[Marxism] More on Pekar

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 13 18:23:04 MDT 2010


Harvey Pekar: An Appreciation
The iconoclastic comics writer turned the mundane into 'American Splendor.'

By David Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

July 13, 2010

Here's a phrase you don't often hear in regard to Harvey Pekar: role 
model. And yet, it seems an apt description of the iconoclastic comics 
genius, who was found dead early Monday at age 70 in his Cleveland 
Heights, Ohio, home. Think about it — a longtime VA hospital file clerk 
with no ability to draw, Pekar essentially reinvented himself, in his 
30s, as the creator of "American Splendor," perhaps the greatest of all 
the underground comics. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent 
history of the form without its influence.

Even more, he yielded nothing, angering those who might help him for 
what at times seemed like capricious reflex. In the late 1980s, he was 
banned from "Late Night With David Letterman" after a series of 
contentious appearances, including one during which he wore a T-shirt 
that declared "On Strike Against NBC" while launching into an extended 
rant about its corporate parent, GE. Invited back to make amends, he 
accused Letterman of being a corporate shill. It was discomforting, 
funny in a provocative way. And yet, to watch those clips now on YouTube 
is to see something authentic and subversive, the talk show as Dadaist 
political experiment, in which the power of the open mike is used, even 
for a few minutes, to pry back the slick veneer of entertainment culture 
and expose the contradictions underneath.

That is what Pekar did, in his work and in his life. For Pekar, the two 
were inseparable, feeding into each other in a fluid back-and-forth. The 
animating concept was, as he wrote in his introduction to "The Best 
American Comics 2006," "[T]here was no limit to what you could do with 
[comics]. They could be like novels or films. The only thing limiting 
the growth of comics was the people who produced them, from the artists 
and writers to the publishers, who couldn't see comics as anything but a 
medium for kids."

One early effort, "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," uses 48 panels to pose 
a quintessential meditation, in which Pekar offers an extended riff on 
his name. This is a comic in which, literally, nothing happens, in which 
even the images barely change from frame to frame. Still, by seizing the 
potential of the genre to incorporate even the most interior 
investigations, Pekar effectively upped the ante, pushing us to 
reconsider what kinds of stories might be encompassed by the form.

Among the keys to "The Harvey Pekar Name Story" is R. Crumb, who 
illustrated the comic, as he did much of Pekar's early work. It was 
Crumb, in fact, who stirred Pekar's interest in comics; the two became 
friends after Crumb moved to Cleveland in 1962. Twenty-four years later, 
when Doubleday published an anthology culled from the first nine issues 
of "American Splendor," Crumb described Pekar's process in an 
introduction: "Usually he writes his story ideas soon after the event 
while the nuances of it are still fresh in his mind. He always has a 
large backlog of these stories, which he can choose from to compose each 
new issue of 'American Splendor.' He writes the stories in a crudely 
laid-out comic page format using stick figures, with the dialogue over 
their heads, and some descriptive directions for the artist to work 
from. The next phase involves calling up various artists and haranguing 
them to take on particular stories."

Although Crumb went on to note that "Harvey is often frustrated by the 
artists' lack of ability to break out of the standard heroic comic book 
style of portraying characters," Pekar's collaborations were striking 
and diverse. It was not uncommon in a single issue of "American 
Splendor" to find a dozen stories drawn by an array of illustrators 
(Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, Dean Haspiel), so that to read them all was 
like looking at Pekar's life through a prism, in which the different 
styles, the different angles, refract back on themselves. This, too, was 
part of his genius, reflecting his belief that there was no central 
throughline, no larger narrative, that we had to make our lives, our 
art, our meaning out of moments, to find, as Crumb put it, the "drama in 
the most ordinary and routine of days." Even Pekar's long-form efforts — 
in 1994, he and his wife Joyce Brabner collaborated with Stack on "Our 
Cancer Year," about his battle with lymphoma, and, in 2005, he and 
Haspiel produced "The Quitter," a look back at the difficulties of his 
early life — highlight the most defining experiences in oddly offhand 
terms. "Oh well," he writes in "The Quitter." "…In the long run, we're 
all dead anyway."

Pekar, by all accounts, was a tough guy to be around: angry, 
confrontational, beset by grudges and troubles over money, an obsessive 
worrier. He never hid any of this, but wrote about it instead. That made 
him as brave as almost any artist I can think of — unadorned, 
unfiltered, less concerned with how the world thought of him than with 
how he thought of himself. It also made him an essential aesthetic 
bridge between, say, Will Eisner, who mined the lives of ordinary people 
in his 1978 graphic novel "A Contract with God," and contemporary 
artists such as Jessica Abel, Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel, whose 
comics traverse a similar existential territory, in which the mundane 
(and sometimes not-so-mundane) material of daily life becomes the 
substance of their work.

We may live in a world of mendacity, but Pekar told the truth. In the 
1984 piece "Hypothetical Quandary," he details, in three understated 
pages, a Sunday morning trip to the bakery. The narrative is almost 
nonexistent: a quick car ride, a few thought balloons, an internal 
monologue about a publisher who never got back to him. Then, in the 
final panels, an epiphany — his obsessions are stilled, briefly, by the 
smell of fresh bread. It's a fleeting moment, but, of course, so is life.

david.ulin at latimes.com

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