Knowin’ myself, I could always find something to get shook up over and write about.
Before I encountered Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor,” the comics I read featured colorful fantasy with slam-bang action and the obligatory battle against world-endangering aliens. Harvey Pekar wasn’t into that. In Pekar’s comics, as collaborator R. Crumb writes in a preface, “Hardly anything actually happens. Mostly it’s just people talking, or Harvey by himself, panel after panel, haranguing the hapless reader.” The people in the stories are office workers or people Pekar meets on the street or friends down on their luck. The title of one of the pieces is “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines.” Ye gods, I remember thinking, why would anybody want to read that sort of stuff! Escape from a boring life, not to get mired in one, that’s the thing, yet here Harvey Pekar was plodding through an ordinary life without benefit of cape, x-ray vision, or pointy ears. His problems had less to do with space aliens than with alienation right here on Earth. “My name has been a matter of some concern to me over the years,” Pekar says in the first story. He talks about how kids twisted it to tease, how he figured the name must be unusual, yet when he got his first telephone there were two other Harvey Pekars in the book, and finally, he asks, as though the name itself were as much a mask as any Batman wears, Does a name hide as much as it reveals? “Who is Harvey Pekar?” When R. Crumb illustrates his own writing he tends to the fantastical with bird-headed girls or melting heads, but the work he does for Pekar presents the world as a bit shabby, the people rumpled and pudgy, the only thing hiding in the shadows is tomorrow or maybe yesterday. Am I making Pekar sound like a downer? Well. He is. Sorta. But Harvey Pekar is also an optimist. He’s an optimist in the way somebody must be who every day gives life a good eye, and tries to figure out what exactly can be done with it. He always figures out something. When alien invaders and flashy costumes pall, Pekar’s practical dao is one true way through the city’s littered canyons.
Check the BPL catalog for this title: American Splendor Presents Bob & Harv’s Comics