Harvey Pekar calls his Cleveland comic book American Splendor, and now a pomo biopic (opening August 15) bears the name as well. It’s a title that becomes exponentially funnier in contrast to his (and my) hometown’s prevailing image of rust-belt malaise, terminal towers, and blistering river burn. Without getting too artsy about it, Pekar the prole audiophile’s day-in-the-life strip trades on and adds to Cleveland’s failure-porn lore, that exportable dread that malcontents both savvy and savant have wrought into an enduring psychogeographic poetic.
Though they probably have Sun Ra fandom in common, Pekar isn’t Pere Ubu, puking out Rorschach splotches from the depths of the municipal pipes. He’s not shrieking from rooftops and rattling the vent shafts of abandoned warehouses. He’s more interested in the characters smelted by the insular environment, their flat-vowelling faux wisdoms and the deez-dems-doze of their spat dialect. It’s the talking that gets him through (which explains one installment’s panic over a vocal-cord nodule). But in the life and death of American cities like Eminem-Iggy’s Detroit, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo, or the Pittsburgh of The Deer Hunter (Cleveland lending key locations to that Pennsylvania-scape), it’s sometimes the death, or at least the idea of death, that sustains iconic life. Pekar isn’t gonna pull a John Berryman, but he makes sure you know he’s considered it. In “Cleveland Underground,” the poet da. levy wrote “Now that’s why there are more poets/in California/it being more romantic to/wreck in San Francisco than/to be a discrepancy in Cleveland.” And by 1968, levy, like avant-noise geyser guitarist Peter Laughner in 1977, had rocketed himself to the tombs. R. Crumb writes in his 1985 American Splendor intro, “Cleveland is a hard town. . . . I came near committing suicide when I lived there.” Even in the smashed-glass everycity of hip-hop area coding, Bone Thugs’s siren-soaked Cleveland presented a special kind of dead end.
Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, seems, in American Splendor, kind of sorry her husband’s comics don’t acknowledge the beauty of the place. But the kind of buckeyed optimism that’s fueled post-’70s rust-belt gentrification and renewal could never trump the sheer fantasy power of what one of my friends calls “the sharpening of the senses on the edge of ruin.” Levy’s “sore mouth of the Cuyahoga/eating and eaten by the dawn/and the city” inspired Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to sing “Fucked up in Cleveland/short flight to nothing/heavens up to something/heavens up to something/levy’s up to something.” That was in “Small Flowers Crack Concrete,” which Pekar may not have heard, but the resonance of which he deeply understands.
“Comic Book Legeng Harvey Pekar: Tongue-Tied About American Splendor Movie” by Ed Park