How I Quit Re-Reading Dreiser and Found Neo-Realism in a Comic Book From Cleveland

The most artful realistic narrative I've come upon since Christina Stead's Miss Herbert got remaindered should be hard to find in candy stores everywhere as this review goes to press--from off the streets of Cleveland, Harvey Pekar's American Splendor! A comic book! Now, wait, I know what you're asking yourself-- What does she mean by "realistic"? I simply mean in the realist tradition, wherein the real is understood to dwell with the squalid, the insignificant, the mundane. (Pekar himself calls his style "neo-realist.") But by "artful" I don't simply mean skillful. Pekar's technical ingenuity and aplomb is stunning, but this is no mere craftsman in a popular medium. The proper comparisons aren't O. Henry or Saki, but Dreiser, Dostoevsky, De Sica, and Lenny Bruce. You know what I'm talking about. (Gulp!) Art.

Harvey Pekar got into comics late in life and by way of left field. In 1972, Pekar, then 32, sketched out an idea for an old friend. This friend was R. Crumb, a record-trading cohort who praised and (with fellow cartoonist Bob Armstrong) illustrated the story. Pekar was--and is--a file clerk at a Cleveland hospital, sometime jazz critic, and obsessive reader whose passions run more to Mark Twain or Bob and Ray than Stan Lee. But for Pekar, with his literary tastes, humdrum life, and background of popular-culture scholarship, something clicked in this vulgar narrative form. He couldn't draw, but he could pace, and he had a great ear. Sketching layouts with dialogue, and scrounging for illustrators, he began to turn out strips. But by the mid-'70s, the underground comic publishing network was shrinking so rapidly that Pekar decided to put out his own magazine from savings. "I figured, fuck it, I'll print it and if I lose money on it, so what!" a grim Crumb-drawn Pekar explains in "How I Quit Collecting Records and Put Out a Comic Book with the Money I Saved," this issue. "So I published American Splendor, an' I'm really glad I did. . . . "

Now, for a realist (writer), the comic book has lotsa conceptual advantages. You're spared the embarrassment of treating low-life subjects in what has become a high-brow form. And, in fact, debunking gentility is a fine old comic-book tradition. Whatever the subject, every light-bulb idea!, every "izzatso," "z-z-z," or "?" means, in some code kids know, "not allowed in school," like gum. Underground comics substituted sex, dope, and counterculture for pranks, candy, and hooky, or built stoned fantasy on old superhero imagery. But comics had always been subversive, just as they'd always been a little surrealistic. The best underground stuff even kept its kiddie-style vulgarity, and that did as much for the complexity of the statement as it did for its accessibility: Mr. Natural simultaneously mocked and was Zen. Pekar's high-class themes--race relations, the individual's place in large systems, the meaning of life--get a good tone-down from the ambience.

But let's face it. The single greatest advantage comics offer the ambitious artist is a way to be as arty, as subtle, as depressing as you want and still remain, like the backs of cereal boxes, harder to not read than to read. Inertia is on your side. An' that's a good pal to have when yer cover lines and titles are as thrillin' as this: "More Depressing Stories from Harvey Pekar's Humdrum Life," "Awaking to the Terror of the New Day," "Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day." Here is an artist who dares to work small.

The basic A.S. set-up is as follows. Harvey, a lonely-but-brilliant file c1erk--called, variously, Jack, Marve, Harve, or Herschel, and drawn by R. Crumb, collaborators Gary Dumm and Greg Budgett, and newcomer Gery Shamray, respectively, as hairy wise-ass, nice neighborhood guy, and shy genius--works well behind the scenes at a Cleveland hospital, far from the blood. Like the real Harvey, he does paperwork. This is the underclass, but neither the criminal nor the muscular one; Harvey's is the world of the flunky. Harvey himself is a cheapskate and slob. When quitting time comes, he's either spending a horny night at home, out feeding his record habit, or rapping on street-corners with his cronies, overqualified but unassuming weirdos like himself.

The drawings are cartoony but representational--noses look like noses rather than sausages or buttons, street locations are drawn from life. Settings are grimly ordinary: bus stops, crummy rooms. government offices. There are narratives, vignettes, guest appearances by greasers and Ozzie Nelson, and stand-up comedy routines, like (homage to Lenny Bruce) "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines."

"Going to Work," in the current issue (#4), is typical if vintage American Splendor. On a rainy morning of such gloom it looks like night, Herschel gets a lift to work. The driver--a nice-looking but exhausted boy with longish hair and fine features, and Herschel-meaty, with delicately flared brows--stumble, in the course of civil Q. & A. into a discussion of management theory at a local factory that becomes, all at once, one of those great conversations where you realize this person really understands what you mean. Then they reach their destination. Herschel gets out. He thinks, "Nice guy. I'll prob'ly never see him again. Wonder what he was studyin' welding for?" and goes in to work.

For Pekar, conversation has a special, almost a sacramental meaning. Talking is really his main subject, both means and end. Harvey the hero is always talking or listening. Pekar the writer, an unregenerate archivist, hoards overheard remarks for years till he can find the perfect place for them. What Crumb does with visual detail--find the swiss cheese in Harvey's holey T-shirt, flip out in an orgy of black arm hair--Pekar does with spoken language, repeating its repeats, spending whole precious frames on throwaway detail or monosyllabic nuts-and-bolts to catch its real rhythms. "Where in Arkansas do you live?" asks Herschel in the "Going to Work" Q. & A. "Around Fayetteville "/"The reason I asked is because I know a guy that lives in Rudi, Arkansas. That's a small town near Ft. Smith. Ever hear of Rudi?"/"Nope."

Pekar's ear puts him in a league with the dialect writers he admires. But unlike Lardner, or even Twain, whose tone stuck near the great American understatement, Pekar also goes at the wilder expressive contours of speech, like the ecstatic, almost gospel build in the speed rap by a hippie girl who hasn't talked enough till then to realize that the worst (Cleveland winter) is over ("Getting Adjusted," issue #3). Like playwright David Mamet, Pekar makes the adjustment that, in vernacular dialogue, can turn a list into a poem.

And just as he hears poetry and music in verbatim, he squeezes tension from that one inherently dramatic element of any real situation, however humdrum, which is that you really don't know what will happen next. Will Harvey get out of the tub? The suspense is dragged out for eight paralyzing frames in one post-divorce story from the brilliant third issue. What will end up happening "On the Corner" (#2) one July night? One-hundred-four frames later, we learn: not much.

In American Splendor not much ever does. But in his small way, Pekar takes on some pretty weighty subjects. He got into Kent State (#2), and tells me race will be especially addressed next issue, though there's always been a black presence in the stories. Most of white, Jewish Pekar's co-workers are black, and he naturally mines the rich field of Afro-American vernacular. A regular feature is Rollins, baseball-capped custodian and naturally stoned philosopher whose one-page koans seem to mean nothing, but might. Rollins's dad, a sort of black Mr. Natural, has this to add: "You know whut dey say . . . Dey say, 'Life is like a school. We nevuh graduates, we only gets puhmoted!'"

Personally, I've never been real comfy with the logic that comic usage like "enny," "minit," and "yer" accounts for "cain't," "ah," and "whut," or that ordinary comic distortions explain the blubber lips and super asses on head-comix blacks. I'm happier with Mr. Boats, a fat, poetry-quoting Nat "King" Cole fan, than with Rollins. But Pekar's eye and ear on racial matters doesn't ever stop at the merely colorful. Political ideas flavor the entire magazine, but always with the heimische Pekar touch: All the stories are based on real incident, and the average black-white exchange in a segregated city like Cleveland is a tip of the iceberg. So Pekar works with tips, like the hippie girl's mid-rap discovery of the sources of her own racism, or Sun Ra's comments on the fate of Lamar Washington in this issue, or "Love Story" in the first, where adult Harvey recalls teenaged Harvey buying a five-dollar trick from a childhood friend who grew up ("Ya mean yer hustlin'? No shit!, How ya like it?") faster than him.

Pekar, who hopes to minimize the conventional writer-artist boss-employee relationship, gives his illustrators a panel layout with dialogue and positions the characters, then tries not to rain on their parade. The results are remarkably simpatico. Shamray's delicate sketches, in this issue, suggest the emotional currents always close to the verbatim surfaces. Budgett-Dumm's cartoonier but more detailed drawings, which dominate earlier issues, have a terrific sensuality, and their trademark, street corner slice-of-life freezes, are visual equivalents to the overheard phrase. Crumb, working in smaller frames, with minimal and deliberate, almost choreographed movement, shoots more for humor and character.

As an experiment with form, American Splendor is a brilliant undertaking, but it's radiant rather than just a bright idea (!) because of the spirit behind it. What I'll keep coming back for are the same qualities I crave in fiction of any kind--appetite, urgency, charity. Because Pekar the writer isn't just fascinated by his humdrum subjects. He's in love with them; he eats them up. Harvey the hero doen't just kill time with these illuminating conversations; they keep him alive. So vision seems, in this recycled junk form, like plain common sense. Archivist, cheapskate, realist, this guy rummages through ordinary lives for signs of radiance and possibility because, realistically speaking, that's the only way through the day. Or anyhow, the cheapest.

Village Voice, Dec. 31, 1979