This is Harvey Pekar’s world. We’re just blogging in it.
It’s safe to say that if I had never discovered Harvey’s American Splendor comic magazine, I wouldn’t be doing this blog right now. You can read about my evolution as a comic book geek in this Last Heroes review.
In addition to that history, I was also a rabid reader of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, which back in the day was a weekly (or was it bi-weekly?) newspaper that I would read obsessively cover to cover. Co-Editor Don Thompson, who has since very sadly passed away, used to write glowing reviews of American Splendor that really intrigued me. But it was a hard comic to find. I don’t even know if the subscription service I belonged to carried it.
Finally, on a trip with my parents somewhere–visiting colleges, maybe–we went into a comic shop where I found AS #9, which I bought along with Frank Miller’s Ronin collection. Ronin was pretty cool I guess, but I was instantly hooked by Harvey’s autobiographical stories. These tales of a simple life told very simply, but with great meaning lying underneath were unlike any kind of comic stories I had ever read before.
Eventually I was able to amass a pretty good collection of American Splendor back issues, which in the days before Ebay and the internet was quite difficult, as well as collect the new ones when they came out every year. Reading about Harvey’s life was a great inspiration to me. I know his comics didn’t sell very well, even though he regularly appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, but to me he was a superstar. Buying each issue was like receiving a personal letter from a friend you hadn’t heard from in awhile. It was nice to see what he and his friends and co-workers were up to, how he was getting along with his new bride and what struggles he had to endure as a freelance writer.
Later on, when I co-founded the defunct webzine Dirt with my friend David Cushman, I was interested in crafting a public personal narrative like Harvey. But instead of doing it in comics form, I decided to do it through movie reviews. For each movie review, I ended up writing more about my life, mostly focusing on my more embarrassing moments, than about the movies I had seen. Kind of like I’m doing right now, although nothing here is too embarrassing.
The main thing I have learned–or have taught myself to do–in crafting my own public persona is that the “character” in my autobiographical snippets isn’t myself at all. So I know that when I say reading American Splendor was like getting a personal letter, that’s really only an illusion created by a master storyteller.
I don’t really know Harvey at all and I was surprised to realize that he has hardly, if ever, written about his childhood. The Quitter remedies that situation, telling the story of Harvey growing up in Cleveland as a young boy in the ’40s to becoming a teenager in the ’50s. Unsurprisingly, given the usual tone of his autobiographical tales, it’s a fairly bleak picture of his childhood: Born to poor Polish immigrants, growing up in rough neighborhoods and having a tough time making friends.
It’s a typically fascinating story with Harvey still at the top of his game. What I could relate to personally the most, though, was young Harvey’s inability to focus on any one subject and his crippling fear of failure, both of which I feel I have struggled with, too. Even today with this website I go through long stretches of inactivity (days, weeks, years) if I don’t achieve the level of success I think I should have attained.
I also don’t want to give short shrift to Dean Haspiel’s artwork on this book. He’s a great fit, giving a bold and dynamic look that isn’t typical of the artists Harvey usually collaborates with. Each artist gives a slightly different interpretation of the same man and Dean seems to have focused on the inner rage always bubbling beneath Harvey’s surface. Also, with the nice hardcover and overall design, this is the slickest product in Harvey’s oeuvre and as a long time fan I couldn’t be happier for the guy.Buy this graphic novel on Amazon.com!