American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar – New Revised Review

By Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Gregory Budgett, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray,
Kevin Brown, Susan Cavey & Val Mayerik
(Ballantine Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-787-0

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping the truly creative individual: Lots and lots of critical acclaim, and an occasional heart-breakingly close brush with super-stardom, without ever actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

One of those aforementioned brushes came in 1980s with the release of a couple of compilations of selected strips by mainstream publisher Doubleday that even to this day are some of his most powerful, honest and rewarding “literary comics” ever seen. By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying (out of his meagre civil service wages and occasional wheeler-deal) any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar all but created the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives whilst eking out a mostly lonely, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, self-educated music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life of the ordinary Joe is a magical journey in the plebeian far better read than read about, but I’m going to have a crack at convincing any holdouts anyway.

Moreover, by the time you’ve seen this I’m already on to my next crusade…

This compendium combines and re-releases those seminal tomes in one big, bold edition and was released to tie-in with the award-winning 2003 indie film biography American Splendor, and opens with the superb contents of the 1985 release American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, beginning by reproducing the introduction by early collaborator and modern Media Darling Robert Crumb before proceeding with a seductive welter of elegiac, confrontational, compulsive, challenging, painfully frank and distressingly honest observations that collectively changed the way English language comics were perceived, received and even created.

Rendered by Crumb, the excoriating graphic self-analysis begins with ‘The Harvey Pekar Name Story’ as the obsessive yet passive hunt for other people with the same name briefly gripped the self-confessed compulsive personality, whilst ‘The Young Crumb Story’ gave us Pekar’s take on the cartooning career of his collaborator, after which ‘A Fantasy’ again revisited the artist’s relationship with the writer: Pekar uncomfortably bragging over how he had browbeaten and gulled Crumb into drawing his scripts – and still was…

Gary Dumm illustrated the bizarre ‘Ozzie Nelson’s Open Letter to Crumb’ (written in 1972) describing the faded TV celebrity’s snotty pep talk to the cartooning degenerate, after which Crumb returned to deliver self-abusive insight as Pekar revealed ‘How I Quit Collecting Records – and Put Out a Comic Book with the Money I Saved’.

Greg Budgett & Dumm handled many of the most searingly honest introspectives such as ‘The Day Before the Be In’, the equally forthright and painful personal history sequels ‘Awakening to the Terror of the New Day’ and ‘Awakening to the Terror of the Same Old Day’ or the nigh-spiritual rationalisations of ‘Short Weekend – a Short Story About the Cosmic and the Ordinary’

One of the most impressive facets of Pekar’s tales is the uncompromising depiction of the people he encountered in work or socially (if such a term can apply to such a self-admitted “judgemental jerk”) and the frankly brutal way he attempts to keep narrative polish out of his graphic reportage.

Incidents such as ‘A Compliment’ or ‘Jivin’ With Jack the Bellboy as he Goes About… Hustlin’ Sides’ and ‘Jack the Bellboy and Mr. Boats’ – all illustrated by Crumb – recount episodes with co-workers undistinguished, unremarkable and free of all dramatic embellishment or grace-saving charisma… but they are intoxicatingly real and appealing.

‘Read This’ (Budgett & Dumm) tells how even cynics can be surprised by people, whilst the Crumb-illustrated ‘Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines’ is as gently hilarious as their ‘Ridin’ the Dog’ vignette of cross-country bus travel is contemplatively reassuring.

Innovative Gerry Shamray tackled the wordy self-examination of life’s pointless frustrations in ‘An Argument at Work’ and the cathartic ‘Working Man’s Nightmare’ with aplomb and smart sensitivity, before Crumb resurfaced to draw an incredible familiar and unwelcome situation as the obnoxious ‘Freddy Visits for the Week End’. Regrettably we all have friends like him…

Pekar’s disastrous history with women was a frequent theme and ‘Ripoff Chick’ (by Budgett & Dumm again) showed why and how. The only difference between the author and most men was that he admitted up front that he wanted sex without complications or commitment…

‘One Good Turn Deserves Another’ (Shamray) invites us to share a typically penny-pinching secret, before Dumm tackled a quirky friendship and the perils of well-intentioned matchmaking in ‘Leonard & Marie’, and ordinary folk got tied up discussing theology and politics in Shamray’s wryly related ‘Noah’s Ark’. The artist then effectively encapsulated ‘Class Antagonism’ before Jewish intellectual Pekar again examined his ethnic and cultural roots by revisiting his relationship with Old World Hebrew ‘Emil’ (Dumm & Budgett) and the danger of first-hand accounts in the Crumb-illustrated ‘The Maggies (Oral History)’ and Shamray’s death-camp memoir ‘Kaparra’

Crumb then turned in his most claustrophobic and impassioned drawing for the vibrant manifesto ‘American Splendor Assaults the Media’ after which the immensely stylish Kevin Brown limned a tale of frustrated selling out as Harvey attempted to schmooze up-and-coming movie star Wallace Shawn ‘Grubstreet, USA’, after which the first volume ended on a high of sorts with Pekar via Crumb temporarily resolving a ‘Hypothetical Quandary’.

The philosophising, reminiscing, ruminating, observing, eulogizing, questioning and fictively projecting promptly continues in From the Streets of Cleveland Comes… American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, resuming the painfully honest – and to us here and now perhaps often unsettling and disquieting – accounts of normal lives with the Crumb-crafted classics ‘Pickled Okra (Okry)’, ‘Lunch with Carmella’, ‘Rollins on Time’ and ‘Visualize, Actualize, Realize’ – all containing commonplace friendly interactions with Pekar’s African-American co-workers that would make many genteel folk wince today…

A prospective hot date turned into a gruelling and pointless exercise in furniture moving in the Budgett & Dumm saga ‘Guerrilla Theatre: July ‘74 – on the Corner’ with a punch-line not apparent until their ‘On the Corner… a Sequel: June 1976’, after which inker turned illustrator to relate the nostalgic revelations of young lust in the 1950s on the ‘Roller Coaster to Nowhere’, but some measure of cosmic karma was achieved decades later when Pekar finally achieve his  childhood goal of owning ultra-hip and so, so cool ‘Stetson Shoes’

‘Mrs. Roosevelt and the Young Queen of Greece’ and ‘Busman’s Holiday’ by Dumm & Budgett celebrate the simple joy of guys simply sitting around shooting the breeze, whilst Crumb’s delicious treatment of Pekar’s love for old fashioned Jewish kvetching makes ‘Miracle Rabbis – a Dr. Gesundheit Story’ a minor masterpiece of comics.

‘An Everyday Horror Story’ (Shamray) then recaptures the tension and terror of Pekar’s first brush with serious illness – or so the author thought.

Always a healthy, vigorous but exceptionally excitable shouty man, Pekar got properly sick for the first time in his life and faced the very real prospect of never being able to speak again. This exceedingly gripping account perfectly presents all the fear, frustration, metaphysical pleading and moving emotional and practical support Harvey’s friends and then wife provided – and what happened next…

‘Alice Quinn’ drawn by S. (Susan) Cavey then detailed a portentous meeting with the girl who got away before Shamray’s powerfully captivating ‘I’ll be Forty Three on Friday (How I’m Living Now)’ offers a rare moment of optimistic clarity, and Cavey’s ‘Jury Duty’ shows how even the most earnest hopes and honest ambitions can worry the bejeezus out of “normal” folks…

For most of his life Pekar was that rarest of creatures – an un-typical American who chose not to drive (for good, sound and to my mind admirable reasons). Thus he often spent time cadging lifts and fretting about the etiquette of returning favours to his civilian chauffeurs. In ‘A Ride Home’ (Cavey) the impatience and anxiety grew momentarily too much, whilst in Dumm’s ‘Free Ride’ a long-standing arrangement with a previously admired old Jewish guy escalated into something ferociously passive-aggressive, quite strange and impossibly worrisome…

The same traumas afflicted Pekar when he foolishly bought his ex- wife’s automobile only to find it a cursed Jonah, which plagued him for many snowbound months in ‘Old Cars and Winter’ by Cavey. The superb and vastly underrated Val Mayerik joined the select band of artistic collaborators with the gloriously uplifting ‘A Marriage Album’, depicting life with beloved third wife with Joyce Brabner, and explored Pekar’s wild street-fighting juvenile days and later proclivities in ‘Violence’, whilst ‘History Repeats Itself’ offered a moment of resigned contemplation over teen spirits courtesy of Seán Carroll.

Mayerik contributed a final brace of gently contemplative pieces beginning with ‘A Matter of Life and…’ which saw an older, calmer author recap his life with a little more kindness than ever before, whilst an uneventful bus ride found Pekar gleaning a wealth of down-home ‘Common Sense’ from a voluble instructor driver before this masterful meander through a truly unique mind concludes with Crumb and the perfect solution to life’s ills with ‘Mr. Boats’ Miracle Cure’

With art by individualistic collaborators who were never content to stay in their Comfort Zones but always endeavoured to make their contributions unique unto the story, and selected from a most adventurous and historically creative decade, these tales of working life, self-esteem, achievement, failure, religion, the media, Nazi atrocity, guilt, acceptable bigotry, proudly defended ignorance, friendship, aloofness and the art of understanding women are timeless slices of life’s dreary brilliance.

As a man who constantly assessed and re-examined his own creative worth and self, Harvey Pekar opened up his life to the world and changed it by being ordinary and average.

…Except he never was, as this superb insight into the mind and heart of a truly original comics creator will attest. This splendid, engrossing book offers readers a chance to see the humour, confusion and frustration of being an American thinker in a world that simply doesn’t value brains and spirit anymore – and I fear that’s going to be one of humanity’s eternal verities…

© 1976-1986, 2004 Harvey Pekar, LLC. All Rights Reserved.