Review by Karl Verhoven
The few autobiographical comics before 1976 were certainly nothing like the material written by Harvey Pekar. Most autobiography inflates, but he took the opposite approach, relentlessly focussing on the mundane, the day to day conversation or overheard quip, and his own frustrated existence. This was all presented as realistically as possible, but while eventually incalculably influential, for a decade or so Pekar ploughed a unique furrow. This collection samples stories from the first nine issues of American Splendor his annually self-published black and white magazine, originating from between 1976 and 1984.
Financing the work himself, Pekar couldn’t afford to be choosy about who illustrated his stories, although was reportedly very pleased with some who’d make lovers of fine comics art cringe. Although Pekar said otherwise, some artists who worked with him felt obliged to draw exactly what he laid down, irrespective of how a more experienced artist might interpret the material. It leads to some dull storytelling. The one artist he couldn’t pull this with was Robert Crumb, already a celebrity, but one who was regularly cajoled into an increasing number of pages every issue based on their 1960s friendship. It’s all here in ‘Young Crumb’ and ‘A Fantasy’, the only story reprinted from his first issue: “This’d be a new lease on life f’r you… You’re still pretty popular, but people are gettin’ tired o’ yer stuff. They want sump’n different!” Crumb gets his own back by portraying Pekar as a kvetch in a vest, scratching himself.
This book is loaded with fine Crumb work, even if he is occasionally weighed down by the sheer amount of words Pekar shovels into a strip. ‘American Splendor Assaults the Media’ opens with an iconic picture of Pekar (in a worn vest, scratching himself), and is followed by three pages of diatribe about ill-treatment. Neither Pekar nor Crumb have much patience for phonies, but at that stage of his career Pekar was far from calling the shots.
The other artists seen most here are the team of Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm, and the more interesting Gerry Shamray. His art is heavily photo-referenced, but rendered in a classic hatched style with an economy of line, and while he starts out as no storyteller, there’s an increasing confidence as he continues.
In these more sensitive times Pekar’s portrayal of black people could face accusations of stereotyping, but that entirely misses the point. Right from the earliest days Pekar was brilliant at capturing the cadence of an authentic voice, be it his own or that of others, and his stories here are peppered with all kinds of slang and dialect. Each of his magazines carried the strapline “From off the Streets of Cleveland comes…” before the title (as does this collection), and Pekar revels in the sounds of voices around his neighbourhood.
This is a fine representative collection, touching all bases of Pekar. We have stories about his wide-ranging historical interests, of his love of jazz, of hustling records for money, of his ex-wife, his writing, his daily frustrations, the recollections of others in the neighbourhood and his workplace and, toward the end, a growing level of recognition.
A second compilation, More American Splendor, followed, and they were combined for American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar in 2003 to coincide with the American Splendor movie. The Crumb content alone can be found as Bob & Harv’s Comics.