The passing of pioneer comics writer Harvey Pekar yesterday made me go back and reread some of his earliest collaborations with R. Crumb, published in his self-published American Splendor #1-4 in 1976-79. The beginnings of a remarkable body of work, they are emblematic of Pekar’s originality and importance as a writer, and as good a place as any to probe his artistic sensibility.
In “The Young Crumb Story” (1979), Pekar recounts his beginnings as a comics writer and states unequivocally his belief in the form’s potential:
“The guys who do that animal comic an’ super-hero stuff for straight comics are really limited because they gotta try t’appeal to kids. Th’guys who do underground comics have really opened things up, but there are still plenty more things that can be done with ’em. They got great potential. You c’n do as much with comics as the novel or movies or plays or anything. Comics are words and pictures; you c’n do anything with words and pictures!”
We almost take this for granted today, but in 1979 it was a crucial insight for the development of comics as an art form. Not only did Pekar see beyond the framework of comics’ genre-bound history, he also realized that the undergrounds, for all their innovation, were limited in scope. He brought to comics a reflexive, literaryâ€”if emphatically unacademicâ€”ambition that lay beyond the reaction embodied by the undergrounds. Intellectually, he thus shares billing with his occasional rival Art Spiegelman as the godfather of the new wave of comics that have transformed and diversified the medium so crucially in the last twenty years or so.
And his writing is hard to imagine in any other medium besides comics. In his New York Times obituary, William Grimes compares it with that of Henry Miller, but Pekar is less obviously gutsy, being content most of the time to narrate what amounts almost to non-events: throwaway conversations, moments of random reflectionâ€”momentarily grasping for insights that fizzle before they ignite, lost in the gutter. His prose is frank, but fairly flat, straightforwardly telling the non-story, while the visuals carry it.
One of his most memorable stories, “How I quit Collecting Records and Put out a Comic Book with the Money I Saved” (1979), describes how Pekar almost became a thief, betraying the trust of a friend, in his obsession to hoard jazz ‘sides’ for his collection. But this fact seems almost incidental due to the matter-of-fact way Pekar presents itâ€”as if denying the greater personal implications of his decision merely to pass off the episode as anecdote. Yet, they are there, working their life.
Pekar was interested in people, how they act and what that means. Mr. Boats, Rollins, Toby Radloff and the others at the Veterans Hospital live on the page like few other characters in modern comics, and appear much more rounded as representations of actual human beings than the relatively brief, anecdotal glimpses of their behavior provided by Pekar suggest. This is perhaps his greatest asset as a writerâ€”the ability to transliterate lived experience unassumingly so that it attains real presence.
He hasn’t always been served equally well by his collaborators and seems to have been somewhat insensitive to the visual side of comics, leaving too many of his stories to the deadening hands of mediocre artists. But when it worked, it worked beautifully: notably Frank Stack brought the emotional turmoil of Our Cancer Year (1994) to life, and Crumb of course animated Cleveland and its inhabitants as only he could. A case in point is the story “Mr. Lopes’ Gift” (1978), which suggests a whole life in the fragments given us by Pekar. Crumb’s portrayal of a man he had probably never seen is empathetically real, providing the world for us to read in furrowed brow of this construct.
This was the basis of Pekar’s work: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Questions he asked in the form of mostly incidental autobiography, making of his own life an example.