Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland
By Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant
Top Shelf Productions, 128 pages, $21.99
Toward the end of the graphic novel “Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland,” the author (Harvey Pekar) reflects on aging. Shown looking in a bathroom mirror, inspecting his hair and face, he muses, “Y’know, it’s funny for me now. I look in the mirror and see I’ve lost a lotta hair. So I realize I’m getting old…. But still, I don’t feel all creaky and stuff. Who knows? Maybe I’ll keep going for a while.”
When he wrote those words, Pekar was 70; he never made it to 71. He died in July 2010 from an accidental overdose of antidepressants, leaving behind a string of projects in various states of completion. Among them is “Cleveland,” which combines what Pekar is best known for — autobiographical storytelling, as in his most famous series, “American Splendor” — with the history of his hometown. Beautifully illustrated by artist Joseph Remnant, the book loosely parallels the rise and fall of the city with the trajectory of Pekar’s life.
Pekar starts in the 18th century, with a tract of land known as the Western Reserve. A group of surveyors headed by one Moses Cleaveland (dismayingly misspelled as “Cleveland” in the book) purchased the property in 1796 and began building a settlement. By 1810, Pekar recounts, 17,000 people had moved there. By 1870, Cleveland, the biggest town in the area, boasted 93,000 residents.
The city rapidly became a center of industrial production, drawing immigrants and gaining such metropolitan staples as a park system, a public auditorium and a skyscraper, Terminal Tower, then the tallest American building outside New York. But Cleveland’s 1920s heyday was just that, and Pekar dates some of the “bad signs” signaling its decline as early as 1930, when people began to flee to the suburbs. The city faced growing unemployment, slums and racial unrest, while its tax revenues shrank.
All this before Pekar was born. He spends the first third of the book on this sometimes dry history, coloring it with his idiosyncratic style, a kind of Pekar patois familiar to readers of his other comics. Its characteristics include awkward syntax (“Another highly-thought-of mayor was…”) and a mixture of meticulous detail (“Cleveland’s black population increased in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but stayed at 1% of the total population.”) with vague, nearly trite statements (“Around that time, women were still oppressed.”). Pekar tells this tale as he’s told the others before — like an old man (somehow he’s always sounded like an old man) recording for posterity what he knows is important and liable to be forgotten. It seems fitting when, in the afterword, Cleveland-born journalist Jimi Izrael writes, “Harvey was the sweet, kindly Jewish grandfather I never had.”
Remnant’s art helps immensely. Well-researched and subtle, the drawings are cartoons crossed with genre scenes that give life to the statistics and sweeping statements. In one panel, for instance, Pekar mentions increasing racism among Cleveland’s white population. To match, Remnant depicts a factory assembly line, a black man working in the center and white coworkers around him casting quiet, angry looks. The picture makes the racism both conceivable and palpable.
Although he narrates from page one, Pekar really enters in 1939. Again he starts at the beginning, this time his own — his Jewish upbringing by Polish-born parents, the experience of being the only white kid on the block. Fans will recognize some information from previous works, but Pekar’s life here is filtered through a distinctly Clevelandian lens: his favorite childhood spots; the bookstores that fueled his love of reading; a mini-history of Coventry, the neighborhood he lived in for years.
The writing in this part of the book is noticeably stronger, as Pekar gains the space to do what he did best: observe and comment on everyday life. Since the early days of “American Splendor,” Pekar has been known as a master of the quotidian, a man who can derive a philosophical principle from an overheard conversation. Though we get less of that here than we might like — in the attempt to cover a lot of ground, smaller stories end up sacrificed to the larger narrative — when those moments do appear, they dazzle with lucidity and wisdom.
They’re also suffused with sadness. There’s an acute weariness to Pekar’s tale, which ostensibly chronicles the decline of both his hometown and himself. Pekar writes that as early as the late 1950s, “that’s how I viewed Cleveland: rotten. And a few years after that, the city started to decline. So did my luck.” On the first count he seems dead on. The story of Cleveland is the story of America — the faltering of cities across the country, the Midwest especially, as production slipped from their fingers. We care about the history of Cleveland because it is our history, and because, like so much of the past, we must try to learn from it.
But on the second count — that of his own bad luck and decline — he seems myopic. No one can discount the toll that depression took on Pekar’s life, and aging clearly had an impact, too; at one point he discusses losing his insatiable appetite for learning. “Cleveland” has its share of bleak moments, which culminate on the second-to-last page, when Pekar raises his arms before a snowy, indifferent city and exclaims, “I look around, I see homeless people and vacant buildings! GOD, I hope I can keep on eking out the bread!”
Still, upon observing his remarkable writing output, as well as his third and most successful marriage, one inevitably comes to disagree. Pekar’s luck — or fate, or life or whatever you want to call it — didn’t decline; it improved. One senses he knew that all along, even if it was difficult for him to recognize. The book is dotted with moments of resigned optimism, the man forever willing himself toward the positive. This makes it all the more heartbreaking to read: the combination of seeing the effort laid bare and knowing he didn’t make it. “If you’re gonna be alive, you oughtta at least make an effort to feel good,” he writes at one point. All that’s left is to follow his advice.
Jillian Steinhauer is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in such places as The Awl, the New York Observer, Hyperallergic and Guernica Daily.