Harvey Pekar and American Splendor: A Comics Bulletin discussion, Part Two

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Eric Hoffman, Jason Sacks

This week:  Jason and Eric discuss their favorite American Splendor stories. Read part one of their discussion here.

Eric Hoffman: You and I compared our lists earlier, and I think we only agreed on maybe three stories as Pekar's best, which perhaps underlines just how personal or subjective an experience reading Pekar's work can be. Is there one or two in particular that you'd like to talk about in more detail?

Jason Sacks: Let's start at the top with "The Harvey Pekar Name Story."

Eric: What made you choose this story? Because it was one of only two or three that we agreed on as one of our favorites, so I'm interested in knowing why you chose this one.

Jason: It's funny because in some ways it's one of the most atypical stories in the book. Nothing happens. It's straight exposition. But the pacing and tone, and Crumb's smart choices, make the story compelling. I keep going back to it and finding small touches that I like and admire - the kind of circuitous route that the story is told, the way that Crumb hides Pekar's eyes, and the way that the narration perfectly captures Pekar's approach to his comics writing.

Eric: Agreed on every point. The pacing is superb, it doesn't miss a beat. I enjoy the ending quite a bit:  "Who is Harvey Pekar?" Because it ends with that question. You're not meant to know the answer. It's entirely rhetorical. And you're left with that. Yeah, we know all these facts about this guy, but essentially, we don't know him any better than that name in the phone book. This was one story that made its way nearly intact into the movie, and Paul Giamatti gives a superb line reading of it. So there's that, too.

Jason: Moving on to "How I Quit Collecting Records and Put out a Comic with the Money I Saved." Why this one, Eric? This is the second one we agreed on.

Eric: Alright. Well, there's a moral lesson at the center of this story, so in that sense it's a quintessential, classic American Splendor story.

Jason: Quintessential, yes. In that it captures so many elements of Harvey's personality - the acquisitive side, the overthinking, the obsessiveness - but at the same time you can empathize with him. And Crumb's art on this story is gorgeous.

Eric: Yes, Crumb's work on this story is superb, agreed.

Jason: Just the way he draws Harvey's hair says so much about Harvey's personality. And he draws the city so beautifully. I love Crumb's thick line and earthy feel from this era.

Eric: It's a marvelous exposé of Pekar's character flaws. Obsessive-compulsive:  he's buying records obsessively, but he cannot afford them on his salary. Neurotic:  A friend wants to borrow records from him, but he doesn't trust the friend with his records, so he goes to the station with him. Cheap:  He sees some records he wants that might cost him more if he bought them legitimately, so he decides to steal them. He's only confronted by guilt when his plan to steal them backfires.

Jason: In another sense that it's a quintessential Pekar story, it's framed by Pekar addressing his audience, breaking the fourth wall. (Which he also does in "The Harvey Pekar Story" and countless others.)

Eric: Publishing the comic is almost an afterthought to all the neuroses that led to him first considering the undertaking, which is hilarious. Alright, the next story is one you chose:  "Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day." Why this one?

Jason: This story is Harvey at his most desperate, his most down and lonely. He's crushed by the world - and more than anything by his own faults - to the point where we get the one and only dream sequence in the series. But by the final page and his statement "working with people helps ya put yourself and yer problems in perspective" is practically a manifesto. Also, the Budgett/Dumm art here is very effective:  the shading on panels one and two, the ringing phone on page three, the empty bus on page seven emphasizing Harvey's loneliness.

Eric: I see a lot of Pekar's usual themes in this story, and narratively, it falls right in line with what we might call the "Pekar style." Dumm's artwork is pleasingly non-polished, and I think this wonderfully underlines the conventional depictions in comics. Dumm's cross-hatching gives it a very lived-in, urban, working class feeling that perfectly complements the storyline.

Jason: You put your finger on why I like Dumm's work so much:  his use of thick lines and very solid style give his stories a feel that fits Pekar's world well. It's just slightly similar to Crumb in its hand-made, workingman style.

Eric: The next story is one I picked:  "Alice Quinn."

Jason: Why did you choose it?

Eric: This one is illustrated by Sue Cavey, another Cleveland-based artist who collaborated a number of times with Pekar. Her artwork is fairly rough-hewn, but again, it was a perfect complement to this story, which is essentially one of those "one that got away" tales that depends quite a bit on Pekar's faulty memory. Appropriately, Cavey's illustration style is fairly impressionistic – it's almost like a visual representation of trying to see into the past and not being able to make things out clearly. Also, it's a great narration-based story - I don't think there are any word balloons, or if there are, there are very few.

This story was adapted into the Splendor film, if in somewhat truncated form, but it occupies a kind of central point in the film and does a number of things:  it shows that Pekar is an autodidact who once had aspirations for an intellectual life but through a series of fallbacks ended up in a working class job, that he has a modicum of fame and this affords him some notoriety in and around Cleveland, and that he is, at this point in his life, heartbreakingly lonely. Plus it has that wonderful moment where he is reading Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt and after finishing the novel, concludes:  "Life is so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of in the end." This sort of perfectly summarizes the entirety of Pekar's oeuvre.

Jason: Yeah, that's a beautiful moment.

Eric: It's captured wonderfully in the film, as well, with Pekar himself providing the narration.

Jason: I'm struck by how lovely Cavey's art is at conveying the small details effectively, through implication and a perfectly placed line. She's a minimalist but the details are wonderful - Harvey at the bottom of page two, for instance, and the attitudes of the people in line at the movie theatre. In some ways her style reminds me of Frank Stack of Our Cancer Year fame, with its unique combination of minimalism and complexity.

Eric: Yes, her style reminds me of Stack's as well. Next up is one of yours, "An Everyday Horror Story."

Jason: I'm not sure I love this story so much because a lot of it happens in my native region of Oregon and Washington, or because Gerry Shamray's art is so lovely, or because the existential dilemmas here are so powerful, but this great piece about Harvey overreacting to losing his voice is another piece that seems emblematic of the American Splendor I love. In some ways it's filled with moments like the Dreiser element you mentioned above, with Harvey stopping to take in the glories of nature and try his best to get along with his new wife. You can see him trying his best to be normal and happy and not filled with his own angst. But his own shortsighted self-anger does him in, as always, and the fact that we know in retrospect that the marriage at the center of this story will fail gives this story extra poignancy.

Eric: I couldn't have summarized what I like about this story any better.

Jason: Gerry Shamray is another cartoonist who's only known for his work with Harvey, but his style - miles away from Crumb and Dumm - is gorgeous, with its busy, sketchy linework. Particularly the existential angst element of the piece; it's almost as if Pekar is trying to make sense of these various setbacks that have befallen him, to try and connect all the dots but finds that he cannot. We try to make the events of our life fit into a narrative fashion but oftentimes find we cannot:  things simply happen and we do our best to deal with them and prepare ourselves for the next disaster.

Eric: Yes, Shamray's work with Pekar is among the finest Splendor has to offer.

Jason: The story has a perfect title:  "An Everyday Horror Story." This is Harvey's life, unadorned.

Eric: Speaking of Shamray, he also illustrated the next story you chose, the iconic "Late Night with David Letterman" story. Not the only Letterman story - there are a few of them - but maybe the best. Explain why you think that is.

Jason: I love the slow burn of this story, the way that Pekar makes sure to present his emotional prep for the appearance and his concerns about being interesting. Page three, where he's putting away the groceries and ponders what to do, is wonderful - the silent second panel, with the panel borders that seem almost to be shaking as the wheels in Harvey's brain turn, is so full of meaning. I also love how it's portrayed when Harvey is on TV. Notice how the panels dwell more on Harvey than on Letterman, how each scene is specifically drawn to keep him at the center of the story like he's at the center of his own narrative. It's very smart storytelling. The panel at the end of the penultimate page, where Harvey is leaning back like he's sated, is just wonderful.

Eric: Yes, I too noticed how Letterman is essentially "off camera" through most of this story. I thought that was a wonderful touch. It's almost as if Pekar is saying "I'm the star of this show. I'm not on Letterman, Letterman is in American Splendor." It's definitely Pekar utilizing the comic to give a fundamentally Pekar-centric view of events, and that is underlined by his and Shamray's illustrating of the story.

I often wondered how this looked in Pekar's stick-figure version:  were there more medium, two shots of him and Letterman? And did the off-staging of Letterman occur as a result of Shamray's illustration choice? I'm pretty sure Pekar had one stick figure in these panels, with Letterman's words appearing from outside the frame.

Jason: Have you ever seen Pekar's original mockups for the pages? I can't remember ever seeing them.

Eric: Not for these, no. I've seen some of his mock-ups in Joseph Witek's Comics Books as History book, but I don't recall seeing them anywhere else.

Jason: Just curious. We talked about the Letterman experience in last week's column so let's not dwell on that.

Eric: Yes, what's next? How about two I chose? "Read This" and its sequel "Passport to Pimlico."

Jason: Why did you pick those, Eric?

Eric: First off, "Read This." I love Budgett and Dumm's artwork on this story; it has that classic Splendor feel and look to it. It's primarily narrated, so Pekar's voice really dominates the story. It's also one of Pekar's character-based stories, in that Pekar presents this great oddball character, and he does a sublime job, in a matter of a few panels, of making you feel like you really know this guy.

Jason: I just love the ending to that story, too. "Gimme a sour-faced buddy who returns phone calls."

Eric: It may not be one of the "best" Splendor stories - it has a fairly pat ending that maybe doesn't do much more than summarize the story's "moral" (and it's definitely a morality tale), yet I do think it's a great example of Pekar's ability at portraying the complexities of both everyday people and everyday events.

Jason: Also, the story is completely relatable. Who hasn't had trouble getting friends to help them move - and for the one reliable friend end up being the one you didn't expect? It's about seeing the real person behind the façade - which of course is one of the keys to Pekar, beneath this seeming jerk, is a deep, complex man.

Eric: Agreed. I chose "Passport to Pimlico" because it is essentially a sequel to "Read This." The same quirky jazz collector is now a patient at the hospital where Pekar works as a file clerk, and Pekar relates how this guy, who owns a bar that plays only jazz records on the jukebox (Pekar met him in "Read This" because he was trying to offload some "sides" on him, and later helped the guy move when his apartment caught fire and nobody else would lend him a hand.) Now this guy is now sick from what is basically alcoholism, but he has kept his humor about him. I love the artwork in this one – Joe Zabel does a really good job at capturing the levity in this man's face, even as he is essentially facing his mortality, it doesn't really faze him.

Jason: Zabel's another one of Harvey's roster of local guys who worked with him a lot.

Eric: It's another very effective slice-of-life from Pekar, immensely readable, enjoyable, but also dealing with some pretty major themes:  life, death. What's more significant than that? But what it really appears to be on the surface is this meeting between a couple of acquaintances. I love how he and Pekar meet in the hospital lunch room at the end and Pekar is selling him some more records, including the rare LP that gives the story its title. So the story is also a neat little fable about how art is something that binds us together in a significant way.

Our next story is another I chose:  "Lost & Found."

Jason: From the same issue.

Eric: Yes. Care to comment on this one?

Jason: I love these longer stories because you can see the events and actions play out over time. There's a sense of movement with this story, things commenting on each other and Joyce's problems echoing Harvey's. There's a good sense of geography, with the comic shop shown, which contrasts with the internal dilemmas that Joyce and Harvey feel. We get to see why Joyce and Harvey work as a couple even while Harvey is frustrated once again. Zabel and Dumm are also playful with the art at times, using exaggeration in ways that we don't always see with Pekar, to give this the slightest element of whimsy.

Eric: I agree wholeheartedly. The longer stories also allow for a greater abundance of details; not that Pekar isn't always detail-oriented, but the pacing allows for greater nuance in his portrayals of himself and others. I love this story because, as you say, it's one of the more spot-on portrayals of Pekar and Brabner's marriage-in-action, and maybe a good example of why they remained married for so long despite their difficulties with one another, which is something we touched on earlier. I also love any stories that have to do with the absurdity of self-promotion. It's great but also a little nerve-wracking to see that Pekar had to hawk his wares just like everybody else, and this despite being a "Celebrated Comic Book Writer."

Jason: Ha, well I think we know that even if he was producing Jim Lee type comics he'd still be a relentless self-promoter, if only to help him feel less angst.

Eric: Yes, that's probably true. Moving on to our next story is one that you chose, "A Marriage Album," illustrated by the estimable Val Mayerik. This provides a nice transition from "Lost & Found" as you get to see how Pekar and Brabner first met. Why did you choose this story, Jason?

Jason: We touched on this a bit last week, didn't we? This is another one of his "long stories," and its wonderful structure and intelligence show that Pekar was excellent at creating compelling narratives out of the events of his life.

There's so much here that's wonderful - the echoes back to previous stories (Harvey stretched out on the couch on page three, as we touched upon earlier, echoes a number of previous stories). The parallel narratives of the way that Harvey and Joyce think about their lives together, trading letters in the pre-Internet days and living their different lives, is compelling. The scene where Joyce is on a plane, imagining Harvey's face based on all the artists' drawings of him, is pure comics magic that conveys so much.

The story of a relationship growing is always a wonderful story, and when the couple meet and spend time together, you can sense Harvey relaxing and him feeling more and more comfortable. And while we've been discussing the wonders of Zabel's and Dumm's art, the veteran Mayerik shows his experience with his street-level naturalism. It's as if he's wanted to draw something like this for years.

Eric: Yes, I can really see Mayerik seeking his teeth into doing something naturalistic. He really excels at naturalism, and you can see this especially in his Howard the Duck stories, which, aside from the anthropomorphic duck and things like Dr. Bong, does possess some naturalism:  I mean, people take busses, there's an abundance of realistic imagery, street scenes and so on. But here I get the feeling that Mayerik would gladly do without superheroes or funny animals. It was probably a breath of fresh air doing this illustration work.

This story also has an unusual narrative style, unusual for Pekar, that is. It's definitely non-linear, which sets it apart from his other work. Do you have anything to say about the story's non-linearity?

Jason: The story is like a memory being shared, like you're sitting across from Joyce and Harvey at dinner and they keep interrupting each other's stories to add on to the tales. That non-linearity helps give this story its real sense of emotional intimacy - rare for Pekar in that the emotions are positive and sweet.

Eric: Yes, that's nicely put, Jason. Alright, moving on to the next story, Our Cancer Year.

Jason: This may have been the most obvious choice, but why did you choose it?

Eric: Where to begin?

First, it's the first standalone American Splendor "graphic novel," and it's his most sustained personal work of his career. It was published in book format, and not serialized in the Splendor comic (in fact, its subject matter, Pekar's cancer, is the reason he stopped self-publishing Splendor in the first place).

Second, it's his central work, in that it is a capstone to his initial, self-publishing phase of his career – the first sixteen issues of Splendor – and what came after, his work with Dark Horse and DC, and his various other graphic novel-length works, either autobiographical or biographical or otherwise.

It's also the introduction of explicitly political themes in his work, something he would explore later with Not My Israel and Macedonia - though not as effectively, I think. The political material of this story-Brabner's work with kids from war-torn countries - acts as a kind of larger-world metaphor for Pekar's cancer, it also helps put his cancer into some kind of perspective. And that political material is probably primarily Brabner's contribution – the book was co-written by them – yet still I think he and Brabner quite intentionally agreed to have that sub-plot in the work for the reasons I spell out above.

And lastly, it's illustrated perfectly by the great Frank Stack. I mean, they could not possibly have chosen a better artist to work with here. It's just a perfect match. So those are the main reasons I chose it:  its scope, its important and singular place in Pekar's oeuvre, and the aesthetic perfection of the book. It's not one that I can read compulsively, as with his other stuff, but it's certainly the one story of his that probably has the greatest impact. The filmmakers who did that Splendor adaptation obviously thought so, too, as this provided the basis for roughly half of that movie.

Jason: It's a magnificent work, as you say and a kind of ideal capstone at least for that era of his career. The contrast between the cancer and the activism echoed Maus for me in a way, with the contrasting views of the world giving each other impact - ironically, Pekar hated Maus.

Eric: That comparison was on the tip of my tongue, as well, Jason, but I bit it.

Jason: Pekar railed in The Comics Journal about how important he felt it was to not be abstracted from the images of the characters and how we need to confront this sort of material directly.

Eric: Well, Our Cancer Year is about as direct as you can get about its subject. It definitely doesn't pull any punches.

Jason: No, it doesn't pull punches about anything. At the same time, it's about the rich complexity of life and the way that relationships can twist and change but still stay strong.

Eric: Right. I love Brabner's pragmatism about the cancer. The book is really great at conveying how cancer demands all these real-time decisions, and how one must really be on one's toes and improvise to the best of one's ability to get accomplish anything, to beat the disease. Meanwhile, Harvey is really portrayed as being imprisoned by the disease, almost helpless about it, while Joyce is the one making all these hard, practical, real-time choices and decisions. To me, she's really the hero of the story.

Jason: As the spouse/ significant other usually is.

Eric: You get the impression that she's the one who made all the important decisions in the family, such as buying the house, which is sort of a prelude to the major life changes that confront them later in the book.

Jason: I love heroic fiction but the stories that speak to me the most are the ones that I can relate to the most. I may never fly but I can certainly relate to the world that Harvey Pekar created in his comics. It's a tough world, where often you create your own worst problems and cause more harm than good, but it's also a world where one can find happiness and love, often in the most surprising places.

It's the ultimate tribute to this man who loved literature so much to say that he created his own very unique type of literature with American Splendor, a rich look at an ordinary life that shows how complex and compelling all of our lives can be.

Eric: Well said, Jason. I'd like to make the cardinal sin of ending with a quote. This one is from the excellent celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain – on whose Cleveland episode of No Reservations Pekar appears. On Pekar's passing, Bourdain wrote a very eloquent and moving tribute, from which I quote:  "A few great artists come to ‘own' their territory. As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do the best they can — and in spite of the vast and overwhelming forces that conspire to disappoint them — go on, try as best as possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that most difficult of ideals:  to be ‘good' people."

© 2014 Jason Sacks and Eric Hoffman

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