Harvey Pekar was born in Cleveland, Ohio October 8th, 1939 to Saul and Dora Pekar, who also had another boy, Allen. As a child, Harvey lived with his Polish immigrant parents above a grocery store owned by his father. After completing High School, Harvey attended only one year of university before dropping out and joining the United States Navy. Pekar began writing comic books in 1972 while working as a file clerk at the Veterans Administration Hospital and freelance jazz critic. His first comic was self-published in 1976, titled American Splendor with money saved from his previous habit of collecting jazz records. This series of comics reviewed various pieces of Harvey’s everyday life. Although Harvey wrote many comics, he hired various artists to illustrate them, most notably Robert Crumb, whom he was also friends with. In his introduction to American Splendor, Crumb describes Pekar as “An ego-maniac; A classic case… a driven, compulsive, mad Jew.” His drive and ego however, are what enabled him to publish his own comic books, namely American Splendor, annually for nearly 20 years before it was assimilated into Dark Horse Comics. Within these comics, Harvey followed a number of offshoots including: American Splendor: Our Cancer Year, American Splendor: Unsung Heroes and American Splendor: Our Movie Year. In 2003, New Line Cinema created a well-received film adaptation of American Splendor of the same name. Harvey has appeared on numerous times on The Late Show with David Letterman as well as in radio shows with WKSU and NPR radio stations. Although he suffered from prostate cancer as well as lymphoma, Pekar’s death in 2010 was attributed to an accidental overdose of painkillers. His wife, Joyce Brabner and daughter, Danielle Batone, succeed him.
1939: born October 8th
1962: meets Robert Crumb
1966: began working as file clerk at V.A. hospitial
1971: began writing comics
1976: began self-published American Splendor
1987: receives American Book Award for first American Splendor anthology
1994: American Splendor: Our Cancer Year published
1995: Our Cancer Year receives Harvey Award for best original graphic novel
1991: Began freelance work with WKSU radio station
2003: film adaptation of American Splendor
2005: The Quitter, an autobiographical comic about Pekar’s childhood published
2006: Ego and Hubris: The Michael Malice Story published (biography on Michael Malice,
2010: dies July 12th at age 70, survived by his wife, Joyce Brabner and a daughter
Read Pekar’s Obituary in the Telegraph
Read the Movie Review of American Splendor in the NY times
See the Comics Alliance Pekar Timeline
By Victoria Casier
A First Impression of American Splendor
A few weeks ago, I had never heard of American Splendor or Harvey Pekar, and as I began reading it, I was reluctant to immerse myself into the comic book.
My first impression, after having read only the first few stories, was that it is boring. It’s about some guy’s average, everyday, boring life; the stories didn’t seem to say much of anything. This was a far cry from all the other comic books I’ve read: heavily coloured, exaggerated, exciting and largely fictional.
As I continued to read however, American Splendor got more interesting, and Harvey’s character gained new dimensions. In each story Harvey reveals something about himself, whether it’s something big and obvious, or something only implied. So as I continued to read, I began to learn more about Pekar as a person and as a writer.
I found it somewhat hard to relate to, mostly due to our different contexts I think – him, a young to middle aged man living in the city of Cleveland collecting jazz records, and me, a 19 year old girl coming from a small town, growing up on a farm and reading as much as possible. I also found some of the slang hard to read at times, written as it would be heard, especially when his stories involved older Jewish people with strong accents.
What made these comics relatable though, was the sense of realism, and Harvey’s values and personality. One of the most obvious traits that show through right from the beginning is his hard work ethic and perseverance. In the Introduction for American Splendor, Robert Crumb writes of Harvey Pekar:
“Harvey is an ego-maniac; a classic case…a driven, compulsive, mad jew…but how else could he have gotten all those comic published…If Harvey wasn’t so driven, there would never’ve been any American Splendor.”
Following the introduction, in many of the stories within Harvey is confronted with obstacles to his goals, whatever they may be at the time. If someone doesn’t want to pay $2 for a record, he talks it up, if he doesn’t want to go to his menial job, he makes himself get up and go, and as Crumb writes about in the introduction, if someone pushes down his attempts to write or publish his comics, he gets right back up again.
The story that has stuck with me the most from American Splendor thus far (I am still reading the second anthology ‘More American Splendor’), was the final three-page short ‘Hypothetical Quandary’ from the first anthology, in which Pekar considers how nice it would be to a well-paid famous writer, then how being in such a position would change his writing and his perspective. He wonders about the blandness that kind of life might entail and says “But then, knowin’ myself, I could always find something to get shook up over and write about. Let’s face it, I’m not gonna become a mellow man over night no matter what happens!” Harvey realizes that he wouldn’t be the same person if he made a lot of money, not only would it change his viewpoint but his writing would change. Although he’d always find something else to write about, he finds his current life to be an interesting mix of exciting and mundane experiences.
American Splendor: Adult Comic Book
What are adult comic books?
While researching this, I found there was one main obstacle to finding the answer: porn. Every time I added the word ‘adult’ to a search, the only (though very numerous) results I would find also contained ‘porn’ or ‘erotica’ in the title. It seems there is not much information to divide comic books from ‘adult’ comic books, besides the obvious of explicit sex, which is not the type of adult comic I was thinking of.
Although I would not regularly use a Wikipedia site, I think the author of this particular article comes closest to a reasonable definition: “Adult comics are comic books intended for adults…may contain material that might be considered disturbing, horrifying, obscene, profane, immoral, and even pornographic…many adult comics, however feature none of this, and simply tell stories of a more mature nature.”
What I find most important from this definition is the idea of an ‘adult’ comic book simply being a more ‘mature’, or specifically intellectually mature comic. The subject matter can range widely to the sick, profane or pornographic, however it can also range to non-fiction, simple and tasteful.
With this in mind…..
Opening American Splendor to even the first comic you can see that this is not a child’s comic book, the first hint being that the entire book is in black and white, save for the cover. Now it should go without saying that black and white art doesn’t automatically make this an ‘adult’ comic book, but combined with other aspects of the book the argument is clear. The black and white pages, the lack of exaggeration (in the story-telling as well as with the characters), the large text-filled speech bubbles (in certain parts they become quite lengthy), and the subject matter all reinforce this book as an “adult” comic book. While most childhood comics rely on the fast-paced heroics of superheroes and villains, American Splendor’s subject matter is Pekar’s everyday life and experiences, or at least the experiences he chose to write about.
Robert Crumb states in the introduction to American Splendor:
“It’s a sad fact that you can’t sell ‘adult’ comic books to American adults. Comic books are for kids. Adolescent male power fantasies, that’s what most comic books contain; escape fantasies for pimply-faced young boys…Most comic specialty shops won’t even carry books like American Splendor. Why should they? ‘Adults’ never go in such places, and so the ‘adult’ comics just sit there taking up space on the shelf. “
Perhaps why this ‘adult’ comic book is so interesting then, is that it is not an ‘escape fantasy’ or a ‘male power fantasy’, it is in fact, the opposite: A working-class man trying to find happiness and success in his own way. When this book seems boring then, it is because everyday life can be boring. Pekar isn’t giving an escape to the reader, but an insight into how life really works. Lucky breaks happen, but you have to work for what you want, and the effort you put into something is what you will get out of it.
Another quote from Crumb’s Introduction sums up American Splendor eloquently:
“The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic! It is very disorienting at first, but after a while you get with 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…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 comic books.”
As for Crumb’s mention in the first quote of ‘adults’ never going in to comic book stores, this argues again that adult comic books are intellectually mature, and adds that perhaps this is why there is a much smaller market for this type of book, no one expects comic books to contain such material. This idea stems from the common misconceptions surrounding comic books, and explains why the people who may be interested in the type of comics Crumb is talking about never go into the stores to look. The first misconception is that all comic books are for kids. Perhaps because many people are introduced to comic books as children, they grow up not questioning whether there is another genre of comics geared toward a more intellectual audience. The second misconception is that any comic books not meant for kids are filled with sex or death. Though my online search for ‘adult comic books’ yielded little besides pornographic comic books, there are such comics that are simply more mature in content and the difficulty in finding them lies in the absence of set guidelines or a definition of ‘adult comic book’.
Chew is an interesting example of an adult comic book, though it’s theme is darker than American Splendor.
40 is the new 15 is an article on the rising average age of comic book readers and video game players.
Vertigo is an offshoot of DC Comics geared toward “material of an edgier, more sophisticated nature” (Their tagline is “comics and books for mature readers”)
The wikipedia page for adult comic books can be found here.
Who is Harvey Pekar?
As learnt through the comics and text bubbles of American Splendor
Harvey started collecting Jazz records when he was 16 years old. In the beginning, he bought records because he enjoyed listening to them, but as he continued his record buying took on a life of it’s own. He began to buy more and more records he didn’t listen to solely for their collector’s value. He was spending more and more money until his main focus was trying to get more money to buy more records. This continued until an opportunity presented itself when a radio host asked to borrow a few of his records, and Harvey went to the station with him. He found a number of records he had planned on buying in the future but figured he could steal them from this radio station instead, hiding them in the men’s bathroom only to go back later to find the door locked. Had he managed to steal the records, he may not have considered giving up record collecting, but as it happened, he decided the next day that he would give up the habit and use the extra money to publish his comic book.
Comic book writer
After his decision to give up record collecting, Harvey found out he could make enough money to self-publish one of his comic books within a year or so. He figured it was worth it to try and possibly lose all the money he put into it rather than do nothing. Unfortuanately, he did lose his money “hand over fist”, as he states in the story ‘Crumbstreet USA’. Pekar knows why his book doesn’t do well however, stating “[He’s] using comic books in a new way. It’s a new genre that hardly anybody knows about. There ain’t a ready-made audience for [him] like there is for novelists.” (Also from Crumbstreet USA)
There seemed to be three main philosophy-based comics in American Splendor, the first being ‘Short Weekend: A story about the cosmic and the ordinary’. In this, Pekar focuses first on the law of averages, which basically states that probability influences all events, and his disagreement with this, and focuses second on happiness and how it relates to death. He says “[Things] can get bad and then get worse and then you die. You got no guarantee that yer luck’s gonna change, that th’ breaks’ll even happen…There is no such thing as the law of averages.” He continues on to philosophize about happiness, more specifically what, if any, emphasis he should put on happiness in his life, ending with “Maybe the thing that counts the most is just stayin’ alive. Maybe the most successful man is the guy who lives the longest.” When thinking about death, he ponders the aftermath of death, if there is anything or if there is nothing at all. His last thought on the matter is “It sure would be nice t’know what I’m goin’ through now ain’t all there is to it.” This final comment can be extrapolated to many people, I think, because although there are many arguments for either position, those who hope there is something after death are looking for a way to console themselves that the life they are living now isn’t all they have.
The second highly philosophical story is Hypothetical Quandary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, his thinking is focused on his career, or lack thereof, and how he would be different if his life had turned out differently. Obviously philosophizing on a much more personal topic, however it invites anyone reading it to question their life thus far and wonder how it may be different if a particular event had happened differently.
The third philosophical thinking story is I’ll be Forty-Three on Friday (How I’m Living Now). In this long-walk comic, Harvey thinks deeply about his life (including happiness, friends, family or lack thereof , career, and how he got there) as well as life as it relates to death, concluding that he’s just trying to do the best he can, but he’s unsure how.
Believing in the joy of Small Victories
At the end of Hypothetical Quandary, although his thoughts have not been happy in nature by any account, he is able to put all his hypothetical thinking and just enjoy the fresh bread he picked up during all of his thinking.
In Jury Duty, he is annoyed that he has to spend his days sitting and waiting for the selection process, however he is happy that while waiting he is able to finish a number of books he’d been wanting to read. He still felt claustrophobic being contained there, on being dismissed he sounds very positive, and reading it you can sense the joy of this small victory, “We all were happy on our last day when they let us out at 11:00. The weather was beautiful. It felt great t’be free.”
In American Splendor Assaults the Media, after going through a long and ultimately unfulfilling ordeal trying to get something of his published by a large corporation, he redirects his feelings by writing about it, commenting that the only thing he can really do when things bother him, is write about it. This catharsis is a victory for him because by going through negative situations, he was able to produce articles and comics, which lead him to the underground success he eventually came to hold.
Many of the comics in American Splendor include Harvey talking about his jobs, or take place in the various workplaces he visited. As a government worker, although he often proclaims his hate for work calling it a menial job, he most often followed this with his appreciative comments of it, saying that it is easy, gives him a consistent and fair paycheck, and allows him the time and money to do what he enjoys – like writing his comics.
Indirectly through the stories he wrote and included in American Splendor, though he is not always character in them, he also shows that perseverance and doing the work necessary to get what you want is something he holds highly. One such story is Pickled Okra (Okry). Though it is a tough sell, the man continues to try to sell his pickled okra until the two women set a tentative payday date to buy some, perhaps a representation of Harvey’s perseverance to accomplish his goals. Also in Visualize, Actualize, Realize, Harvey gets a lesson from a worker named Rollins, on, as the name of the story states, how visualizing what you want to accomplish helps you actualize, and finally realize, or make real, whatever it is you want to accomplish. Although it is not stated outright, I think this comic shows by his writing and publishing it, that Harvey knows you can’t get what you want without working for it. In Roller Coaster to Nowhere, after being turned down 150 times, 3 boys finally get a few girls to agree to go on a rollercoaster with them and one of the boys outwardly says: “Well, [that just] shows ya, persistence pays off.”
This is an interview with Harvey that I found interesting. He discusses Cleveland, his career and “the one story about his life he will never write”. Though the interview could have ended on a negative note because of the subject matter in the questions, Harvey ends it with a small victory in two sentences.
Comic Books and Literature
A topic I didn’t touch on in my Adult Comic Book post was comics as literature. On the back cover of American Splendor is the mandatory, basic description of any book. The first sentence: “American Splendor is the world’s first literary comic book” made me curious how comics relate to literature. After some reading I found there were 3 main discussions between people ranging from classical literature scholars to avid comic book readers and many people in between, and what they seemed to center around was classical literature being turned into comic books, contemporary literature being turned into comic books (Literature mostly from the 1980’s-90’s and 2000’s) and the claims of some people that certain comic books are, without trying to be, a literary work. This also brings up the subject of ‘graphic novels’, as they are sometimes defined as a graphic work of literature. All of these rely on a definition of ‘literature’, however everyone can have a biased opinion.
Classical Literature transformed into Comic Books
This page from Comicvine, provides an article on classic literature as comic books, including if and why people might want to see these transformations. The author writes that literary classics have been receiving more attention: Marvel has published comics of big titles such as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island. There are a number of reasons mentioned as to why these are becoming more popular. One of the simpler ideas is that if someone is a fan of these classics they might want to read it in another medium and perhaps find new meaning in it, however there is the probability that if someone needed to read the book, they would take the easier route of just reading the comic book version, similar to with movies based on books, and liberties can be taken to change parts of the original in the new version. A positive point mentioned is the ability to gain the interest of new readers. People who normally wouldn’t think of reading a comic book might pick up a classic story in comic book form, appreciate it, and continue to explore the comic book genres.
Contemporary Literature transformed into Comic Books
There are many commercially made comic books of recently produced books and films, for example the Twilight series has been made into comic book form. Although there are varying views on what could or should be made into a comic book, this article on 8 contemporary literary works that the author thinks should be made into comic books raises the question of if there are certain books better suited to become comic books, or if there is a criteria that outlines which would benefit from a new medium.
Another contemporary use of comics is in the news industry, as a medium to convey information. For example: biographies or timelines of political figures. This article in the telegraph also mentions a use I had not previously thought of: reporting. It’s author explaining that sketchbooks are much more easily tolerated in foreign countries when cameras would be confiscated, which would allow the detailed recording of events and even scenes from such places to be recording without endangering the reporter.
Comic books being prescribed as Literature
As for claims of certain comic books being literary works on their own, this article’s author states “Comics should be accepted as having literary worth. Of course not all comics have literary worth, just like not all novels are worthy, but those shining examples of our medium deserve recognition”, citing their narrative, social importance or longevity and innovative storytelling.
I think to discuss an issue like this there must be a set definition of literature used, however each article I read seems to have a different idea of literature in mind.
A writer for the Wall Street Journal wrote about Watchmen: “But the comic’s much-publicized naming, for instance, by Time magazine as one of the “Best 100 Novels of All Time” in 2005 was, let’s face it, just silly… it’s simply bizarre to assert that, as an illustrated literary narrative, it rivals in artistic merit, say, masterpieces like Chris Ware’s “Acme Novelty Library” or almost any part of the witty and brilliant work of Edward Gorey.” This comparison between Watchmen and Gorey’s comic or the Acme Novelty Library comic is a piece of personal opinion I think, but what about comparing the Watchmen (or any comic) to books, does “it rival in artistic merit”. Once again this comes back to an unstable definition of literature, is it any written works, or only “those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”(New Oxford American Dictionary), and as well raises the questions of what is considered higher artistic merit and who decides?
While I agree that some comics have more literary worth than others, at this point it is only a bias of opinion that proclaims certain comic books as literary work, and others not. I do however, think there are some classics that should be adapted into comics carefully. In the Telegraph article, the writer mentions a publisher in London, England who is printing “a series of Shakespeare adaptations, aimed at attracting younger readers with the vivid stylings of Japanese manga – there’s a memorable Othello set in an alternate-world Venice, with Roderigo as an anthropomorphized wolf and the Duke as a three-eyed oracle.” While I understand trying to attract young readers with such comics, I don’t understand what turning the characters into creatures, nor the use of manga or anime, will help Shakespeare achieve but I realize this is just my own opinion and others might think differently. Opinion is the backbone of these discussions however, because comic books have become a much more widely known or accepted medium, they are gaining more attention and these arguments are coming out citing their own reasoning, though the arguments are based on personal bias.
This article is also about American Splendor but touches on how Harvey “elevated comic books from pulp to literary fiction.”
THE HARVEY PEKAR STATUE CAMPAIGN
By Allen Ribo
At the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, Joyce Brabner announced a fundraising project to make a memorial for Harvey Pekar in the city of Cleveland. The fundraising idea began as Brabner reacting to “overzealous fans who have this feeling that everyone in comics has to be glorified” (Kaminer 2011). Brabner initially was skeptical at the idea of a Harvey Pekar statue, and was more concerned with untangling the finances and publishing the work he left behind, including two books they were writing as a team (Feran 2011).
This memorial was originally planned to be at the Pekar gravesite; in an interview Brabner said of the caretakers, “The people were nice but didn’t want to encourage writing on a gravesite” (Kaminer). As the idea of the gravesite venue was dismissed, sculptor Justin Coulter heard of the idea and offered help. Prior to the project, Coulter was a sculptor and worked as a bartender (and various small jobs) to make ends meet for his sculpting. He looked up to Pekar as an inspiration in Cleveland, cited him as an “everyday man, always working to support himself and to do his art” (Pekar 2011). Once he heard of this plan, he offered to help make the sculpture. The sculpture, made of bronze, would be of Pekar coming out of the pages of American Splendor. This sculpture is to be presented on a desk inside the Cleveland Heights Public Library. The material is made of slate so that visitors and patrons could make their own comics within the pages of the statue. This was not the first time a memorial statue in Cleveland was attempted; A campaign for a Superman statue failed to ‘take flight’.
For funding Brabner used Kickstarter, a popular fundraising platform for creative projects. Through Kickstarter and other avenues (including a charity party held back in august), the current fund stood at $30,000, an amount Brabner calculated to cover for the expenses of the statue. For Brabner this has been a fruitful project and pays respect to the legacy of Harvey Pekar.