[Marxism] New Harvey Pekar book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 15 07:34:05 MST 2004

By Paul Buhle


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 Cleveland—forget the Rock 'n' Roll Museum, crowning the 
famous—since 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 
and beyond.

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 Cannes—but 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 down—and 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 
neighborhoods—Cleveland was famous for its Austrians and Czechs—along 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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