Harvey Pekar's Ode to Cleveland

Late Author's Work Is Paean to Hometown

joseph remnant

By Jillian Steinhauer

Published March 07, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
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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.

Read all the Forward’s special coverage of Cleveland, including Cleveland Rocks — Not Really, Sweating in the Cleveland Schvitz and For Cleveland Jews, Schvitz Is Must

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.”


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