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Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvey Pekar's "The Quitter"

Harvey Pekar has been the definitive working-class hero of the comics world over the last thirty years. His autobiographical series "American Splendor" , which started in 1976, ignited the underground comics movement which brought to prominence a whole generation of talented writers and artists and inspired many, many others like modern-day superstars like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. "American Splendor" was noted because of its focus on Pekar's everyday life, often featuring the ordinary, even mundane concerns of Pekar, who worked as a file clerk all his life (even after he became famous), his family and his neighbourhood. Followers of the series lapped it up, fascinated as Pekar's no-holds-barred, bare-all approach gave the comics a hitherto unseen gritty edge, and a realistic feel which was conspicuously absent in the superhero-dominated mainstream comics world inhabited by giants like Marvel Comics. His divorce, his struggles with cancer, his exasperation with brain-dead Hollywood producers..... all these and more were incorporated into the books, delivered with Pekar's trademark bitter, satirical voice, and his fierce appreciation of the trials of the underdog.

"The Quitter" was released in 2005, under the Vertigo imprint of DC comics, a label which had been producing a judicious mix of conventional comics like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, along with some seminal works like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series, and Alan Moore's V For Vendetta. It focusses chiefly on the pre- American Splendor Pekar, (although towards the end, we are given a glimpse into the making of the iconic series) specifically on his own impetuous nature, and his tendency to take failure hard.

From the first panel itself, it's clear that this is Pekar in a different, more playful avatar. To this end, the decision to rope in young upstart Dean Haspiel (who has worked with Pekar in the past on recent "American Splendor" books) was a masterstroke. In the very first page, Haspiel shows a bitter, wary Pekar, seemingly making a hurried exit, but then stops on an afterthought and says, nonchalantly, "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, five weeks after the start of World War II... for what it's worth to anyone.." and then disappears to let the story unfold.

Pekar's childhood is portrayed in a very evocative manner, as Haspiel's crisp, sharp caricatures while drawing Pekar's Polish Jew immigrant family, segue smoothly into free-flowing curves, and cinematic, wide-angle action portraits of the frquent scraps that young Harvey gets into. In fact, the latter reminded me a lot of Eduardo Risso's superb, hard-as-nails depiction of ghetto neighbourhood fistfights in the Vertigo series "100 Bullets" , with which he made his name. Pekar himself delivers a few resounding punches, like the scene where he admits to feeling a dark, vindictive pleasure at thrashing a kid, with little provocation; a sort of karmic payback for all the times he'd been beaten up by groups of black kids in his old neighbourhood.

Pekar has always been a huge supporter of comic books as an art medium, exemplified by his now-famous assertion (which makes an entry here as well), "Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." He also has noted, on occasion, the many similarities between comic books and movies, asserting that comics could achieve everything that movies have, till date. This "cinematic approach" is prominently on display, both in the frequent appearances of the adult Pekar, offering bitter homilies about the many mistakes he committed in his youth. He serves as a narrator, a peddler of after-the-event wisdom as well as a kind of deliberate de-lineating device, pointing out among other things, that "things do not always change all that much" which has been a recurring theme of the American Splendor series as well.

In a particularly striking sequence, the young Harvey is advised by his mothers to apologize to the kids who'd been bugging him, and were subsequently beaten up by Harvey. She advises him to compromise because "sometimes it doesn't matter if you are right or wrong, as long as you get along with your friends". The young Harvey notes the irony of the situation, because his mother was supporting Henry Wallace, the under-fire Communist-backed presidential candidate at the time, and zealously at that. His internal monologue in this regard (see picture) has been shown depicted brilliantly by Haspiel, who deserves full points here.

The pace of the book mirrors Harvey's growth as a person. At first the frequent rants against errant coaches, unhelpful parents or snooty kids get a bit repetitive, but the story gets a shot in the arm as Harvey starts his final year in high school, and the burden of the approaching future starts getting too much for him to handle. In one of his appearances as the present-day Pekar, he confesses that all these years later, he is still every bit as insecure as ever, worrying about bad reviews, the dipping sales of his comics... you name it. In a very interesting move, Haspiel draws a starkly different, wraith-like Pekar, eyeballs popping out, wrinkles grossly overdone, perhaps to show the effect negativity and worry has upon a man. This is just one of the many artistic flourishes which can be seen every now and then in "The Quitter", both in the writing and in the artwork.

This is classic Pekar fare, enhanced both by his own increased maturity and his famed proclivity for taking artistic risks. In Dean Haspiel, he has a worthy partner-in-crime, and one can only hope that we see more of him in the days to come. It is important to mention here that "American Splendor" boasts of a tremendous ensemble of artists who made it big as comic book creators in their own right. Apart from Robert Crumb, who went on to become the patron saint of the underground comics movement, as well as a prominent counterculture figure, the series boasted of names like Alison Bechdel (whose 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home" made it to the NYTimes Best Books Of The Year List), Gilbert Hernandez( co-creator with his brothers Jaime and Mario of the amazing and iconic "Love and Rockets" series, one of my all-time favourite comic books), Chester Brown ("Ed The Happy Clown"), Jim Woodring, Gary Dumm and Eddie Campbell (artist of "From Hell" , writer Alan Moore's magnum opus and one of the most important graphic novels of all time.)

Harvey Pekar remains one of the most important comic-book creators around, and in his own words, he hopes to "bring out "American Splendor" for as long as I can".


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