Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

By Harvey Pekar & Joseph Remnant (Zip Comics/Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-091-9

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 occasional heart-breakingly close brushes with super-stardom (which everyone except him felt he truly deserved) without ever actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

In the 1970s whilst palling around with Robert Crumb, Pekar began crafting compelling documentary narratives of ordinary, blue-collar life – primarily his own – and over the following decades invented “literary comics”. Despite negligible commercial success, the activity fulfilled some deep inner need and he persevered in his self-publishing and soul-searching.

One of those aforementioned brushes with the Big Time came in the 1980s with the release of two compilations by mainstream publisher Doubleday of selected strips from his American Splendor comicbooks. To this day those tomes remain some of the most powerful, honest and rewarding 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 soldiered on, inadvertently creating the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives whilst eking out a mostly solitary, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, knowledge-hungry, 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 for the “ordinary Joe” is a magical journey into the plebeian far better read than read about, so go do that if you haven’t already.

Life picked up late for Harvey Pekar – mostly through an award-winning movie of his career and the publication of Our Cancer Year (a stunning documentation of his and third wife Joyce Brabner’s response to his disease). This all led to an elevated and celebrated intellectual status, allowing him to the opportunity to produce even more personal and compelling tales such as The Quitter, The Beats and Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. Harvey Pekar died in 2010, aged 70.

For all of that time he lived in Cleveland, Ohio and the city is as much a character in all his autobiographical works as the man himself. This book was his last, published posthumously and offering in his own simple, informative, plain spoken words – beguilingly illustrated by the inspirationally diligent Joseph Remnant (Blind Spot) – the history, geography and cultural lowdown of the legend-laden conurbation alternatively dubbed the “the best location in the nation” and “the mistake by the lake”…

An irrepressible autodidact in the truest sense of the term, Pekar made it his business to learn everything about anything he was interested in… and he could be initially interested in everything.

Keeping his mercurial engaged attention, however, was a far harder task. One thing which held his attention on many levels – from first breath to last – was the city he was born in.

Cleveland is an erudite, eyes-wide-open appreciation, encompassing the shrinking metropolis’ creation, rise, fall, descent into mediocrity and position as media whipping-boy as well as the truth behind all the myths.

Walking through town pictorially and in full avuncular academician mode, Pekar shares facts, opinions and judgments with equal passion and force: detailing simultaneously both treasures and flaws like a man happily married to the same bride for seven decades. The result is magical…

There’s the expected and welcome incisive examination of socio-political changes, employment and race issues, a broad inclusion of the author’s love of sporting achievement and his obsessive collecting: startling moments of intimate revelation and, as ever, his miraculous gift of sharing his passions as he blends historical insights, family milestones and oddments of existence with deft dexterity.

Harvey Pekar was called the “poet laureate of Cleveland” and this superb paean to the home he never abandoned is a graphic delight to equal any literary travelogue commemorating Defoe’s London or Damon Runyon’s New York.

Remnant’s monochrome line-work is remarkably effective: mixing reportage with architectural acuity and wrapping it all in a fulsome vivacity reminiscent of the best of underground art. These pictures pop; whether illuminating the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 victory over the Boston Braves, city landmarks like the Terminal  Tower and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; depicting gang fights in Woodhill Park or young Harvey’s first Chocolate Frosty Malt and first marital mismatches …

With an effusive and lyrical Introduction by Alan Moore and closing with ‘A Pal’s Goodbye’ from Harvey’s friend, associate and fellow Clevelander Jimi Izrael, this wry, witty, enchanting atlas of Middle America Then and Now is a book you must see if you love the art form of comics and magic of storytelling.
© & ™ 2012 Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant.