What Harvey Pekar Did For Comics

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Harvey Pekar did not invent autobiographical comics. In the American comics tradition alone, the pioneering female cartoonist Fay King regularly inserted herself as a character in her Jazz Age cartoons and comic strips. Robert Crumb, the illustrator of some of Pekar’s most memorable works, took the self as a subject in several of his own early underground comix. And even Crumb has acknowledged the galvanizing influence of Justin Green’s seminal 1972 comic book Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a dense and deeply symbolic account of the author’s experiences with Catholic guilt, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hallucinatory sexual dysfunction. Green’s work inspired many others, including Art Spiegelman and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, to explore autobiographical comics before the underground comix milieu wound down in the mid-1970s.

Pekar’s American Splendor series, launched in 1976, was an unlikely project. As a self-published black-and-white comic book dealing with adult themes, it was as much a reaction to as an extension of an underground publishing scene that was rapidly dissipating. Pekar, 37 at the time, recognized the possibilities that work like Crumb’s represented, but had felt alienated from the psychedelicized ethos and lifestyle of the counterculture. Pekar’s major subjects were, instead, the forgotten moments and ignored people he noted daily as an autodidact file clerk living in Cleveland, as well as his own verbose, cantankerous, opinionated self. With no clear audience, American Splendor balanced understated incidents with Pekar’s street-corner-philosopher’s perspective on life. Pekar was also unusual as a writer working as an auteur in a visual art form. Although he found a valuable collaborator in Crumb, Pekar’s overall choice of illustrators largely suggested a reaction to the metaphorical visuals, cartoon languages, and stylistic flourishes exhibited in dazzling variety by the underground cartoonists who preceded him. Pekar preferred to work with available (and affordable) artists who conformed to his vision of a restrained, literal, representational comics art.

Unlike work by other comics writers who intensely directed their collaborators toward precise visual compositions – such as Harvey Kurtzman and Alan Moore – Pekar’s stories tend to more visibly bear the stamps of his illustrators. The results are sometimes inconsistent, but Pekar’s emphasis on straightforward presentation in both text and image was influential to a post-underground generation seeking contemporary models in opposition to genre-based commercial comics. For a new wave of “alternative” comics artists, Pekar’s work championed an influential mode of autobiography that privileged the quotidian over the epochal, the mundane over the traumatic. Directly or indirectly, his influence can be seen in the autobiographical and diaristic comics of cartoonists including John Porcellino and Gabrielle Bell, as well as the slices of life published online by James Kochalka and many, many others. The subdued tone of his work doubtless influenced even cartoonists moving towards Carver-esque models of literary fiction in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2000, Joe Sacco called Pekar “one of the only working class voices in the popular culture.” Among his most well-remembered and frequently reprinted pieces is 1984’s “Hypothetical Quandary,” a three-page collaboration with Crumb. Little of note happens in this story. Pekar visits a local bakery as he considers the possibility of breaking through as a successful writer. His verbose interior monologue considers the tension between his working life and his intellectual aspirations, and is punctuated by only one line of actual dialogue: “A coupla those, anna rye bread…” In its contrapuntal visuals, the piece braids Pekar’s interior and exterior lives just as it braids his writerly concerns with Crumb’s precise visual pacing and concrete attention to the environmental details of urban life. In the story’s final panels, Pekar inhales deeply from the loaf in the bag, ending his internal debate. “Ah, fresh bread!” he thinks, as the story ends. Pekar’s resolution affirms an involved connection to the concrete struggles and pleasures of everyday life as a source for ambitious art. This relationship characterizes Pekar’s best work, and his distinct and still influential mode of autobiographical comics.

About the authorBill Kartalopoulos teaches “Comics History,” “Reading Graphic Novels,” and “History of Illustration” at Parsons The New School for Design. He is a contributing editor for Print and reviews comics for Publishers Weekly. He coordinates programming for SPX: The Small Press Expo and the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and has curated exhibits of work by Kim Deitch and R. Sikoryak. He lives in Brooklyn.