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)


Blogger Happy Villain said...

I saw the movie American Splendor, which I found as difficult to watch as Bridget Jones' Diary. Not because it was bad, but because watching him amble through life as he did, watching him falter... it was painful. I found myself hoping some dumb luck would happen his way because he was incapable of avoiding disasters, in his decisions and his actions. It was difficult viewing.

I'm a much bigger fan of The Maxx. I still crush on him a little. Gotta love a misunderstood, giant homicidal bunny!

11:41 PM  

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