Friday, October 17, 2014

Harvey Pekar

"As a matter of fact, I deliberately look for the mundane, because I feel these stories are ignored. The most influential things that happen to virtually all of us are the things that happen on a daily basis. Not the traumas."

Maybe you have to be from Cleveland to understand the kind of power an underdog can have.  It certainly helps to be from a place perpetually associated with misery, bad luck, unemployment, provincialism, and really bad pro sports.  I could waste your time and mine with remedial observations such as that Cleveland has the world's greatest orchestra, one of the best art museums anywhere, and a terribly advanced collection of medical facilities; not to mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  But most people just reply by asking, "Isn't that where the river was so polluted that it caught fire?"

Yeah, let's just talk about what it is to be an underdog, shall we?

In the years when I was teaching English at one of Cleveland's high schools there was an artistic renaissance occurring within our modest city's bohemian community.  New voices in poetry were being heard and published in a variety of quarterly pamphlets, tactile art was being explored with never-before-seen combinations of media, independent rock music was everywhere [I mean that almost literally], my friend Stephanie had started a theater for urban youth that was becoming an established part of the city's culture, and half the people in my apartment building were writers of some sort.

Then there was this nebbish, this schlemiel; a homunculus who wrote reviews of obscure jazz records for equally obscure free neighborhood newspapers and supported himself as a file clerk at the Veterans Administration.  He was, without question, the walking, talking embodiment of ordinariness.  Despite his status as a quintessential underdog, he became the rallying voice for what is now called in college textbooks the "New Bohemian Movement".  Just as unlikely, the NBM began in...Cleveland, Ohio. Take that, New York and Los Angeles!

Harvey Pekar's literary efforts were aided considerably by one of the other great originals of the era. Fortunately for him and for the NBM, one of his close friends was Robert "R" Crumb, who became the most recognizable artist of the counter-culture in the late '60's and early '70's.  His characters of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural were commonly found not only in free newspapers but on t-shirts and album covers.  [An aside: At last weekend's ComicCon in New York, a four panel collection of original Crumb art sold for $65,000.]


Pekar was interested in creating stories for the cinema, but did not have the knowledge, wherewithal, sophistication or looks to mount a production. Instead, he imagined using Crumb's art to illustrate stories in the same manner that a cinematographer frames images on the screen.  With art, especially comic art, imagination could be indulged in a manner both creative and inexpensive.  This idea appealed to Crumb, as did Pekar's notion that their comic stories involve the mundane instead of the spectacular.  After all, they lived and created in Cleveland, where the mundane was splendid.  As he noted:
 When I was a little kid, and I was reading these comics in the '40s, I kind of got sick of them because after a while, they were just formulaic. I figured there was some kind of a flaw that keeps them from getting better than they are, and then when I saw Robert Crumb's work in the early '60s, when he moved from Philadelphia to Cleveland, and he moved around the corner from me, I thought 'Man, comics are where it's at'.
1976 is considered the high-water mark of the New Bohemian Movement, as that was the year the 37-year-old Pekar's comic, illustrated by R Crumb, was published.  Its title was American Splendor, subtitled "From off the streets of Cleveland".  The comic, self-published and self-distributed, became the most desired and elusive volume of literature in northeastern Ohio.  In fact, it was 1980 before I was able to secure my own copy.  In it, Pekar chronicled his magnificently ordinary life and celebrated the mundane in a way never quite seen before.

While only seventeen issues were published from 1976 to 1993, Pekar's comic book was read by the literati of both coasts, making the file clerk famous enough to be a regular guest on David Letterman's NBC show, and even more famous for reducing Letterman to a stuttering rage on what became Pekar's last appearance on the show.

It really didn't matter to Pekar as he wasn't desirous of fame, and certainly not interested in appeasing the perpetually prickly Letterman.  Underdogs don't receive their power from impressing the wealthy and powerful; quite the opposite.  Besides, Pekar's creativity maintained its very original course long after Letterman's shtick had become stale.  American Splendor continued to chart the ups and downs of his very average life, including the dorkily charming relationship with his wife and muse, Joyce, with his co-workers at the VA, and his uber-nerd friend, Toby.

The verite quality of the comic book realized its prime when Pekar wrote of his diagnosis with lymphoma and his long, touching, yet successful, battle to survive it.  In 2003, a film version of his life was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, winning a variety of critics' awards along the way, including the Sundance Film Festival's.

Pekar would eventually retire from the VA and continue to write comic books and music reviews, occasionally appearing in public, although with some reluctance.  While he could be found on a near daily basis at the public library in Cleveland Heights, the cognoscenti knew to leave him be, and the staff was always solicitous towards him.  His last major effort was when he wrote the book for the jazz opera Leave Me Alone!, which premiered at Oberlin College's Finney Chapel in 2009.

Illnesses of various sorts began to take their toll and, while effective fodder for his stories, Pekar was often in great discomfort.  In 2010, his wife Joyce found him dead in his bed of an accidental overdose of his various medications.  In a, splendid...juxtaposition, he is buried in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery right next to Eliot Ness of "Untouchables" fame.  His headstone reads, "Life is about women, gigs, and bein' creative."

Harvey Pekar is now recognized as the poet laureate of Cleveland, an absurd title for a comic book writer but somehow fitting.  After all, this is Cleveland that we're talking about, and the city follows its own rules of propriety.  Two years ago this month, the Cleveland Heights Library celebrated the installation of a statue to Pekar, an act that he would have found a bit odd, I'm sure, but certainly one that would have found its place in the pages of American Splendor.

For those of us like this blogger, who spent his early twenties writing music reviews for the same free newspapers, playing bass for terrible bands in stale, smokey clubs in Pekar's neighborhood, and occasionally getting poems published in journals so crude the print would rub off on your fingers before you could read it, he enabled us to own a small shard of the New Bohemian Movement.  For that alone, he's earned his status as a laureate beyond definition.

For those interested, I offer the following:

The New American Splendor Anthology: From Off the Streets of Cleveland

American Splendor: The Movie