Arts & Culture

Harvey Pekar: Cleveland’s Plain Dealer

Something to Say -which will be released in 2011-is a book of profiles and photos of various artists discussing the intersection of art and politics.  The profiles are my handiwork; the photos are the work of my wife, painter and … Read More

By / July 23, 2010

Something to Say -which will be released in 2011-is a book of profiles and photos of various artists discussing the intersection of art and politics.  The profiles are my handiwork; the photos are the work of my wife, painter and photographer Lily Prince. We very emphatically used the most eclectic, broad-based criteria to define political art-making.  Harvey Pekar came to mind almost immediately.. American Splendor is an astonishing work. This was not , though, a matter of simple fandom. Pekar’s sprawling narrative  can be also be construed as on-the-scene reportage on the decline of urban America-Cleveland, a city he utilized with complete  artistic attachment,  akin to any writer or filmmaker’s mining of  a specific locale. Jewish themes too run throughout the Pekar canon.   There is an homage to legendary cantors as well as an examination of Cleveland’s Jewish immigrant peddlers and their sub- subculture. One series is entirely devoted-to my  chagrin– to his critical antipathy toward Isaac Bashevis Singer. And the concept of the Jewish proletariat was not just abstract theory -it was his family history. He retained an emphatic identification with those roots and fashioned himself-accurately-a working-class intellectual, motifs that occur throughout. After some poking around, I obtained his direct number and– with a good deal of trepidation –dialed. The familiar, sandpaper voice answered the phone. I didn’t expect that Harvey Pekar himself would pick up-I’m not at all sure what I was expecting– and quickly gave him my spiel, adding that I certainly understood if he was too busy. He wasn’t busy at all, he told me, then implied that , in general, he hadn’t much to do-almost as if he was hanging around the kitchen, waiting for the phone to ring. He seemed willing to participate, but not  all that enthused. Of course, I don’t know if enthusiasm even existed as part of his emotional makeup. I don’t leave Cleveland, he told me emphatically, which seemed fair enough. In the days after the phone call, we considered making the journey out to Cleveland. Logistically, it just seemed impossible. I also felt that I’d caught him in a fairly-for Harvey Pekar-good mood and the offer might be rescinded at any moment. Several other unappealing prospects were plausible: We’d arrive in Cleveland and he would have forgotten about us. Or the interview would last five minutes. Or he wouldn’t pose for photos.  I was very saddened to hear of Harvey Pekar’s death. Yet for reasons I can’t totally explain,  I don’t feel regret at having failed to include him in our book.  Perhaps he had said it all-about his life, his family, his likes and dislikes, Cleveland-in the  pages of American Splendor. The title American Splendor contains a good deal of obvious irony. But with his passing and inevitable reevaluation of the Pekar canon, some of the irony might fade. American Splendor, that expansive comix autobiography, paints a picture of a fairly miserable, not very nice person. But if one can apply the broad sketches of Harvey Pekar’s life to anyone but Harvey Pekar-immigrant heritage, love of music, books, and writing, a steady artistic output-that really is splendor indeed.