In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.
“It’s words and pictures and you can do anything you want with words and pictures.” -Harvey Pekar
American Splendor is not a typical comic book. Over the course of almost 40 years it aspired only to chronicle the life of its author, Harvey Pekar, a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital. In small detail with intimate vignettes, anecdotes, and observations Pekar renders stories that have very little action, some are comprised almost entirely of talking or an internal monologue. Originally published and distributed independently by the author before success delivered him to major publishers late in life, American Splendor was one of the first true underground comics and it nurtured a devout cult following that in 2003 culminated in a major motion picture by the same name starring Paul Giamatti. Harvey Pekar died this past Monday, July 12, at the age of 70.
Coinciding with the movie release, Ballantine Books released an anthology of Pekar’s stories that serves as fine introduction to his work of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I would make the case that American Splendor realizes the greatest potential of postmodern navel-gazing autoethnography.
Here’s Paul Giamatti as Pekar.
I feel an affection for American Splendor because at times I write this way too, but mostly I don’t care to read what other anthropologists have written in this mode, the exception being Robert Leonard’s peerless, Yellow Cab. But American Splendor is compulsively readable and rereadable. In fact it might find a more appreciative audience in non-comic book fans.
More than anything American Splendor is marked by its depiction of mundane subject matter. In perhaps my favorite short of the book Pekar wakes up next to his girlfriend. He brushes his teeth and eats breakfast. He walks to the grocery store to do some shopping and on the way home runs into a friend. They talk and then he’s on his way. He sees the mailman and collects a package. He comes home and talks to his girlfriend, obsessing over his lackluster efforts to establish himself as a published jazz critic. When she discovers he forgot to buy coffee they have a fight and he leaves to buy the coffee.
That’s it. The end. Once upon a time there was this guy and some things happened. Here they are.
American Splendor is a record of a life lived. Arguably it embodies many of the same qualities that the late novelist and poet Roberto Bolano called “infrarealism,” a term the Guardian, in its obituary of Bolano, pigeonholed through his novel The Savage Detectives, “a challenging mixture of thriller, philosophical and literary reflections, pastiche and autobiography.” This definition works well for American Splendor too, save the bit about being a thriller. Unless you’re riveted by the spectacle of talking on the phone, taking a bath, just lying in bed, talking about sports, checking the mailbox, or walking around the streets of Cleveland thinking.
In some of these stories we are like guests in Pekar’s head. For example one is nothing more than him taking a walk, coming home and reading, then writing, then reading some more and talking to himself. This aspect of his existence is not unlike mine, living a life of the mind and looking to the printed word for comfort and wisdom. Pekar writes a lot about writing. We follow his trials as he fights to publish and distribute his comic book independently, takes promising phone calls that lead nowhere, sees his career as a jazz critic and political essayist stall, gets jerked around by the Village Voice, and meets celebrities. Anyone struggling to get published and establish themselves in the field will find something familiar here.
At most Pekar’s plots do not advance beyond swiping his neighbor’s newspaper, shooting the shit with co-workers on break, helping friends move, and serving jury duty. Like anthropologies that claim a history of the present American Splendor preserves for future generations what it was like to be lonely man working a dead-end job in a mid-western city in the late twentieth century. Even Pekar’s meager diet of rice, Corn Flakes, peanut butter, and Pepsi manages to make its way to illustration.
While most of American Splendor is taken up with Pekar telling the story of himself, he occasionally veers into oral history to tell other people’s stories. Pekar is an American Jew and he seeks out the company of older, European immigrant Jews. Borrowing their voices he regales us with tales of unionized workers getting beat on the picket line, Jewish street hustlers, and concentration camp survivors. Pekar also relates to his Black co-workers and finds it important to tell us about their musical tastes, folk wisdom, and opinions on pickled okra.
It must be said that a great deal of what makes the series so strong is the way that Pekar’s introspection is reflected creatively by his artists. One vignette features a full page spread of Pekar walking on top of another image of him just standing around, below his feet are studies of his profile, all layered on top of an oversized image of his forehead, eyes looking down. Lettering fills every available space as he thinks to himself and reflects. The reader’s eyes are drawn down the page in this cascade, but there is no action. Cleveland is a star in these stories as well. The reader is treated to realistic illustration that mirrors Pekar’s own realism through detailed renderings of industrial buildings, trains, streets, storefronts, and cars. Traffic lights, wires, and poles. Even the cracks in sidewalks.
For anthropologies that seeks to tell it like it is, to represent people’s lives in a way that they can recognize, American Splendor stands as a subtly complicated role model.
What follows are some of Harvey Pekar’s infamous David Letterman appearances (you may need headphones to hear these, folks have ripped these from their VHS collections and the audio can be weak):