“Who is Harvey Pekar?” asks comic-book icon Harvey Pekar in “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” a 48-panel monologue devoted to the enduring mysteries of his unusual handle. Born in Cleveland in 1939, he is, or has been: a file clerk at the VA hospital there, a job he held for 37 years until retirement; a juvenile delinquent, college dropout, and failed army recruit; a jazz aficionado, critic, and record hustler; a Rust Belt anthropologist and antisocial shut-in; a “driven, compulsive mad Jew” (as friend and frequent collaborator R. Crumb calls him); an expansive talker, with a voice both sandpapered and musical; the son of immigrants from Bialystock; a cantankerous guest on Letterman; a book reviewer of zero pretense and maximum stamina who has braved seas of prose unleashed by the most daunting authors this side of Thomas Bernhard; a cancer survivor; a husband three times over; a guardian of a teenage girl; a loser; a mensch.
If you know any of this already, chances are it’s because Pekar is, most famously, a legend of underground comics, thanks to his autobiographical series American Splendor. Carved from the pile of lived days, his stories range from the weighty to the evanescent, told with klieg-light honesty or just an ace reporter’s ear for talk. Unhampered by his inability to draw, he scripts skeletal storyboards and enlists different illustrators to bring them to life, a self-portrait for four or 40 hands. It’s a song of himself he’s performed over the past 27 years, and it’s a self laden with the techniques and inner-directed impulses of the most exacting of modern authors: self-pity and self-loathing, self-criticism and self-reference, self-consciousness above all. (“My main writing influences were prose fiction writers,” he has said.)
Pekar’s work “goes beyond documenting a life, into reflecting the art, reflecting the life, reflecting the art,” says Four Walls Eight Windows publisher John Oakes, who has put out two American Splendor collections as well as the graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1994). A nearby object lesson in blurring the art-life border: Pekar has been the recipient of lavish praise in the Voice; he has contributed articles and comics here; and, in one angst-addled American Splendor story from 1983 (illustrated by Crumb), he portrays himself as so frustrated by the silence of an unnamed “assistant book editor” (to whom he has sent his comic book) that he punches the wall, face contorted in a rictus of pure Grub Street agony, as trapezoids of texts hem him in.
More than the sum of his serial selves, Pekar is now poised to become something altogether unexpected yet apropos: a movie star. In his comics, friends and co-workers regale him with jokes and stories, hoping he’ll include them in his next book—a delightful jockeying for low-watt fame that Pekar turns into casual metafiction. But the Sundance-feted film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (opening August 15), may make him think twice before giving the poor mouth—or at least representing himself doing so. The movie stars the superbly hangdog Paul Giamatti as “our man” Harvey and the chameleonic Hope Davis as his wife (and Cancer co-writer) Joyce Brabner. It freely mingles model with mimic by bringing the real-life Harvey on screen. Though talk of an American Splendor movie had percolated for years—everyone from Jonathan Demme to Leonardo DiCaprio has shown an interest—and a stage adaptation played L.A. in 1990, Berman and Pulcini’s playfully vertiginous take on Pekar’s life and art is as faithful and entertaining as one could hope for.
Publisher Oakes sees in Pekar’s stories a Beckettian sympathy for “the plight of the guy in the street, the person who’s really down on his luck, the sense of ‘Jesus, what else is going to fall on my head today?’ ” It’s Pekar’s stock-in-trade. Oakes muses wryly about the challenge in his friend’s artistic future: “What’s he going to do now that he’s going to be a big success?”
The first issue of American Splendor cost $1 in 1976. Among the artists Pekar invited to illustrate it was fellow Clevelander Gary Dumm, who recalls being paid $50 per page. A co-worker of Pekar’s had bought a silkscreen of Dumm’s, featuring comic-strip pioneer E.C. Segar’s Popeye underneath the immortal tautology “I Yam What I Yam.” Pekar spotted it in her office and got in touch with Dumm; the two have worked together ever since. Dumm cites American Splendor‘s focus on the seemingly mundane as a precursor to reality TV, in its unflinching recording of Pekar’s less than civilized moments. “That’s what attracted me about Harvey’s stuff—here he is in a story, acting like a shit, and it’s in here.” Indeed, a goofier Pekar might well have taken Popeye’s credo as his own.
Frank Stack already had a reputation in underground comics before reading an early issue of American Splendor. Astonished by what he saw, he wrote a fan letter and soon joined the stable of Pekar depicters; he also executed the approximately 3,000 illustrations in Our Cancer Year, about Pekar’s battle with lymphoma. He’s in awe of not only Pekar’s storytelling skill, but his determination: “Think of this guy who has the ego to write things about himself that most people would not write about—this strange confidence to see things clearly. Why in the world did he have that confidence? It had been failure after failure for him.”
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.
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.”
J. Hoberman’s review of American Splendor
“Urban Renewal: Harvey Pekar’s City of Industry” by Laura Sinagra