Monday, 20 September 2010

What Harvey Pekar meant to me

Harvey Pekar, the great comics writer, died this summer. This is neither a belated obituary nor a comprehensive account of everything Pekar wrote, but an attempt to convey how his work greatly affected me. It takes a while for a reader to get his thoughts in order when paying tribute to a mourned writer (although writers are never lost).
I devoured collections of American Splendour, admiring the way Pekar wove the minutiae of everyday life into well-constructed narratives - something only Philip Larkin has done as brilliantly. Larkin was a librarian, Pekar a filing clerk for a hospital, and yet instead of portraying these aspects of their lives as prisons to be escaped from through the wonders of art, Pekar and Larkin are refreshing in their understanding of the importance of work, and the way it shapes rather than shackles our lives.
What Harvey could do with an everyday event in the course of a few pages of comic panels was extraordinary. Consider his account of how the cistern in his bathroom breaks, and he asks his neighbour - with whom he has always enjoyed a friendly relationship, but has struggled to find any common ground to allow them to get to know one another - to help him, ending with a triumphant moment in which the neighbour uses a plastic ribbon normally used for tying up rubbish bags (Harvey couldn’t find any paperclips) to replace the broken hook in the cistern. My paraphrasing of it might sound absurdly trivial, but Pekar turns it into a narrative, capturing the joy of turning cordial relations into friendship in this tiny but delightful moment - an epiphany, as James Joyce would have called it. A beautifully observed account of Pekar’s relationship with a Rabbi with whom he initially gets along but then clashes with due to the Rabbi’s more right-wing views on Israel also stays with you, capturing the clash between one’s ethnic background and one’s political and social awareness which the Israel/Palestine situation provokes. Another story recounts the time Harvey had the opportunity to meet the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, fresh from his celebrated film My Dinner with Andre. Aware of the affinities between the film and his own work, he hopes to ask Shawn for support, but gradually it occurs to him that Shawn probably has much the same problems himself, and he becomes too nervous to ask him. Only Harvey Pekar could turn a straightforward, humdrum encounter into a thoughtful account of thwarted ambition, artistic struggle and the tension between aspirations and day-to-day-life.
Harvey was canny in realising that comics were an ideal medium for autobiographical writing, because of the remarkable way in which they use layers. As anyone will know, a comic strip’s combination of text and pictures gives it two different narratives - what we see, and what the narrator tells us about it. In the case of American Splendour, this was enhanced by the way in which the artwork depicted Harvey-as-narrator too: you don’t just get the events of a particular day in Harvey’s life, you get the web of debate, angst, logic, motive, desire and reconciliation that has succeeded them in Harvey’s head in the days, months or years since. This technique opens up new possibilities for autobiographical fiction, a way of displaying the true complexities of actual, unembellished, mundane life without ever coming across as dull. You also get multiple Harveys, much as you get multiple Walt Whitmans in his Song of Myself. Turning the pages of an American Splendour collection, we might find Robert Crumb’s grotesque model, the more photorealistic versions by Gerry Shamray and Ty Templeton and the more stylised interpretations by Bob Fingerman and Hunt Emerson. The film adaptation of American Splendour realised this, shifting between the real Harvey, the comic-strip Harvey and a cinematic Harvey skilfully played by Paul Giamatti. Everyone can find a Harvey they can identify with.
To end this tribute with a slightly personal instance of what Pekar‘s work has meant to me, while devouring a Best of American Splendour collection, I came across an issue in which Harvey bangs his car, and while agonising about the implication - insurance, contacting the person whose car he banged against - opens his mail to find a fan letter from Colin Warneford, a British artist who has been heavily influenced by Harvey’s work, but whose Asperger‘s syndrome has made life so difficult that drawing comics are where he seeks solace. We instantly shift not only to Warneford’s words but to his excellent artwork, as he gives a heartfelt, honest, convincing and profoundly moving account of life with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have Asperger’s myself, and following the misconceptions spread by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the stereotypes about Rain Man style savants, here was one of my brethren finally speaking to me. How I had yearned to hear an account of Asperger’s I could identify with, and here it was within the pages of a book I was greatly enjoying. For that, and other things, I am very grateful to Harvey Pekar.

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