Losing His Voice

Harvey Pekar's American Splendor Is Coming to a Movie Theater Near You. Why Can't the Pioneer of Autobiographical Comics Talk About It?

Though Stack is thanked profusely in Our Cancer Year, in Berman and Pulcini's screenplay (which draws heavily from the book) he has been rechristened "Fred" and turned into a youthful illustrator who appears to be in a troubled marriage (or at least saddled with an unreliable wife). In the real world, Stack is 65, a retired University of Missouri art professor who still mourns his beloved wife, who passed away in 1998. In the film, the artist recording Pekar's illness is so incapable of caring for his daughter that Harvey and Joyce wind up adopting her. (American Splendor's April 2001 number featured a moving story about Pekar's real foster daughter, Danielle, warmly illustrated by Stack.)

Biopics often take liberties with reality. But Frank Stack wasn't just another of Harvey's gifted collaborators; he was a man who took a sabbatical and "chained myself to the drawing table for eight months," drawing at the rate of a page a day. Though expressing a deep affection for Pekar, Stack notes that he wasn't the first choice to illustrate Our Cancer Year—"I wasn't even my first choice." According to Stack, a few other illustrators had called it quits after complaining about Brabner's storyline (concerning her humanitarian work with children of wartorn countries), the ponderousness of which at times threatens to knock this book of disquiet off-kilter. Stack didn't let his misgivings dissuade him. "I thought Harvey might be dying, that it might be the last time I ever worked with him. If he wanted me to do it, I wanted to do it—enough to get along with Joyce."

Brabner was also the one to tell him about the movie's divergence from reality. "[She] called me up and said, 'I hate to tell you this, Frank, but in the screenplay you turn out to be this fucked-up drug dealer father.' I try not to let it annoy me," Stack says diplomatically. Though he hasn't seen the film (as it turns out, "Fred" 's messed-up state is more vaguely alluded to), Stack is clearly annoyed by this glib fictionalization of his role in creating A Cancer Year. "I didn't drink, I didn't smoke—I did nothing. I drank coffee. It seems like dishonest art to me."

If Pekar's subject is himself, his arsenal of narrative techniques insures that there's no such thing as a typical American Splendor story. Having absorbed the lessons of some of the best writers you've never heard of, he weds the seemingly straightforward, confessional style to a plethora of framing devices and asides, all so natural one is never disrupted from the spell of the story, the pull of his voice.

Four Walls' Oakes draws comparisons to Kafka along with Beckett; Stack mentions Chekhov. For Pekar, books become a part of his life—and thus find their way into his stories. The bittersweet "Alice Quinn," about meeting an old crush (not to be confused with the New Yorker editor of the same name), moves from a chance reacquaintance with the now married woman to a weekend spent alone reading Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt. As years of memories well up, and he thinks about the novel and the woman, Pekar reaches a high-water mark of emotion—then cuts it short with a return to the workaday world: It's Monday, and he's going to pick up something by Twain now. John O'Brien, founder of Dalkey Archive Press (and editor of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, home to many of Pekar's articles), says that Pekar would often "question his own reading of [the book]. He was trying to get another viewpoint, assuming that his wasn't necessarily right. That's the kind of humility that he brings to literature. And then if he found a writer faking it or going for easy ways out, he'd take it personally, as though the writer were defiling something that was sacred to Harvey—which it was."

The writers Pekar champions (Felipe Alfau! George Ade! Fernando Pessoa!) are often those who were once held in esteem and are now in eclipse, or those never well-known to begin with; though I mean to check her out, Pekar's line that "a Mary Butts (1890-1937) revival is proceeding with all deliberate speed" is unintentionally droll. Reading his short but learned RCF pieces reveals a fondness for stylistic innovators, though the prose he employs to tout them has a matter-of-factness at odds with their ingenuity.

When it comes to storytelling, though, Pekar's technique keeps evolving. In the last three issues of American Splendor, illustrated by David Collier (published serially by Dark Horse in 2002, and appearing in August as the omnibus Unsung Hero), Pekar doesn't say a word. He sits transcribing the wartime exploits of a co-worker, Robert L. McNeill, a Vietnam veteran, and for 75 pages lets McNeill spin a nuanced account of doubt and valor, racism and camaraderie. Pekar sings what was unsung, the little rituals of survival in a combat zone, and sings it entirely in McNeill's voice, his own famous ego nowhere to be seen. His genius in Unsung Hero is to know which story to tell—or hear.

Pekarian autobiographical note: I interviewed Harvey after the 1991 publication of The New American Splendor Anthology. I was in college, devoting possibly too much time to my own weekly comic strip, which had increasingly embraced the Splendid aesthetic: I loved the way, in Pekar's world—and ours—a walk around the block could turn into a chamber piece of chance encounters and oddball conversations or a solo dirge of intensifying melancholy; we had a brief, friendly correspondence. (If I were to write the "E. Park Name Story," I would note that his surname is virtually anagram to mine.) More recently, I got in touch about interviewing him in connection with the film. I mentioned an interest in what he was reading of late, since American Splendor is appealingly laden with literary references. These range from a whole day obsessing over a misplaced copy of Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno or spent reading an I.J. Singer novel—that's Isaac B.'s older brother—to myriad graphic flourishes: a glimpse of the spine of a volume of Proust, an ad for Pale Fire.

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