Friday, January 20, 2006

Harvey Pekar's No 'Quitter'

Those of you who have been reading my rants regularly may recall my teenaged love affair with comic books. Well, specifically, my love affair was with Invisible Woman from The Fantastic Four. And with the Catwoman, Black Canary and Mary Jane, Peter Parker’s girlfriend from The Amazing Spider-Man. But those are tails I’ll spin some other time, nudge-nudge-wink-wink. The point, true believers, is that much of my junior high school allowance lines Stan Lee’s retirement coffers.

You probably remember how my love affair with comic books ended, too. Young Johnny discovered the infinite charms of the female sex. Four-color cartoon heroines paled beside the flesh-and-blood ingénues of my freshman class. The comics were banished to the basement and I took up a new hobby, one that to this very day fills most of my leisure time: the plebeian art of skirt-chasing. Over the years, I’ve dipped into a comic book or two. I tried Frank Miller’s updated, adult version of Batman. I checked into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sin City. Some of these were quite good. Sadistic, bleak and over-plotted at times, but good. Not enough, though, to prompt me to join the ranks of other pot-bellied thirtysomethings filling the aisles of local comic shops on any given Saturday. My passion for the genre, it seemed, had faded with my last case of acne vulgaris.

This changed over the holidays. A friend gave me a copy of Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter for Christmas. At first, I thought she was trying to tell me something; but no, she just thought I’d like a book she’d enjoyed reading herself. The Quitter is 104 pages long and hardbound. But it’s not a “book” book. It’s a graphic novel. That, in layperson's terms, is a comic book. It’s also one of the best pieces of autobiography published in America in 2005.

The Quitter (Vertigo/DC Comics) tells a story that manages to be both universal and unique at the same time. Harvey Pekar grows up in a tough, middle-class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940’s and 1950’s. His parents, Polish-Jewish immigrants, run a small grocery store and love the son they don’t understand. Pekar, when he comes of age, longs to make a “success” of himself. He tries the usual channels for doing so: high school sports, college, the military and jobs of various kinds. Pekar shows ability in many of these endeavors, but he’s sabotaged by a self-defeating attitude and a fear of failure. He bolts at the first sign of a challenge of any kind. The only thing he consistently excels at is street-fighting. Early on, his skill as a brawler brings him some much-needed self-esteem. A spontaneous act of violence against a family member, however, shocks Pekar into recognizing that the path he’s following is a dead-end street. He realizes he needs to find a purpose in life, but seems patently unable to do so.

Pekar’s unlikely salvation is music. Intrigued by the blooming jazz scene of the 1950’s, Pekar soaks up jazz records of all kinds. He attempts to learn the trumpet, but true to form, he soon grows frustrated and quits. Jazz criticism, though, holds his attention and he’s driven to start writing it himself. He publishes reviews in some noted jazz magazines. His interest piqued, Pekar branches out and explores other kinds of music and, later, literature. A man who seems to be the antithesis of the intellectual becomes one, thus confirming the ennobling powers of culture. Around the same time, he finds a job he can live with—file clerk at a Cleveland V.A. hospital. He attains a bit of peace. Then, things get interesting.

In 1962, Pekar befriends a young cartoonist named Robert Crumb. By the end of the decade, Crumb is a celebrated “underground” comic book artist and counterculture darling. Pekar, watching Crumb’s star rise, hits upon the idea of using the comic book genre to tell stories of average people’s everyday lives. He writes a few autobiographical tales, which he persuades Crumb and other artists to illustrate. Pekar self-publishes these tales in a comic book series he dubs American Splendor. In doing so, he at last seems to overcome his personal obstacles. Over the years that follow, through its creator’s ceaseless effort, American Splendor attracts a loyal cult audience and mainstream media attention. David Letterman (back when he had hair and an interest in his job) invites Pekar on his program for several well-received appearances. Mass-market anthologies are published. By 2003, a film adaptation starring Paul Giamatti is released to wide acclaim. Yet Pekar, now a retired family man and a comic book icon, still worries about failure. The story comes full circle.

There’s a lot more to this book than what I’ve summarized here. Pekar’s depiction of himself is brutally honest. The hero of The Quitter is, like all of us, a mass of flaws and contradictions. He does take this opportunity, as Whitman phrased it, to “celebrate [him]self” a bit. But not too much. By the end of the novel, I found myself admiring this Midwestern shlub for not giving up, for discovering his purpose while in the process of fulfilling it. If you happen to be a “lost child” like me, or happen to know one, you’ll find solace in Harvey Pekar’s saga, vividly rendered in black and white by artist Dean Haspiel.

Harvey Pekar is many things, but he’s not a quitter.


The Best of American Splendor (Ballantine Books, 2005)

American Splendor: Our Movie Year (Ballantine Books, 2004)

American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (Ballantine Books, 2003)

See Above Post

These are pictures of my junior high school "girlfriends": the Catwoman, Black Canary, Mary Jane from The Amazing Spider-Man and Invisible Woman from The Fantastic Four. The references to them will make sense if you read the posting listed above. Cool pictures, though, huh?

Monday, January 09, 2006

One Day at a Time

2005 used one hand to shake the empty Fritos bag. The other, he used to wipe grease on his T-shirt. “Hey, John,” he called, “you’re out of snacks again. Fetch me those chips in the cupboard. I can’t get up now. It’s Tatum O’Neal’s turn to dance.”

John Left walked over to the TV and switched it off at the console. The image of Tatum O’Neal and her partner twirling about dissolved into a blank screen.

“Hey!” exclaimed 2005. “What’s the idea? Some host you are. Keep it up and I might feel unwelcome. Turn Tatum back on.”

Left folded his arms and stood in front of the TV. “In case you haven’t noticed, the holidays are over. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

2005 scratched the stubble on his face. “Well, yeah. But I’ve got to reexamine my options first. Make a few phone calls. Figure out my next move. I’ll get it done soon.”

“That’s what you said back in November,” said Left, standing his ground. “You haven’t done shit since then. All you do is sit on your ass, gobble junk food, run up the phone bill and watch TV. Sorry, ‘pal,’ but the party’s over. Time to move on.”

“Look, Johnny-boy. You don’t want to get stirred up. Think of your delicate condition.”

“I am. It’s not that ‘delicate’ anymore. And I’d probably be a lot farther along if I didn’t have to deal with a layabout like you 24-7.”

“I told you, Johnny. I got it all planned out.” 2005 tapped his forehead with his index finger. “It’s all up here. I just got to wait for the right opportunity and spring into action. You can’t rush these things. Timing is key.”

Left didn’t reply. He exited the room. 2005 cracked a satisfied grin, dug into the candy dish sitting on the coffee table in front of him and shoveled a handful of M & M’s into his face. He could hear Left moving through the house, but he paid little attention. 2005 had used the remote to switch the TV back on and was fully focused on the waltzing figure of Tatum O’ Neal. Not bad, he thought, ogling Tatum, for a recovering smack addict.

Minutes later, Left reappeared. He tossed a bulging Minnesota Vikings gym bag onto the couch next to where 2005 was sitting.

“Hayb! Whub’s dis?” asked 2005, his mouth full of chocolate.

“I did you a favor,” said Left. “You’re all packed and the car’s warming up outside. Remember that fifty bucks you won on the football pool? It’s just enough for a bus ticket out of town. Come on, I’ll drive you down to the depot.”

2005 sat there with his mouth agape. A yellow M & M was still sitting on his tongue. Before he could say a word, Left grabbed him by the hand and hauled him to the door.

“B-but Johnny!” whined 2005. “You can’t do this. Think of your shoulder. Who’ll keep you company while you’re convalescing?”

Left shoved 2005 out the door. Once outside, he led his rotund guest to the idling Volvo in the driveway. By the nose. “My shoulder’s just about fine. I won’t need any company, ‘cause my convalescing’s done. As is your stint of freeloading here.”

A swift kick in the ass propelled 2005 into the back seat of the Volvo. In a flash, Left was behind the wheel and on the road. The old year sat and chewed his nails.

“You’re gonna regret this, Johnny,” said 2005. “I’ve stuck by you through thick and thin. You’re gonna miss me when—”

“Don’t even say it!” said Left, hanging a sharp right. “No, I won’t. You were the worst year ever. I’m gonna miss you like. . .like a shoulder injury.”

The Volvo skidded to a halt in front of the Greyhound station. Left exited the car and ran around to the passenger’s side. He opened the door, grabbed 2005 by his leg and pulled.

“Please, John, don’t do this!” pleaded 2005, clinging desperately to the seat. “One more month! Just give me one more month, to get my head together! You know I don’t move fast. I like to examine all the angles first. I look before I leap! Please, John, I’ll be good, I promise!”

Left dragged 2005 onto the sidewalk and dropped him there in a trembling heap. He returned to the car for the Vikings bag; this he dumped on the pavement next to ’05. He pushed a fifty-dollar bill into the old year’s sweaty palm.

“There,” exhaled Left, “you’ve got just enough cash to buy a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. You’ll love it there, since you’re such a Vikings fan. Better hurry. The Dog leaves in about fifteen minutes. Thanks for a rotten, miserable and wasted year. Never come back now, y’hear?”

Left hopped back into his Volvo. 2005 screamed something as his beleaguered former host zoomed off. Left, however, cranked up the radio to avoid hearing it. An oldies station. Katrina and the Waves were warbling “Walking on Sunshine”. Left sighed. Even Katrina’s caterwauling was preferable to 2005’s.

“Pardon me,” said a sqweaky voice from in back. “But could you change the station? Unless you like this retro crap.”

Left glanced into his rear view mirror. Mini-Me—or his twin brother—was sitting in the back seat, wearing a top hat and a diaper.

“How the hell did you get in here?” Left asked, turning down the volume.

“I slipped in when you were wrestling with that fat greasy guy on the sidewalk,” said the little person. “I’ve been waiting for you. You’re John Left, right?”

Left winced. “Yes. And I’ve only been hearing that joke since I was ten years old. Glad you got it out of your system. Sorry I’m late, but the old year was reluctant to leave. Please tell me you’re totally different from him.”

Mini-Me laughed. “Don’t be so impatient. You and I have plenty of time to get to know each other. Let’s just take it one day at a time. Speaking of time, what time is it?”

Left checked the dashboard clock. “It’s 8:15pm. Why?”

Mini-Me’s eyes widened. “Step on it, would you, John? ‘Dancing With the Stars’ is on tonight and I want to catch the show. Tatum O’Neal is on there, and let me tell you, she is quite the hot-tie!”

Left groaned and drove on. “One day at a time,” he said to himself. “One day at a time.”