The Secret Origin of Harvey Pekar

Review of The Quitter by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel, Vertigo

Via the fine E-Bay seller Quackenstein, I picked up a couple of fairly new trades recently. And I feel like talking about one of them* right now; in a genre that doesn't get much coverage here, from me or anyone else; autobio. Can't you feel the electricity?

I haven't had much interest in picking up Harvey Pekar's most recent volume of American Splendor. It's not that I think he "sold out" by working with DC Comics or anything like that; it's just that, after reading a "Best of" collection of his work and watching the movie based on it, I feel like I've had my fill of the man's work for the time being. I respect his contributions to the medium (even if I'm not the biggest booster of autobio comics you'll find by a wide margin) and am glad he's finally being recognized by mainstream publishers, both in the comics world and out of it. I just not all that interested in wading through the sudden flood of his brand of autobio/confessional work that's been coming out since the movie first got so much attention.

And yet, for some reason I bought the Quitter. Well, okay, I know what the reason was, beyond my Pavlovian response to any comic I can find cheap on E-Bay that I've ever been vaguely interested in; Haspiel. I've liked what I've seen of his work in the past, and this was a fairly large showcase for it, being an OGN. That, and I got to make that joke about Harvey Pekar having a secret origin.

So, I dug Haspiel's work on this. Given that he's working with a writer whose main selling point is the mundanity of his stories, he does a good job of making things look interesting here. Other than the fact that his teenage-to-twenty something Harvey looked like a 12 year old, I had no problem with his work here. He told the story well and was able to hit all the notes that Pekar's script called for; he certainly nailed the most (only, really) dramatic scene in the book, and he even had some interesting panel lay outs. It's really accomplished black and white artwork, which is a really novel thing to see in a book published by DC (even if Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth can make a similar claim. That's another book I need to review. Once I figure out the ending).  

Speaking of which, isn't it weird that Vertigo, an imprint that was started by Alan Moore's bad mood and existed for a long time as a place for Brittish people to make edgy comics with forgotten superheroes, is publishing work by alt comic stalwarts like Pekar and Hernandez? That's why, even though I'm a Marvel Zombie at heart, I respect DC more as a publisher. Although I'm sure the success of alt comics in bookstores probably had as much to do with it as anything, but still; as much as I like Criminal, it's sad that Marvel refuses to really branch out in the creator owned comics department. Well, not really, in the grand scheme of things; there's a lot of readily available creator owned work out there without the help of the House of Ideas; it just vaguely bothers me that they don't do more to promote it.

Now, on to the problems I had with the book. They all stem from Pekar's scripting. Now, I'm not trying to pull a Burgas here and piss off Mr. Pekar and get in some kind of mini-feud with him (as if that's possible; although it would be a highlight of my life if he showed up at this blog just to yell at me), but I was not fond of his writing here. My main complaint is that, in a lot of ways, it read like an illustrated text story. Most of the dialogue was redundant when coupled with Pekar's narration. Also, and this is a really odd criticism for an autobio book, a lot of the dialogue sounded unnatural. I mean, really, what teenager gets a letter and says "I love the ways this guy writes; it's so substantial!"? That's right, I'm accusing Harvey Pekar of not writing Harvey Pekar well. None of this is as bad as, say, any superhero comic pre-Watchmen and DKR, but still, it grated on me. Especially because I expect more out of alt comics when it comes to things like this.

Couple those annoyances with the fact that, being an autobio comic, the narrative can be boiled down to "first this happened, then this other thing happened, and so on, and this what I think of it now", and I wasn't enthused with much of this book. Pekar's a good enough writer that the story occasionally became compelling, but it never quite got there.

I remember liking his older work a lot more than this, but maybe it was the novelty of how different it was from every other comic I'd ever read. I'll have to re-read a little of that move cash-in trade to find out. Maybe Adult Harvey is more interesting than Young Harvey? Which makes him like the inverse of Spider-Man, I suppose. Maybe I like Pekar better on short stories than in a GN; that's mainly what that collection I read was composed of (I've never read Our Cancer Year), and some of the best strips there were the shortest one. I still get a chuckle from that one Crumb drew about the old Jewish lady in the supermarket. "Maybe she's a mutant?" Ha! Good times.

Speaking of Crumb, for all of you completists, he has a cameo. That's because no story about Harvey Pekar can legally be told without bringing up how he met Crumb. So you'll want to pick this up if you haven't already, Crumb-bums*! Personally, Crumb bugs the crap out of me, which is why I didn't like that movie about him that Dan Clowes' writing partner did. I felt like Ned Flanders watching a Woddy Allen movie; I liked it, except for all the stuff with the main character.

In the end, you have to give Pekar credit for still having a distinctive voice and doing his own thing. And really, my problems with the script are more a matter of taste than a value judgement. It's a perfectly good comic for what it is, worthing look in to if you've never read Pekar's work before or want a change of pace from whatever you're reading (as long as it's not autobio, I guess). It's just not something I'm really inclined to enjoy too much right now.

*- The other is Desolation Jones, and that's a whole other kettle of fish, especially since I have to respond to Greg's response to the last issue by writing about it.

**- I've decided to start calling any R. Crumb fans I meet this. If I ever actually meet any ever; do any read this blog, even?

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