Coming of Age, in Frames
By Harvey Pekar
Art by Dean Haspiel with Lee Loughridge
Vertigo, unpaginated, $19.99.
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Anyone who has seen the 2003 award-winning film “American Splendor” or watched Harvey Pekar’s confrontations with David Letterman late at night back in the 1990s is almost certain to conflate or confuse the real-life Pekar with one or another media version of him. Fans of his comic art for grown-ups have long been familiar with still another Pekar. Or has it been the same life-long Jewish Clevelander the whole time, cast and recast by himself and his chosen artists in various media? Is it possible that the least post-modern character of his generation has perhaps proved the most post-modern of all?
Such questions seem inevitable for Pekar’s latest volume, because this is the closest to a bildungsroman that he is ever likely to script for his small army of graphic artists. “The Quitter,” characteristically for the artistic edge of the emerging graphic-novel genre, comes to us unpaginated and cheerfully eccentric, with photos of the young Harvey in the last section (including his employee-identification button at the Carling Brewing Company). His collaborator, Dean Haspiel, is one of those industry professionals who not only has worked in the commercial big time for DC and Marvel but also drawn semi-autobiographical comics. Haspiel’s dust-cover photo has him sporting a broken nose after engaging a bar fight in Brooklyn. These two are artists and intellectuals of a different type. They want us to know it.
And that marks the strangest thing about “The Quitter.” Pekar’s tale of the Cleveland world of lower-middle class Jews and urban decay, of his life in the veterans hospital where he worked for a quarter-century, and of unsuccessful marriages and love affairs, genuine friendships, low expectations and endless disappointments failed to inscribe him as a Tough Jew. He was, instead, a member of that gentle tribe-within-a-tribe, the socialistic humanist at large, eager to talk to ordinary people and get their stories. He was Studs Terkel with a vision of comics reborn as mini-novels, mainly semi-autobiographical.
Here, in “The Quitter,” Pekar is once again bested by life’s disappointments, which he blames almost entirely on his own frequent failure to follow through thanks to his lack of self-confidence. But he is also tough. He’s a son of immigrants growing up in a sometimes rugged street life, for a long time more likely to follow the path of his older brother, the sailor, than the upward-mobility urged by parents on so many Jews born in the 1930s and after. He’s a defensive tackle until he leaves the high school football team in a huff, and then a street-brawler with a reputation in the poorer section of Shaker Heights, not so distant from his parents’ little grocery store in a growingly black inner-city neighborhood.
Haspiel’s workman-like drawing style, looking right out of the 1940s, is perfectly suited to capture the mood.
Like so many American Jews of a generation just prior to his own, Pekar goes on to an assortment of blue-collar jobs, brewery to postal route. He starts college but soon drops out, all the while growing interested in jazz and literature for his own pleasure and enlightenment. Then he gets and holds on to a secure office job — much like some character from a less proletarian Clifford Odets play, trapped but still dreaming. It’s a pretty bad job, but he has his workmates, his writing for jazz magazines and his interior life as he waits for something else to happen. The pathos of it all is on display, without any emotional self-aggrandizement. He clearly disappoints his mother, a near communist, and he has a violent confrontation with his father, an Old World Jew who has no use for jazz or secularism.
In “American Splendor,” Pekar’s character ends up largely saved from his own anxieties by his shared love with Joyce Brabner, and by a domestic life that finally has emerged with the two of them and their adopted daughter. But no one promised that Pekar could finish off his demons. We learn in the conclusion of “The Quitter” that he’s been retired from the veterans hospital for a few years, finally enjoying widespread critical recognition but still uneasy. At 65, with past cancer and one recurrence, with a college-age child and hardly anything to show materially but a small house in Cleveland, it’s not an unreasonable angst.
How many artists or intellectuals could lay it out in such a fashion, as if they were throwbacks to the world before visiting lectureships and other university appointments, arts fellowships and the like? Pekar also recovers a lost world (if not an especially happy one) as a particular kind of artist, the “comic scripter” who works well below the radar of recognized cultural attainments. The book’s very last page shows us a contract for “The Quitter,” and Pekar speculating gloomily on whether sales of his books will fall back down to the pre-film level. The exceptional or the well-connected writer or comic-artist-turned-animator, in that previous generation, sometimes made it to Hollywood for films or television, still under the critical radar. Others, thousands of talented others, wrote novels or plays, but they never left Brooklyn, Pittsburgh or Cleveland and never could leave their day jobs, either.
Whatever the case, today Pekar earns our attention as a unique Jewish American intellectual and artist. Within the world of comics, where early decades of newspapers saw relatively few Jewish artists (admittedly, those few contained such greats as Rube Goldberg, Harry Hirshfield, Will Eisner and Al Capp), the comic-book trade followed with a sustained boom — but earned scant respect. Among the Underground Comix, another zone with relatively few Jews, Pekar must be counted as a phenomenon several times over. Ben Katchor, Art Spiegelman and other younger types all seem to have evolved in fairly expectable career turns, at least for these days. Not Pekar, he of the inimitable Jewish lower middle class and its life in the urban ethnic American Diaspora.
Success at last? Oh, yes. “The Quitter” sold out its initial 15,000 print run before its actual release in mid-October. But will Pekar stop fretting aloud? Don’t count on it.
Paul Buhle teaches at Brown University and is a co-editor of the recently published “Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World” (Verso).