Article 25

American Legacy

In Uncategorized on 08/09/2012 at 9:37 am

The splendor of Harvey Pekar

By Anne Skove


It doesn’t get much more meta than American Splendor: Our Movie Year, by Harvey Pekar and friends.

This is a book about a movie about a comic, and sometimes there’s a play thrown in for good measure. American Splendor was the Pekar comic, then it was a movie (or maybe the play came second and fourth, it is difficult to say) and finally he wrote this book about the experience of having a movie made from his comics.

To top it all off, I started reading it on the second anniversary of his death: July 12, 2012. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the date information.)

Like all things Pekaresque, this is drawn by various people, none of them Harvey himself. But he did write it. You can tell by the Cleveland accent. (Ha to my relatives to the north!) Pekar provided the text, storyboard and directions to his artist friends.

Parts of the story are repeated every so often, particularly early on, so you get a combination of deja vu, reinforcement (my memory is going, so it’s helpful) and annoyance (what, agaaaiiinnn?) Why does he do this? I suppose he, like some of his readers, enjoy each different artist’s takes on his words.

Toward the end, we see a few comics devoted to particular musicians. Each of these is an education unto itself. I would have liked to have had a CD included at this point so I could hear these musicians, particularly the ones with whom I wasn’t familiar.

The more of these pieces I read, the smaller they got – down to a single page. I realized my eyesight is (uh-oh, memory AND sight). Dear publishers: If you are making a book, please make sure the pictures and words can be seen with the naked eye. If you have to make if coffee-table size, please do. My outrageous fines should provide enough revenue to the public library so that they can afford to buy it. Thank you. Thank you from me, from my horrible eyes, from my overworked bifocals and from my optometrist, who e-mailed to remind me I need another appointment.

Remember when Bill Watterson got angry at newspapers for shrinking Calvin and Hobbes down to peanut size? He drew the strip so it would take up one-half of a comics page. Most were sized down to an almost unreadable space, with lopped-off panels and odd reshaping, so that newspapers could bring us General Halftrack ogling Miss Buxley. (Note: I wish the nice people at Article 25 would make the comiques a little smaller sometimes.)

Newspapers (not this one) are shrinking, too. The Enquirer has been reduced to the dimensions of a “fun size” Baby Ruth. Times are tough, but my eyes aren’t getting any better, and I want to see pictures and read words. Is that too much to ask? These musician pages, especially “The Search for Soul,” would work better as posters.

There’s a one-page comic about the Cleveland Indians. If you thought the Cubs were depressing, well, you gotta read this. I am not a sports fan (Harvey would be proud), but I was in Cleveland the day of the Cavs’ big loss in 2010. The bellhop at my hotel was devastated. I offered kind words, but they didn’t help. He said, “And they say now that the Cavs lost, LeBron will leave town!” I hope he was a little happier when I assured him there was no way LeBron would ever ever leave his home, certainly not for a silly town like Miami.

The last part of the book is devoted to the last leg of the Pekar family’s whirlwind, worldwide promotional tour. Things are pretty much back to normal here, no tiny print, no musical digressions, and you feel as though you met the people he worked with. If you’re expecting this cranky old man to diss the Hollywood establishment for not doing right by this film, as his fellow panelists do in one strip, you won’t find it. Pekar might be stressed out and obsessive, but his genuine appreciation for the people who worked on the movie is clear.

Pekar was trying to figure out the mystery of how to live as an artist. He kept the same government job for decades, but was always writing – jazz reviews, alternative comics, etc. After he retired, he wanted to leave a legacy – as an artist, but also as a husband and father.

Could he do both? Could he be successful enough as an artist to make enough money for his family? This is a universal problem, as anyone who ever opened an Etsy shop or went to law school for the wrong reasons can tell you.

The acclaim and fame the movie brought helped him accomplish this, even if it wasn’t as lucrative as he’d hoped. The long-term effects (which he did not live to experience) on his family were positive. His daughter, an artist who wanted to work on movies, got to meet special-effects people around the world during the family’s promotional travels. His wife arranged his contracts, meetings, tours, etc. She still does book tours, coordinates posthumous work, etc. – this is his legacy to her. It is nice to see him credit her with helping build his body of work. Artists from Rodin to Ted Hughes could learn a lesson in fairness and respect from Harvey Pekar.

It was sad to read this book, knowing (as he seemed to) that Pekar would never get more exposure than the American Splendor movie. But it was easy to see that Pekar managed to leave both kinds of legacies – artistic and monetary – and he seems to have had some fun (albeit the grim, understated, Clevelandy, Midwestern kind) along the way. “Just work work work, and hope somethin’ll come of it.”



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