Monday, July 12, 2010

HARVEY PEKAR. He was a professional curmudgeon who bragged, often aggressively, on his working-class roots ("One day I had to fight five guys") and "fucked up a great thing" with Letterman mainly because he couldn't stomach even the appearance of kissing ass. But make no mistake, Harvey Pekar was a poet. The American Splendor comics with which the recently deceased Pekar made his name are full of incidents and conversations that the rest of us might have found dull, or merely diverting, if we had viewed them without Pekar's illumination. As it was, he made even the mumbled how's-it-going talk from street corners and cafeterias sing.

I don't have any of them on hand, but I remember several American Splendor stories with pleasure. I'm thinking now of one episode in which Harvey runs into a bearded day-laborer buddy (I think Gary Dumm drew this) who tells him how he got a job by making it clear in the interview that "I don't give a shit." Even in real life the story would tickle you -- the laborer puts his feet on the interviewer's desk, looks him straight in the eye, and throws a match in the wastebasket, setting it on fire -- but Pekar and Dumm highlight many small unnecessary beauties in it that give it more than anecdotal life. For instance, the worker explains that he immediately quit the job -- "They wanted me to be a human screwdriver. Fuck that!" -- and makes a sharp chopping gesture which is emphasized in the comic by a motion line. The gesture pops for us probably like it did for Pekar when he was listening and watching, and tells us something about the character. (I still wonder about that guy. He wore old-fashioned glasses, and smoked a pipe.)

And so on, through fights at work, bad dates, cancer, talking to this guy he knows. The stories are pretty good, but it's the privileged moments that stick: The way Harvey plops Joyce's bag in the trunk and slams the hatch, the way his body twists when he yells at a co-worker (and how she calls him "sweetie" though she's totally pissed, which just makes him madder), or the way two girls look at each other when a co-worker tries to sell them pickled okra as a cure for lady problems. Sometimes it looks very proletarian -- after all, his was a working life, and even his artist subjects tended to live in squalor -- and we may be grateful that someone was making art out of the sort of world most of us live in, full of bills and bosses and disorder, rather than the upper-class fantasies most pop crap revolves around. But the joy is not only that he noticed them, but also that his ear and eye exalted them.

The Robert Crumb collaborations usually led, as one might imagine, to more Zen results (like the hospital vignettes: "Bitch, you bettah help me!" "Mister, you keep talking to people like that, you're gonna have a haa-aard way to go!"), which just point up Pekar's gift for detail. Crumb, who can be very astute about these things, said Pekar's work could be "so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic," which is only almost right, because the mundane is exotic, always, if you know how to look at it. Pekar knew.

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