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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Harvey Pekar: The Epiphany of the Everyday



The remarkable comic book storyteller Harvey Pekar, who died yesterday at his Cleveland home at the age of 70, was at least twenty years ahead of his time. Harvey's wonderful tales, foregrounding the epiphanic ordinariness of everyday life, in many ways anticipated the democratic art of blogging.

Harvey and I had some sweet exchanges by phone and mail back in the 1980s. I loved his work, and we shared certain interests.

For those who may have missed Harvey's work -- which probably would not have been easy, given that his life was made into a successful indie movie, American Splendor, with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey -- here is my review of the fourteenth volume in his American Splendor series (the "David Letterman Exploitation Issue"), from the San Francisco Chronicle, 10 September, 1989.

Harvey Pekar leads an unlikely double life: As revolutionary neo-realist comic book creator and 1980s underground cult figure, he also holds a daytime file clerk's job in a Cleveland Veterans Administration hospital.

Pekar's American Splendor comic books are an ongoing autobiography in the form of serial tales, employing standard comic-book format -- what the down-to-earth Pekar terms the "balloons and panels and stuff." But his work's similarity to the conventional version of the genre ends there.

Pekar's storytelling burden, as he's stated, is "the accumulation of everyday experience," whose "huge effect on people" he feels is too little taken into account by most literary practitioners. As a comic-book writer he is a formal innovator who insistently subverts and undermines the conventions of his medium, challenging it to turn aside from mindless fantasy superheroics to capture the intimate experiential veracity of American life.

Defying customary rules of the trade, Pekar tells his illustrators (who range from relative unknowns to big-name comic stars such as R. Crumb and Drew Friedman) he doesn't want them drawing generic characters: "Pick out a specific model." In most of his stories, the principal visual model is the author himself, the experiences chronicled his own and those of friends and people with whom he works.

Following the publication of a pair of mass-market compilations of his work by Doubleday, Pekar became a minor culture-hero in a historic series of 1986-1987 appearances on the David Letterman show. On Late Night, he simply played himself as portrayed in his comics, the rough-edged but enlightened underdog in jeans, T-shirt and working-class accent. He managed to upstage Letterman and and sabotage the show. He was not invited back, but his nervy media-deconstruction caper on NBC -- "throwing a monkey wrench in the works" he proudly termed it -- hardly hurt American Splendor: Pekar's struggling 10,000 copies-per-issue self-produced comic was soon slouching its seedy, insidious way into many more American TV living rooms.

His exploits on the Letterman show provide cover material for the eagerly awaited 14th annual edition of American Splendor. It's labeled, with typical Pekarian unashamed directness, the "David Letterman Exploitation Issue," and inside, it contains a close-up visual transcript of the explosive last show, billed "Grand Finale."

But the most ambitious and successful story in the issue is actually a 22-pager titled "Lost and Found," a candid confessional testament of the intense comic artist's true-life torments of absentmindedness. Here, small hang-ups over incidentals are seen blowing Pekar's personal life into the case-study range hinted at in his frank self-description, at the outset, as a "compulsive nut."

"Lost and Found" is a good example of Pekar's faux-naif comic procedures. The story assaults you frontally with slice-of-life detail and a disarmingly confidential first-person narrative, but just back of the humdrum action and realist shtick, you soon get a sense of a conscious artist pulling the strings.

Reverse-illusion, the deflation of stock suspense, is a common Pekar tactic. When the neurotic author misplaces a book and his day collapses around him, we're given an early, suspense-breaking peek at the "missing" book -- sitting innocently on a table just beneath the phone that's used by an unknowing Harvey to frantically phone bookstores in quest of a replacement volume.

Another Pekar trademark is the anticlimactic, nonsequitur-ish flat ending. My favorite Pekar ending is one in which, at the conclusion of an agonizingly bad day, our hero quietly exults over a fresh loaf of bread as he brings it home from the store. "Pre-Dawn Ride," in this issue, ends on a similar moment of unexpected, quiet revelation, with the source of joy a sunrise glimpsed from an airport parking lot.

And "Lost and Found," too, closes on a grace note of reconciliation and acknowledgment -- in the forgiveness of one's own eccentricity without self-consciousness or judgment -- that has the calm equilibrium and unaffected dignity that Harvey Pekar's work projects at its best.

File:American Splendor no 1.jpg

Harvey Pekar with his wife Joyce Brabner at Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York, 4 October 1985: photographer unknown, photo courtesy of Hallwalls archive
American Splendor, Vol. I, No. 1, 1976: art by R. Crumb, written and published by Harvey Pekar


Tom said...

Nice, Tom. Harvey and Tuli....
love, Tom

TC said...


Oi and double oi. I had not known.

Our friend Tom Raworth refers to the sad fact that another American genius and great storyteller (a man of the people who actually had a lot in common with Harvey Pekar) has also just died.

Tuli Kupferberg.

I knew Tuli pretty well once upon a time, back in the early glory days of The Fugs. Those times will not soon come again.

Ed Sanders' note on Tuli's passing as well as a clip of Tuli singing his most famous anthem of the Lower East Side can be found at Tom's post.

Thanks, Tom, and love from here. Memories....

Curtis Roberts said...

I was very moved by your review of Harvey Pekar's work and then surprised and saddened to learn of Tuli Kupferberg's passing. I think I mentioned that after you posted Matthew Arnold's On Dover Beach and the link to the "virtual" Arnold recitation, I watched and enjoyed videos of Tuli and Ed Sanders (separately) performing versions of the poem. I think the first time I saw Tuli was on the old David Susskind Open End tv show in the 1960s when Susskind had The Fugs on as guests. That opened my eyes a bit. I always enjoyed the humorous, pointed letters he wrote to the Village Voice, which were unique and irreplaceable.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Tom - I'm forwarding your post to my son who will find his knowledge expanded by your review. I will look into links mentioned in the comments.

Curtis Roberts said...

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the Tuli Kupferberg audioclip you linked to your post. Performance, in any context or art form, is a funny thing. Either you "have it" or you don't. It's unfakeable. Anyway, as I see it through my narrow lens: no Fugs = no Stooges = no Ramones = less me. I know there are other, different, possibly wider (and more accurate) lenses. I've always considered "I Couldn't Get High" to be a touchstone work.

baudelaire3 said...

Is incredible painful to hear the news about Pekar. I´m just moving to Cleveland, and I was just planning to pay him a visit.

Bad day,

Cristián Gómez O.

TC said...


Thank you. I hope your son finds it interesting.

Our daughter, who's done some work in the area of comic art herself, grew up being a Harvey Pekar fan.


Yes, an odd coincidence, I too, during our Dover Beach sojourn, had sifted through those clips of Tuli and Ed... in fact it was the very sincerity of their presentation, ironically, which detained me from posting the links. (The animated voiceover version I did post, which seemed a brilliant if unintended exercise in what I guess was once called deconstruction, was I guess just the ultimate impossible act to follow.)

The Fugs had an ongoing nightly gig in the village that went on, as I recall, for the better part of a year. They were like the house band. I lived on the Lower East Side at 14th and B and Ed was just around the corner at Tenth & A. Tuli was everywhere about. During that period Ed had his great shaggy beaming head on the cover of Life magazine.

At that point in history it almost seemed as though anything might be possible.

Alas anything wasn't, but what a wonderfully brave and crazy attempt to catch the naked moonbeams and wild starlight of freedom and poetry.


I understand your sense of disappointment.

I had gone to school for a while in the 1950s in Harvey's part of Cleveland, so those lovingly detailed urban landscapes of his always rang especially true for me, having seen the real thing.

Though of course the magic Harvey put into the place probably had more of Harvey in it than of the place, anyway.

When a true creator goes out of the world, the wind goes out of the sails of the soul for a while.



Thanks for this, obituaries for both Harvey and Tuli in yesterday's NYTimes. . . .