[Marxism] New Harvey Pekar book
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 07:34:05 MST 2004
AMERICAN SPLENDOR: OUR MOVIE YEAR
By Paul Buhle
AMERICAN SPLENDOR: OUR MOVIE YEAR
BY HARVEY PEKAR
BALLANTINE BOOKS, 174 PAGES, $16.95
WHOEVER DOES NOT already know the basic Pekar story not only isn't a comics
afficianado, he or she hasn't been watching the movies closely enough to
spot one of the most attractive and innovative indies of recent years. If
Who Framed Roger Rabbit brought animation to an adult audience as nothing
since the Golden Age of Hollywood, when Bugs Bunny was watched mainly by
grown-ups, American Splendor (the film, that is) matched actor to human
original to animated version. Nothing quite this remarkable may have
happened in Clevelandforget the Rock 'n' Roll Museum, crowning the
famoussince Satchel signed with the Indians.
Our Movie Year might be accused of self-exploitation if Harvey Pekar had
not long been the central subject of his lifelong work. This book contains
a dozen strips or so reprinted from the New York Times and Entertainment
Weekly, several from British and Japanese papers, and more from the local
alternative press in North Ohio. The longest of them is published here for
the first time. More than half are drawn by Gary Dumm, who did the work in
the Times and EW. But the others represent a range of talent, including new
talent and ole pal Crumb, who encouraged Harvey in the first place (and
vice-versa), way back in the 70s.
We see here some of the heaviest personal material yet. Two Splendor
anthologies rehearsed Pekar's Cleveland life from teenhood on, through
broken marriages, real and damaged friendships, episodes with David
Letterman in the 80s that made Pekar an oddball celebrity overnight and
then, on account of his criticisms of NBC, banished him from the spotlight.
And so on. Our Cancer Year brought us the story of Harvey and wife Joyce
Brabner, arguing and working their way through his scares and chemothearapy
amid their daily life. Our Movie Year takes us further into health crisis
It begins, naturally enough, with the start-and-stop process, over nearly
20 years of various attempts, of American Splendor the comic becoming the
movie. Then it moves to Pekar's being overwhelmed by the prospect of
long-delayed success, falling victim to clinical depression, taking early
retirement from his day job as a filing clerk for the VA and going to the
hospital where he learns that his lymphoma has returned. There, he's
treated to shock therapy along with chemo. He has an abundance of life
energy as well as getting a lot of emotional support at home, as he
explains, or he would never have made it through all this.
But he did, and the movie got made. We learn about the experience of awards
at Sundance and Cannesbut daily life unfailingly reasserts itself. His
daughter leaves the water in the tub running and he has to clean up. His
car gives him a whole lot of trouble. For the first time in his life, he
gets real junkets, including a big one to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
But he never really liked to travel and hasn't changed his mind. By the end
of the book, Pekar's wondering whether anyone will remember him when he
doesn't have a current book out, which, after all, must be the fate of
nearly every author or artist most of the time.
His current state of (relative) mellow seems to have been achieved by the
surprising realization that an ordinary guy, depicting ordinary people, can
actually get some recognition as an artist of sorts; and that his family
and (a few) friends, hanging in there, seem to enjoy it, too. The realities
that left him so often disappointed also find him still worried simply
about making a living, now that the campus gigs have died downand in far
from the best of health. Pekar's resilience lies in the very popular life
that he embraced so long ago.
Some of the most charming pages of Our Movie Year recall known greats like
Albert Ayler, B.B. King and King Oliver, along with forgotten (and mostly
Cleveland) figures like saxophonist Joe Lovano or that "Snake Lady," Willa
Mae Buckner. Solidly respecting African- American culture (he grew up
around the ghetto grocery store owned by his left-wing parents), he makes
no distinctions in embracing white ethnics and postethnics right down to
the present-day Sockmonkeys. Making a little income for decades writing
record reviews, Pekar never lost his fascination for talent, or a certain
modesty in his ability to describe it to readers.
Readers, especially younger readers, are not likely to appreciate the back
story of himself and so many other neighborhood hipsters of the 1950s. He
lived deeply in neighborhoods destined for "urban renewal" devastation, for
a little while seemingly frozen in time, with yard sales full of old, rare
(and not yet remastered) "race records," offbeat music clubs only starting
to warm up to the folk fare of the 1960s, and above all, old ethnics in
neighborhoodsCleveland was famous for its Austrians and Czechsalong with
black newcomers, trying to find a life as the rust belt spread. One of the
most touching strips here treats the revival of a local Workmen's Circle
branch by one determined oldtimer. Generations earlier, the Workmen's
Circle had been the center of Yiddishkayt, home to the working-class
intellectual. Pekar was a continuator of the type, a personal presence in
mixed-race neighborhoods whose troubles hadn't driven him to the right or
into a love affair with American commercialism and suburban escape.
More complex than the cartoonish figure depicted (however lovingly) in the
film American Splendor, Pekar was the ultimate intellectual autodidact.
Self-involved, even self-obsessed, Pekar is never guilty of self-worship,
and that is his great strength. His unromantic life holds your interest (if
not, he doesn't particularly care, as long as he can make a living) because
you are never so far from him, certainty not when he loses a set of keys
and spends hours fretting, or takes satisfaction where he can get it,
enough from strangers who've seen the film and recognize him on the street.
Even if it didn't happen to be us in those movies, we can so easily imagine
Harvey as ourselves. The biggest boast that Harvey Pekar can make, after
the film got a Drama award at Sundance, is, "They can't take it away from
me. I won something big!"
He didn't have to compromise his art or his politics, after all.
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