American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar, writer
Kevin Brown, Gregory Budgett, Sean Carroll, Sue Cavey, R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik, Gerry Shamray, artists
Ballantine Books, August 2003
I find myself a bit stymied in trying to figure out how to kick off this review, since this material has already been digested and processed by so many people. I guess I’ll go with talking about R. Crumb’s art here. Obviously it’s the strongest of Pekar’s collaborators–I know, shocker, right? Indeed I’m a little surprised he could persuade other artists to take a crack at it. Befriending the foundational artist of alternative comics back before he was famous, becoming inspired to do comics in the first place because of that friendship, and then finagling a series of collaborations out of him–that’s the most auspicious comics career kick-off this side of Marc Silvestri and Michael Turner getting paying work out of their first ever comic-con visits. But while it’s easy to see that Crumb’s technique is superior to the other cartoony guys in the book, and that his more impressionistic approach is somehow more visually stimulating and rewarding than the photorealists, I liked his character designs the best. Crumb draws Harvey and his friends and coworkers like tiny little guys out of a fairy-tale world, only with collared shirts. Pekar is a slightly hunched-over, wild-eyed ogre or hermit, his pal Mr. Boats is a roly-poly sage or scribe of some kind–that kind of thing. No? But the caricatures lose none of the nuance needed to convey Pekar’s little insights and pet peeves regarding the workaday modern world. There’s a beautifully accurate bit of body language at one point where Crumb is listening to his visiting friend while leaning against a file cabinet, and the sneer shared by those two women in that strip where the guy tries to sell them okra cracked me up.
I suppose it’s details like that that I enjoyed the most, not just in the art, but in the writing. Pekar’s penchant for describing his life’s most mundane details in what you’d imagine to be a voice just a few decibels louder than comfortable conversational level is what provides these stories with the energy they need to keep from being soul-crushingly dull, but that energy doesn’t overwhelm his capacity for keen observations. For instance, there’s this passage from a strip about how Harvey’s failed second marriage actually taught him that he could, in fact, be happy given the right circumstances:
Yeah, I got what I thought I needed and it turned out it really was what I needed. What a wonderful feeling! It’s like, y’know, when you’re not used to building stuff, like you’re not mechanically inclined, and you put something together from instructions in a book and you think you’ve done it right, but still you have no confidence. So then you turn it on and it works. Boy, what a rush!
Folks, you should have seen how thrilled I was when I managed to properly install my TiVo on the very first try! I knew exactly what Pekar meant, and that thrill of recognition was another LOL moment for me.
I think that’s what I take away from this collection: It’s kinda cute! Pekar’s an irascible guy, obviously, with no shortage of qualities that might make him tough to take in real life, but there’s something about his extravagantly straight-faced presentation of himself that’s comical and adorable. Yeah, a lot of the art is stiff or unprofessional, and yeah, a lot of the stories end like one of Brak’s Tales of Suspense, but when faced with life’s vicissitudes, a storytelling approach that acknowledges how they can weigh on you but still makes them look slightly ridiculous strikes me as being a pretty healthy one.