When Comic Legend Harvey Pekar Met West Virginia
by Douglas Imbrogno | Several people flagged my attention to what may be the last of Harvey Pekar’s books, which comes with a West Virginia twist. The name of the book is “Huntington, West Virginia “On the Fly,” a curious marketing angle and slightly deceiving, which I’ll get to. Pekar died July 12th, 2010, of an accidental overdose of some anti-depressant medicines, according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office, the Ohio county that contains Cleveland, where Pekar was born and earned his comic writer fame while being a file clerk by day. Wikipieda has a snappy synopsis of Pekar’s life:
Pekar, a 1957 Shaker Heights High School graduate, chronicled his life and times in the acclaimed autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. He portrayed himself as a rumpled, depressed, obsessive-compulsive ‘flunky file clerk’ engaged in a constant battle with loneliness and anxiety. Describing American Splendor, Pekar wrote, “the theme is about staying alive…Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts…I’ve tried to control a chaotic universe. And it’s a losing battle.”
I’ll admit straight up that I’m coming to Pekar’s work pretty cold. I’ve seen a little bit of it and his “war of attrition … stay active on all fronts” line is straight from the front trenches of life, where we all do battle. We’ve all wrestled with depression and chaos, though I suspect Pekar had a more extensive knock-down fight with the demons of depression, all of it reflected in the honesty of his work. There is something terribly sad, yet morbidly in line with his work that Pekar died of an accidental overdose of antidepressants, as if he gobbled too much of them in a last-ditch attempt to keep depression from gobbling him.
One thing I have to say about this form of comics – written in the key of daily life – is the cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing the author of the words getting all the attention when the often exceptional artwork is executed by someone else – who gets a far tinier byline. Pekar’s words have been turned into comics by dozens of artists, the great R. Crumb included. The illustrator who did this one – Summer McClinton – earns a far smaller credit on the bottom right cover of “On the Fly.”
Then again, a scan of Pekar’s work, including his bouts with cancer and deep depression, indicate what in the autobiographical, non-comic book world would be called “a fearless writer,” and he is certainly fearless in recording the often mundane, even boring moments of daily life that are quite often not especially, well, notable. Except for the fact that we are tuning into the latest dispatch in the ongoing autobiography of Harvey Pekar.
Which brings me to the book. The first two thirds of it, it should be observed, have nothing to do with Huntington or West Virginia. For those of us who live in the state (and have worked in Huntington), it’s a bit pleasing, if befuddling, to see Huntington and West Virginia used as a calling card in the title of the book for a rather uneventful trip – Pekar’s first – to the Appalachian region.
A red flag goes up early on for West Virginia residents, weary of the usual dumb hillbilly comments, when Pekar is shown being driven to the airport by Hollywood Bob, a limo driver. (One of the perks from the success of the movie about Pekar’s life, “American Splendor,” starring Paul Giamatti, was fly-outs to other cities or appearances and Pekar always asked for Hollywood Bob to drive him.) Pekar’s obsessive-compulsiveness rises as he worries to Bob about getting his per diem expenses for the Huntington gig:
“I toldja Harvey, don’t worry about it. Someone wil take care of it.”
“I hope so Bob, but I don’t want you workin’ for free. That West Virginia crew don’t seem like they’re too sharp. They might not know what a per diem is.”
To Pekar’s credit, as the Huntington book fair experience unfolds – he is also asked to make a cameo in a local film shoot – his inquisitiveness about the local folk and their true-life tales appears to wash away any preconceptions and stereotypes he might have taken off the plane once he landed at the local Tri-State Airport.
To be honest, the best parts in the book for me feature Hollywood Bob, who’s the most interesting character, along with a segment about a guy’s dream of opening a refurbished diner in Cleveland Heights where Pekar lived. The Huntington segment is the least interesting one, except for the excellent illustrations and some well-observed moments. I fully get that Pekar’s rumpled, nothing-special style is, quite honestly, the very point, in his work. It’s almost artfully anti-artful to describe the arrangements of how he got to Huntington, the phone calls, the pick-ups and take-him-there moments, the quotidian multiple questions as he pursues the per diem expenses and the eventual speech he gives – this is the ostensible narrative of “”‘Huntington, West Virginia “On the Fly.'”
The tale is not all that involving. The speech itself begins to serve up some of Pekar’s motivations behind his work, then tails off:
“I used to think comics were an intrinsically limited form, until I met a kid named Robert Crumb in 1962… I thought every other form art form has had a realistic movement, why not comics? I wanted to write about everyday life. It’s pretty much been the case that 99 percent of writers write about 1 percent of life… Meeting Crumb was the first big break I got. The second was when they made a movie based on my work.
“Right now, I’m doing OK. My books are selling respectably. There are a few publishers who are interested in printing my stuff. Well, that’s about it. We have some time for Q and A if anyone has any questions or remarks.”
“So do you think you’ll ever go on Letterman again?”
“What was it like seeing yourself in a movie?”
That ‘Etc.’ certainly leaves you hanging. I wanted more, but, well, etc.
The illustrations are the funnest part of the trip. Having worked as a reporter for many years at a Huntington newspaper, it’s fun to see the tale move around the town, even if there are clunker notes. (There is and never was a “Midvale Mall,” as one panel depicts. Which itself is a kind of fun, behind-the-scene’s insight of seeing an out-of-town illustrator winging it and coming up with a name out of the blue to fit Pekar’s narrative. So while this is daily life narrative, it’s not quite comic reportage, at least visually.)
Here, for example, is a chunk of the book’s narrative:
Before the festival, I receive a letter from Sam, my assigned guide in Huntington, inviting me to do some non-festival stuff. I call him back, “Where is this festival being held?”
“At the former location of the Big Sandy Superstore, which is located next to the Holiday Inn you’ll be staying at.”
“What’ll you be doing with me, or guiding me to do?”
“Well, I’ll meet ya at the airport. I’ll take ya to dinner they’re having Friday night, I’ll introduce your speech on Saturday.”
“Sounds exciting. Say, what do you do in Huntington? What kind of work?”
“I’m a cataloger at the library here. Y’know, I catalog books.”
“So how do you like it?”
“S’OK. My job is like yours was. We don’t have file clerks anymore.”
“D’you read a lot of comics? Do you collect ’em?”
“Nah, I just like your stuff and I wanted to meet you so I volunteered t’be your helper.”
Waiting in the airport lounge. What was served on the buffet. It goes on.
Some others may appreciate the Huntington section more than me, like the excellent illustrator, Glen Brogan, from Huntington, who attended the book fair referenced in “On the Fly” and who met Pekar there. In a post about the book on his blog, Albino Raven, Brogan notes about Pekar:
Harvey’s speech was so inspirational to me because he sung the praises of comics and comic art. It’s easy for a geek like to me to talk about why I love comics, but here was this guy who was never a big comic nerd, kinda seemed like he could be your grandpa, and yet he believed that you could tell meaningful stores of any type with comics. They didn’t have to be all silly and superheroes (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but they can also tell stories just as important as any novel or non-fiction book. It really gave me hope that the kind of art I was interested in wasn’t useless.
The comic Comic World (at left) and the real one in Huntington, W.Va.
I’m intrigued by the motivations behind Pekar’s overall body of work and if anything “On the Fly” makes me want to check out tales where he digs a little deeper. The observational, daily diary tone, minus the usual self-heroic (or self-exaggerating) tone autobiographical writing often traffics in, is – was – in its own unremarkable subject, a remarkable thing for Pekar to attempt over the course of a life.
In an interview, from a collection called “Harvey Pekar: Conversations,” Pekar’s wife and sometimes collaborator, Joyce Brabner, a writer of political comics, describes how he often writes “odes to boredom, about just being eroded by dailiness,” which I think is certainly an under reported phenomenom of daily life in our literature. (I love the header on one of his cartoons: “Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day.”) The excerpt below, about the writing of a book chronicling his bout with cancer, “Our Cancer Year,” makes me want to check more deeply and widely into Pekar’s work:
Pekar: I mean I look at comics as my main medium, and I don’t look at various art forms as being ranked in a kind of hierarchy. I think comics are as good a medium as any other, and they are particularly interesting to me, and I never considered using any other medium.
Ottaviani: You do write in other media. You write essays, and . . .
Pekar: Yeah, I write essays, and I write a lot of music criticism, and I write a lot of book reviews.
Ottaviani: When did you decide to do the book?
Pekar: Myself, I figured if I got through it I was going to do it. I mean, I’m writing a continuing autobiography.
Pekar: Well, I write about my life, choosing incidents that I think will be, for one reason or another, significant to people. Often because they may have experienced the same things, and often because few or no people have written about them before. I hope that in reading them people can identify with the character and in some cases take comfort from what I write or know that maybe they’re not the only person in the world that’s had this experience, so they shouldn’t feel so weird about it or something.
As far as “Our Cancer Year” goes, I guess I wanted to show people, among other things, that you don’t have to be a hero to get through cancer. You can be a craven coward and get through. You have to stay on your medication and take your treatments, that’s all. A lot of cancer stories that people have written have made themselves out to look real heroic and stuff . . .
Pekar never trafficked in heroics. It’s odd, and kind of wonderful, that such a non-“heroic” life, is the stuff of so many books.