July 2010

Martyn Pedler


My Weekend with Harvey

In Our Cancer Year, Harvey Pekar wonders: “Who am I?” The answer arrives in the pop of a thought bubble: “American Splendor.” Dizzy and delusional from chemotherapy, Harvey says to his wife, Joyce: “Tell me the truth. Am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book called American Splendor? ...Or am I just a character in that book?” 

It’s a good question. Harvey Pekar made his whole life public: not only through massive pop-culture moments like his acerbic appearances on David Letterman, but the tiny stories of his supermarket queuing and his workplace conversations recorded and retold over decades of American Splendor issues. "Anyway, I look at it this way,” Harvey wrote. “Anything that doesn't kill me could be the basis of one of my stories.” 

Harvey Pekar died only a few weeks ago, and the many eulogies that have followed are moving, funny, and heartfelt. They deftly explain why he’s such a prominent -- if perhaps unlikely -- figure in the evolution of comics. Everyone seems to have a Harvey Story. I’m afraid I don’t. All I know about Cleveland was learned from the opening credits of The Drew Carey Show. It “rocks,” apparently. 

I’ve read bits and pieces of American Splendor over the years, but never felt the weight of it. That’s why I decided to spend a weekend reading all the issues I could get my hands on, and see if it’s possible to separate the stories from the man.  

The first thing that strikes you when you read years’ worth of American Splendor in a sitting is how often Harvey introduces himself. Variations on “My name is Harvey Pekar and I write and publish an autobiographical comic book series called American Splendor..." appear over and over again. (It’s like how Wolverine used to explain his powers in every X-Men adventure.)  

Harvey regularly gives the mission statement for his writing, too. He thought more could be done with the comic book medium than superhero stories, animal funnies, and the wild countercultural fantasies of the underground scene. “I have access to every word that Shakespeare used,” he said. And hell, Shakespeare didn’t have art by Robert Crumb, did he? 

Sometimes it seems like Harvey wants to try out each and every one of Shakespeare’s favourites. These comics are full of words: long speeches, meandering narration, thought balloons full of philosophy that hang overhead like storm clouds. He loves the distinct speech patterns he hears -- “troot is stranger dan fiksun, huh?” -- and captures them in speech balloons like butterflies in nets. 

Imagine an episode of Tales From the Crypt in which the Crypt Keeper not only introduced the episode, but actually told the story, too, while staring down the barrel of the camera. American Splendor’s artists could have illustrated these stories with any scenes they desired, but often chose to just draw Harvey speaking directly to the reader. It turns these comic books into illustrated monologues. There’s even one that ends with Harvey glancing off–panel and asking: “Uh, am I on?”; another with an eraser on the end of a pencil erasing Harvey’s face like he’s Daffy in Looney Tunes’ Duck Amuck

(Harvey does warn readers that as “time goes on, American Splendor becomes more and more self-referential.”) 

Going back to American Splendor, I was surprised by how upbeat it can feel -- despite all the mentions of how Harvey loves to be miserable. He enjoys other people's idiosyncrasies easily as much as he’s annoyed by them. One of his meandering monologues of self-doubt is cut short by something as simple as the smell of fresh bread. Even at his most resigned, there’s a hopefulness for whatever might come next:  

But this is Monday. I went t'work, hustled some records, came home an' wrote this. T'might I'll finish A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. Life goes on. Every day is a new deal. Keep workin' an' maybe sump'm'll turn up. 

That’s why it’s such a slap when American Splendor births Our Cancer Year: a 1994 graphic novel written by Harvey and his wife, Joyce Brabner, about Harvey’s lymphatic cancer and the trials of his treatment. The art by cartoonist Frank Stack is dark, sketchy and uniformly oppressive -- and if the usual joy of American Splendor is feeling like you’re inside Harvey’s head? That’s gone. He feels so very far away. His thoughts still punctuate the (now third person) narration, but they’re boiled down to awful simplicity, like: “This house is gonna be my coffin.” 

Don’t worry. Things get better, and even Our Cancer Year has moments to make you smile. (Harvey’s doctor wishes everyone would bring comic books about their lives, because it’d make it so much easier to get to know them.) American Splendor continued after Harvey’s recovery, and was adapted into a successful movie. The film blurred the line between fiction, biography, and documentary even further: multiple animated Harveys share screen time with actor Paul Giamatti’s Harvey and footage of the real Harvey, commenting on the rest.  

In fact, the many faces of Harvey make American Splendor differ from most of the hundreds -- more -- of the autobiographical comics it inspired. Most of those have a single author providing words and pictures, but Harvey was only a writer, and his words illustrated by dozens of different cartoonists in varying styles. Sometimes he looks like a man, sometimes like a creature commonly found under a fairytale bridge. The way Harvey mutates with each new story makes him seem like more than a man – he’s an endlessly interpreted icon like Robin Hood or Batman or the Virgin Mary.  

When I was younger, I admit, I didn’t much understand the appeal of autobiographical comics like American Splendor. Who wants to read about supermarket queues when Daredevil’s using his heightened senses and ninja moves? Now I think that the medium is maybe better suited to Harvey’s everyday than Daredevil’s rooftop battles. Comic book superheroes are obsessed with action, but the pictures used to transmit their stories can’t move. American Splendor’s success is, in part, because sequential art is perfect for letting small moments hang in the air until they become something more profound. 

Some stories in American Splendor are funny, some are sad, some are pointless but charming, and yeah, some are fiendishly dull. (Harvey’s accounts of his car insurance woes are so boring it was like my eyes were bald tires and the page an icy road.) My favorite story of all might be “Overheard in the Cleveland Public Library” from 1978. It goes like this: a man approaches a librarian to have his poetry “evaluated,” telling her that nobody likes it. “I read this stuff in ‘Harper’s’ an’ ‘Atlantic’ with them big intellectual words, an’ it don’t mean nuthin’ to me.” The librarian, wanting to encourage him, says: “Sir, there’s nothing wrong with writing poetry that rhymes.” 

Later in the series, Harvey retells the same story. This time, Harvey is watching the interaction take place. He can’t believe it. He worries that what the librarian said sounded “like the punchline from a corny old joke." If it is a punchline, then it belongs to a very rare breed of joke. It gives dignity to its subject, instead of snatching it away.  

There are so many perfect eulogies to Harvey’s life contained in the years of American Splendor that it’s impossible to choose. “Will anyone at all read my stuff after I'm dead?” Harvey wonders while praising the writing Katherine Mansfield. “Will they wonder what kind of guy I was?” He also wonders why some people won’t give his comic books a second look but will happily read them in trade paperback collections. Why? Because they’re a “buncha ignorant snobs.” (Yeah! Take that!) 

In the end, though, I have to give the last word to writer Mark Evanier. He perfectly summed up what’s worst about death coming for someone who mined every experience -- good, bad, or indifferent -- for art.  

“My first thought this morning upon hearing of the death of author Harvey Pekar,” Evanier said, “was that it's too bad he won't be around to write the comic book about the death of author Harvey Pekar.” 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He wishes he had a Harvey Story, but this will have to do. Find him at www.martynpedler.com.