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Coming out of nowhere (well, “From off the streets of Cleveland“, as it happens) in 1976, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was one of comics’ truest and most bracing alternatives. It wasn’t part of the Underground Comix movement, despite the participation of Pekar’s old friend and fellow record collector Robert Crumb, and it wasn’t like anything pushed out by the mainstream comics industry.
Crumb’s introduction to Doubleday/Dolphin’s 1986 anthology of early AS strips describes Pekar’s appeal better than anyone else is likely to:
« Yeah, Harvey is an ego-maniac; a classic case… a driven, compulsive, mad Jew… it’s something to see. But how else could he have gotten all those comics published, with almost no money; in total isolation from any comic-publishing ‘scene’ such as exists here in California, or in New York; constantly brow-beating artists to illustrate his stories; handling the distribution himself… only an ego-maniac would persist in the face of such odds. »
« The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic! It is very disorienting at first, but after awhile you get with it. Myself, I love it… Pekar has proven once and for all that even the most seemingly dreary and monotonous of lives is filled with poignancy and heroic struggle. All it takes is someone with an eye to see, an ear to hear, and a demented, desperate Jewish mind to get it down on paper… there is drama in the most ordinary and routine of days, but it’s a subtle thing that gets lost in the shuffle… our personal struggles seem dull and drab compared with the thrilling, suspense-filled, action-packed lives of the characters who are pushed on us all the time in movies, tv shows, adventure novels and… those *other* comicbooks.
What Pekar does is certainly new to the comicbook medium. There’s never been anything even approaching this kind of stark realism. It’s hard enough to find it in literature, impossible in the movies and tv. It takes chutspah to tell it exactly the way it happened, with no adornment, no great wrap-up, no bizarre twist, nothing. Pekar’s genius is that he pulls this off, and does it with humor, pathos, all the drama you could ever want… and in a comic book yet! »
And here’s an atypical example of Mr. Pekar’s storytelling art, a rare but eloquent pantomime vignette. It originally saw print in DC Comics’ run of American Splendor comic books (no. 1, Nov. 2006, published under the Vertigo imprint and edited by Jonathan Vankin.) The symbiosis at play here between writer and artist makes ‘Delicacy’ my very favourite story by Hilary Barta, who somehow never gets matched with a script worthy of his tremendous talent, even when he’s working with Alan Moore (Moore can be very funny, but superhero parodies, even his, seldom are… and Splash Brannigan wasn’t exactly side-splitting). This is a wonderful oddity, one of two times that Barta and Pekar collaborated. Bon appétit!
I once had the, umm, CHALLENGING pleasure of meeting and talking to Harvey Pekar for about 30 minutes in Atlanta. It was sort of easy because, even though it was a crowded room, Harvey gave off a vibe that made him a bit formidable to just “chat up.” People gave him, if not a wide berth, something like a good kicking distance of space. We ended up talking about Harlan Ellison and Jewish cranks as tropes and stereotypes. Also Nixon. Our hatred of fucking Nixon. Easy peasy.
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