Arts & Culture

Harvey Pekar: Mensch

Scarcely a reader of this on-line column will be a stranger to the name of Harvey Pekar. Those old and stay-up-late enough to have caught Harvey on the Late Show with David Letterman remember the host more anxious about controversy … Read More

By / November 20, 2008

Scarcely a reader of this on-line column will be a stranger to the name of Harvey Pekar. Those old and stay-up-late enough to have caught Harvey on the Late Show with David Letterman remember the host more anxious about controversy than he is these days, but Harvey much the same, fearless, outspoken, cranky even but delightful. Likewise, if no one gets portrayed honestly in film, outside of documentaries (even here, accuracy is questionable), the award-winning American Splendor of 2003 must be the exception because Paul Giamatti was close to the real character, and we got to see Harvey in the flesh (as well as an animated version) for the sake of comparisons.

In short, he’s a poissunality, in the yinglish phrase, and emphatically also a mensch. If the late Yiddish teacher-editor-scholar Itche Goldberg once complained that I.J. Singer’s anti-humanism broke with Yiddish tradition, Harvey’s humanism is securely within that tradition. Sholem Aleichem and many others less remembered would recognize him as a fellow toiler in the fields of real Jewish culture.

In recent years, Harvey has turned from the self-explanatory mode of the American Splendor comic series, toward wider subjects, not always Jewish by any means. (Reviewer’s disclosure: several of the historical volumes have been in collaboration with me.) He may be the only comic scripter on the planet who can take any book and break it down into a lucid story line, without any particular need for superheroes, melodrama or any of the other clichés that have haunted the foremost figures of comic art. Like Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, James Sturm, Seth Tobocman, Peter Kuper, Sharon Rudahl, Sabrina Jones or Lance Tooks-to mention only a handful of the artists who seem staggeringly brilliant to me-Harvey finds something that comics seemed to lack for generations. But he’s also special because he is the model of what the writer would be when comics grow up fully.

I am not sure that Harvey Pekar: Conversations captures nearly all of this story, but I do not blame the editor or interviewers. Harvey exudes an intuitive modesty even when he is rightly proud of accomplishments. That may relate to Harvey never having left Cleveland for the bright lights of New York or the California sun, and the unending effort just to make a living. But I think it is part of being close to his parents’ world after all, the unfamous, struggling Jews with socialistic instincts, sensitive to the sufferings and anxieties of others.

What the volume does capture, however, is precious stuff, and valuable to anyone who wants to follow Harvey’s work closely. In exchanges that stretch from 1984 to 2007, interviewers ask the good questions, from Harvey’s family background, his career wage-labor at the Veteran Administration hospital, and his early connections with Robert Crumb to the Letterman episodes, his cancer (and the book that came out of it, Our Cancer Year, co-scripted by Joyce Brabner), his views of assorted comic artists and the state of the comic business, his taste in literature and his unfulfilled aspirations. Of special interest, raised by several interviewers but most keenly by Brian Heater, is his work process: how he divides sheets of paper into panels and constructs a story-board of sorts, with stick figures and dialogue, for the artist to fill out. His genius is still a mystery (even to him) and likely to remain so, but we can get closer to it by reading carefully about his work.

The role of collaborators in this book is also fascinating and valuable to examine. Wife Joyce Brabner is very much on hand here, in several interviews over the decades, relating things about his work (and her own) that show us near-photographic images of the writer at work. Joe Zabel, frequently an artist for Harvey, is also on hand several times, and they engage in a dialogue that replicates, in some ways, the ways they must have discussed how they were putting their work together.

The detail, in short, is thick, and every Pekar enthusiast will find something of intense interest that no other reader, let alone a reviewer, will feel identically about. For this reviewer, Harvey reached inward for his 2006 volume The Quitter, drawn wonderfully by Dean Haspiel, an intensely autobiographical journey through adolescent experiences and bitter disappointments (dropping out of college, foremost), a book that tells us so much that we wince for Harvey as we read it. His discussion of this book is more than useful although definitely useful, and in a different way, so is his discussion of a book never destined to be a big seller, Macedonia, intended with a single purpose to show that not all conflicts even in conflicted regions of the world needs to lead to bloodshed. The worst can be avoided.

Ask for utopia or utopianism and you won’t find it here, or in any of Harvey’s work. Ask for realism, pathos and humanism and you will find all you are looking for. This is a book to read and read again.