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?

Ever the persuasive hustler, Harvey immediately pitched some titles to review for the Voice. I mentioned that I'd just received the intriguing if intimidating Detour, by the little-known American novelist Michael Brodsky—a revision of a novel that first appeared in 1977. Harvey not only knew the book, he had the original version, and several other Brodsky titles besides; he also mentioned that the novelist had lived in Cleveland for a time, studying medicine before abandoning it for a literary career that has brought high praise and long-standing obscurity. Cleveland connection notwithstanding, Brodsky's career seems a shadow to Harvey's, with the American Splendor film another version of a project that also had its roots in the late '70s.

When I tried to finalize a formal interview, however, his publicist slipped on the muzzle, citing an "exclusive" with another periodical. In short, Harvey wasn't allowed to "talk" to me—though of course we'd already been talking for weeks. Here, then, is a fiendish task, a bit of Oulipian journalism: a profile of a motormouth in which he's barred from speaking. (Pekar is well acquainted with the group of constraint-happy fictioneers known as the Oulipo, having reviewed some titles by the late Georges Perec, famous for a novel that eschewed entirely the letter e.) The conceit is strangely fitting and obviously ironic—Pekar's working-class-steeped voice of the people suppressed by those ostensibly promoting it.

He's lost his voice before. In "An Everyday Horror Story" (delicately illustrated by Gerry Shamray, and also dramatized in the film), Pekar recounts a months-long spell of literal speechlessness, a mysterious malady that began as he went on a honeymoon (with a previous wife) in 1977. More publicly, he capped off a string of feisty Late Night appearances by wearing a T-shirt that said "On Strike Against GE"; having weathered Letterman's condescension in prior episodes, he finally spoke truth to his host's boss's power. (Dalkey's O'Brien, a 15-year acquaintance, says that "if you listened to what Harvey was actually saying, it was something like, 'Dave, you know you think you're a satirist but you don't know the first damn thing about satire.' ")

Aesthetically, too, Pekar is a master of strategically deployed silence, the wordless frame. In one of my favorite short Pekar strips, which appears on the back of the first American Splendor anthology (1986) (but not in Ballantine's movie tie-in omnibus), Mr. Boats, a colorful VA co-worker, asks our man in the elevator, "What d'you say? You been mighty quiet lately." Our man isn't forthcoming, alluding to something he wants to keep under wraps. Mr. Boats approves of his reticence, concluding, "So much is said in silence . . . Isn't that something? So much is said in silence."

Related Stories:

J. Hoberman's review of American Splendor

"Urban Renewal: Harvey Pekar's City of Industry" by Laura Sinagra

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