Review by Karl Verhoven
If you want just the single anthology of the American Splendor material Harvey Pekar self-published, this is the one to get. That is unless you’d prefer to isolate the combination of Pekar and Robert Crumb, in which case head for Bob & Harv’s Comics.
This is more desirable than American Splendor: The Life and Time of Harvey Pekar and More American Splendor because most of the content dates from 1986 to 1991. After a decade in the wilderness, Pekar’s autobiographical observations and distilled conversations were attracting attention. Not only was he proving an enormous influence on younger cartoonists, but the world outside was knocking on his door. This provided a wider choice of artistic collaborators, raising the overall standard of his material considerably, although a few (William Fogg and Ed Weslowski spring to mind) are still poor.
The influx of artists then new to Pekar’s material range from underground comics stalwarts such as Paul Mavrides, Frank Stack and Spain (Rodriguez) to then relative newcomers such as Drew Friedman, Bill Knapp, Jim Woodring and Chester Brown. The collection also mops up material Pekar wrote for other publications before founding American Splendor, a few decent pieces from early issues that didn’t make the previous collections, and assorted contributions to other titles. These are primarily benefit comics and introductions to the work of autobiographical cartoonists such as Dennis Eichhorn and Colin Upton. Some of the 1991 material hadn’t previously been published, and can only be found here.
As with every Harvey Pekar anthology there’s a fine mix of overheard conversations, items of historical interest, and plenty of Pekar’s day to day life. These take on a slightly surreal quality as he has to maintain his file clerk job while also appearing on David Letterman’s show. There his quirky, penny-pinching and curmudgeonly personality endeared him to Letterman, if not the audience, and more bookings followed. Several are detailed, starting with Pekar, obsessed with somehow making money from the appearance, misguidedly plugging $34 stuffed dolls of himself made by his wife.
‘Hysteria’, early in the book, serves as a good Harvey Pekar exemplar. He drives his wife to the train station, heads into work, has a long and cranky phone conversation with a magazine editor who’s assigned a review of his book, checks out the magazine review section and begins to worry that he’s losing his voice again. It’s a very wordy strip as Pekar attempts to convey all facets of his argument with the editor, occupying fifteen pages, illustrated by Val Mayerik with James Sherman in a naturalistic fashion, and conveying Pekar’s capacity for shooting himself in the foot. “If you support local artists how come it’s taken you so long to write about me?”, he enquires. The response is the very epitome of measured restraint: “I wasn’t editor until a few months ago. Why do you blame me for what happened before that?”
If this sounds as dull as all get-out, which it does to some, then American Splendor is not the graphic novel for you in any incarnation. For all his other interests, Pekar most regularly takes the magnifying glass to his own insecurities and foibles, and these take precedence. If this intrigues, The New American Splendor Anthology offers the best selection of Pekar’s self-published material.