This week Cool Comics returns from its hiatus with a look at the new Harvey Pekar book, “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly.” Doug Imbrogno has a great review over at the WestVirginiaVille blog, written from the POV of someone who isn’t familiar with Pekar’s work. I’ve got a different take.
I’ve been a fan of Harvey Pekar since what I think may have been his second published work, back in 1976. “The Champ” told a true tale of Harvey’s days as a teen bully back in the 1950s. It’s a theme he would not revisit until his acclaimed graphic novel, “The Quitter,” (drawn by Dean Haspiel) some thirty years later. This short story was published in the fourth issue of Comix Book, a magazine-sized anthology of underground comics that was originally published by Marvel in 1974, with the final two issues being published by Kitchen Sink after Marvel pulled the plug.
Pekar was a rarity, a star underground comic book writer at a time when such an animal was hardly known. In the mainstream, Stan Lee had created a cult of personality around himself at Marvel, but he was only as good as his collaborators (luckily, Lee had some of the best mainstream artists in the world to work with).
In the world of underground comics, the artist was king. Most cartoonists wrote and drew their own work. If they did collaborate with other creators, it was usually with both splitting both the writing and drawing. Until Pekar, there really wasn’t such a thing as an underground comics writer.
Pekar was drawn into comics through his friendship with a pre-fame Robert Crumb in the 1960s. Crumb was living in Cleveland, working as a staff artist for American Greetings, and had met Pekar thanks to their mutual obsessive love of old Jazz records. Crumb was just beginning to experiment with the style that made him a cultural icon, and Pekar was intrigued by the possibilities of the comic medium.
Pekar would draw comics using stick figures, and Crumb would encourage him, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s when Pekar’s freelance jazz critic gigs began drying up, that he asked Crumb to re-draw one of his strips for publication. Bob Armstrong, another underground cartoonist who was also into old-style Jazz, also started working with Pekar, and Harvey’s short stories began popping up in various underground anthologies.
In late 1976 Pekar self-published his first issue of American Splendor, which employed the comic book medium in an all-new way. American Splendor showed that you could use comics to tell confessional, deeply personal, warts-and-all biographical stories. Once you read an issue, you came away feeling like you knew Harvey Pekar. Maybe you didn’t like him, but you felt you knew him.
American Splendor was not an immediate hit. Pekar had a few thousand of each issue printed and stored them in his garage in Cleveland. He collected checks and filled the orders himself. I think it took him nearly ten years to sell out of his first issue, and that was with extensive artwork by Robert Crumb.
In Doug’s review, he points out that Pekar seems to get all the credit for his work at the expense of the artist. The fact is, he deserves it. Harvey Pekar dominated his artists. He overwhelmed them with details and demanded accuracy. He supplied layouts in stick-figure form so that the artist wouldn’t mess up his sense of comedic timing (which was natural and brilliant). Pekar’s comics were so much his work that it didn’t really matter who drew them. As long as they were competent and could pull off a decent level of realism, they served the story. In fact, some of Pekar’s most effective collaborators were the least flashy artists.
A bad artist could ruin a Harvey Pekar story, but a genius artist would be wasted. When Crumb became too busy to work with Pekar, he wasn’t really missed. “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” is drawn by Summer McClinton, who had only drawn one short story of Pekar’s before. She does a great job here. You barely notice her work.
Drawing a Harvey Pekar story was a bit like playing rhythm guitar. When you do it right, nobody notices.
With that lengthy, rambling preamble, let’s get to “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly.”
It’s far from Pekar’s best work. A lot has been made out of this being his last work, and it being a posthoumous coda to his career.
It’s neither. His next book, “Cleveland,” which is half a history of his hometown and half an autobiography, will be published later this summer. Pekar finished the script and saw the first 20 pages of art (by Jeff Remnant) before he passed away last year. “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” was originally supposed to be published in 2009, but was reportedly held up because it was taking too long to draw.
The Huntington book is really a collection of stories, with the longest being his story about his trip to a book fair in Huntington and how he came to film his part in “The Comic Book Lady.”
The problem is that, following his bout with cancer and his brush with fame due to the American Splendor movie, Pekar had mellowed. The hallmark of the first fifteen years of the American Splendor comic was the way Pekar portrayed himself as a very cranky, miserable man. Having found love and family, survived cancer and achieved better living through the chemistry of anti-depressants, Pekar just wasn’t as interesting a train wreck as he used to be. In his curmudgeonly prime, Pekar could make Bobby Knight blush. Sadly it was an accidental overdose of anti-depressants that ended Pekar’s life. You have to wonder if his last thoughts in this world were “Ain’t that a kick in the ass?”
In “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” Pekar shambles along happily, not blowing up or throwing a tantrum. He comes across as pleasant and cheerful. Having read the man’s work for thirty-five years, I’ve come to care about him, and I’m glad he found peace and some level of happiness late in his life, but it’s just not as satisfying as his older work, where he honestly showed what an ass he could make of himself.
In the Huntington story, he complains that his per diem check for his speaking engagement was sent to his manager instead of being handed to him in person. It’s a minor point in this story. In his prime, the check not being there would have been the entire story. He would have had a screaming fit and tossed chairs around, and probably would have been escorted from the building. His temper is gone.
Also gone is his obsessive attention to detail. The Harvey Pekar in the Huntington story was apparently under the impression that the book fair was being held in the former location of a Big Sandy Superstore. In his younger days, not only would he have known that he was in The Huntington Civic Center, he would have griped about the way they sold their naming rights. This Harvey was worried that the people at the book fair might think that he was only in it for the money. The old Harvey would have screamed in their face that he was only in it for the money.
This is not the lovable, mildly insane crank that most Americans first met on Late Night with David Letterman in the late 1980s. (see below)
One of the other hallmarks of American Splendor was Pekar’s fascination with other people’s stories. He was known for his autobiographical work, but he excelled at telling other people’s life stories. The Huntington story is a bit strange for me, because after thirty-five years of reading Pekar’s work, he’s finally included someone I know in real life. He does a good job of translating Kathleen Miller into comics, but he doesn’t go in depth as much as he usually does. The parts of the story about shooting his role in “The Comic Book Lady” are sort of sweet, but in a nice way. You can see the trailer for the movie, with a glimpse of Harvey, below.
The main problem with “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” is that the title story is really the weakest part of the book. The first two-thirds of the book is filled with Pekar’s biographical sketches of people he’s met and found fascinating. We get to meet Hollywood Bob, the limo driver. Pekar tells the story of Tunc and Eileen, and we get to hear the story of a vintage toy dealer who makes an ill-fated foray into the world of running a diner. These are great tales and show that Pekar was an incredible listener, with a real passion for getting to know new people.
“Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” is a decent collection of stories for people who want to get their Pekar fix. I hope that “Cleveland” is a fitting capstone for Pekar’s career. His influence on independant comics cannot be overstated. He paved the way for comics to be taken seriously as a medium.
A couple of personal notes about this review. First, reading “Huntington, West Virginia On The Fly” reminded me how much we lost when Harvey passed away last year. I remain a huge fan of the man’s body of work, and I hope that plans are in place to keep it in print.
I also felt a little nostalgic while preparing this post. I tried not to bury you guys under trivial details, but the fact that I can remember walking into Pepperland, in the old Arcade Building, to buy issue four of Comix Book scares me a little. Even scarier is that I was able to walk down to my basement and go directly to the stack of magazines that included the very copy of Comix Book that I bought thirty-five years ago. That’s where the scans of “The Champ” come from.