storytelling the century had seen thus far. Pekar’s genius lay not in the fact that he was able to construct grand-scale operatic narratives (American Splendor would not compete with George Lucas’ Star Wars), nor in his ability to adapt icons into vast tapestry of metaphor for a political milieu (recreating Watchmen was not his objective).

Instead Pekar’s American Splendor reads like a latter day Ozu or Fellini. The series which began with the ‘Big Bi-Centennial Issue’ of 1976 would have as its starting position, the rarefying of a life far more ordinary. Just skimming the pages readers would discover a wonderland storehouse of the everyday. Harvey would appear in conversation with his everyday friends, events articulated would come from his nine-to-five at the Veteran’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio where the majority of Splendor issues would be set.

The clarity of Pekar’s storytelling would arrive as a strange mix of natural genius and the formative effects of the comics medium itself. In a 2006 interview for New York Press [dot] com (In a piece entitled ‘A Book Called Malice’ by Brian Heater), Pekar himself recalls the frustration he experienced when first reading comicbook stories.

Pekar remembers, “When I was a little kid, and I was reading these comics in the ’40s, I kind of got sick of them because after a while, they were just formulaic. I figured there was some kind of a flaw that keeps them from getting better than they are, and then when I saw Robert Crumb’s work in the early ’60s, when he moved from Philadelphia to Cleveland, and he moved around the corner from me, I thought ‘Man, comics are where it’s at’.”

Pekar would choose an entirely different direction for his storytelling. Rather than the cultural myopia of joining in an existing entertainment factory, Pekar would instead choose the risk that came with cutting edge creativity. What if the stories

themselves, rather than being dime-sized space operas, were instead sourced from the everyday? What if, rather than pull together stable, semi-permanent creative teams, writers could realize a unique vision through a series of artists? What emerges then, is a very different kind of comics.

American Splendor is not the comics of the 40’s that Pekar read as a kid. These are not fantastic tales told to regale young readers with the thrills and spills of a life unexamined. Nor is American Splendor the Underground Comics of the 60’s. Pekar’s comics is not a comics driven by the message of cultural acuity and social complexity, nor is it the comics of a single-mind, articulated by a single cartoonist. Instead Pekar borrows from the strength and

resiliences of a broad range of artists. Each issue of American Splendor is filtered through a unique set of creative impulses and opinions.

Award-winning cartoonist Seth comments on Pekar’s legacy with a meditative kindness. In an interview with Comics Reporter [dot] com, Seth states, “The underground cartoonists were–a group of artists who knocked down the walls between art and commerce, shattering the traditional shape and meaning of a comic book. Later, the ‘alternative’ cartoonists came along–or whatever you wish to call my generation of cartoonists–who wanted to produce comics as a

legitimate art medium. But in-between these two generations there was Harvey. A generation of one. Probably the first person who wanted to use the comics medium seriously as a writer. Certainly the first person to toss every genre element out the window and try to capture something of the genuine experience of living: not just some technique of real life glossed onto a story–not satire, or sick humour or everyday melodrama–but the genuine desire to transmit from one person to another just what life feels like”.

While, Pekar stands as an absolute giant, a ‘generation of one’, the side-effect of his singular vision was to foster a generation of cartoonists. How much different would But I Like It have been had Joe Sacco not collaborated on American Splendor? Would Jonathan Ames’ pseudo-biography in The Alcoholic not have been as finely, carefully-worked as the middle ground between caricature and pastiche, had Dean Haspiel never drawn The Quitter, the Original Graphic Novel describing Pekar’s early years?

Harvey Pekar passed in the early hours of Monday morning, July 12 2010. He was born in the same year as Neil Sedaka, 1939, the year that Amelia Earhart was legally declared dead, the year Lou Gehrig clinched his record of 2,130 consecutive Major League games and the year that Bob Kane invented Batman and the year MGM released Wizard Of Oz. His life as a writer of comics, of jazz and book reviews survives him, as he is survived by his wife Joyce Brabner and daughter Danielle.

Writing in the mid-summer of 2010, after having experienced a world with a living Harvey Pekar, who tilted General Electric, the parent company of NBC, while being interview by Letterman, there is an enduring sense of loss. But for the generations to come, the generations that will encounter Harvey Pekar for the first time in his books, American Splendor feels like what it always was–a beginning.