John A. Douglas

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STORY – Harvey Pekar

August 10th, 2009 · No Comments · Personal Stories

Very few periods of my life have been without comic books. From the days when comics could be purchased for a dime at newsstands, drugstores and anywhere a kid might frequent to these days when there are stores that specialize in comic books, I have loved comic books. During that period of time I made no secret of my lust for the stories printed in color on newsprint. Sometimes when I boasted of my love for comics, someone who was still in the comic closet would pipe up and reveal that they too read comics.

I remember once back in the 70s when I was running a film series on Monday nights at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, I happened to mention to the group that I was a major comic book fan and after the show was over, a friend I had met during the series asked me if I had ever read “American Splendor.” I had to admit that I had not and he indicated that I couldn’t be that much of a fan if I had not read “American Splendor.” I, of course, had my doubts that this friend knew what he was talking about.pekar

The next Monday evening my new friend arrived at the film series with five or six comic books, all of which were issues of “American Splendor.” He told me to take them home and read them and let him know what I thought.

I agreed to do so but the fact is that the comics didn’t look all that interesting to me, so they sat on my desk and began their downward trek to the bottom of a pile.

Before I managed to muster the energy to read an issue of “American Splendor,” my friend died.

Soon after his funeral I remembered that I still had his comics. I figured that I ought to take them over to his house were his relatives where dealing with his estate. But I felt guilty that I had never taken the time to read the comics. So I sat down at my desk and began to work my way through them.

It wasn’t long into my reading of those issues of “American Splendor” that I knew that my friend was right; I had missed something major in the world of comics. I will confess to you at this point that I was so taken with these comics that I didn’t return them to my friend’s family. I felt some guilt about that but have managed to justify the act in my own mind.

So – who is Harvey Pekar and what’s the story on “American Splendor?”HarveyPekar

Harvey Pekar is, plain and simple, one of the best writers working in America today. The good thing is that by writing comic books and graphic novels his work can be enjoyed by those people who cherish reading and also by those who get no pleasure from pure print but can enjoy a story told with words and pictures.

I know I’m beating my head against the wall when it comes to singing the praises of good comic books. The majority of adult Americans still believe comic books are for kids and are unworthy of their attention. I would agree that most of them are unworthy. Most are idiotic and the major publishers are doing what they can to make comic books acceptable – not to adolescents – but to adults with adolescent minds. Because of that I don’t care if I ever read another superhero comic as they are filled with muscle bound oafs who spend most of their time whining about their lot in life. Get off the pity potty, Wolverine.

In spite of the glut of superhero comics, there are some good comics out there and Harvey Pekar wrote and published one of the best with “American Splendor.” Within that comic Harvey Pekar presented stories about the everyday life of the common man. In “American Splendor” we can see ourselves and can either laugh at what we see or take stock of who we are.

Harvey Pekar is not a comic book mogul. While he was doing his writing, he held various jobs to make a living and the most recent one before he retired was as a clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland.

Let me give you an idea of the kind of story you might run into inside “American Splendor.” One of the tales that I really identified with is one in which Harvey had to decide whether or not to keep an appointment he had with someone who wanted to sell some jazz records. Harvey’s mouth was watering over the idea of increasing his collection but his problem was that it was snowing hard outside and it appeared that driving to where he had to go was going to be dicey. So what to do? Go out and take the chance of getting stuck in the snow far from home or staying home and taking the chance of losing an opportunity to acquire an album of music ne’er heard by him. I know it sounds simple but it isn’t. Harvey Pekar presents it in a way that makes the tale simply delicious and informative about human beings and how they make decisions.

And by the way – Harvey Pekar does not illustrate his stories. He leaved that to some of the best comic artists of the day including Robert Crumb.

The bad news is that at this point of time “American Splendor” is not being published. But that shouldn’t matter to you as most comic book stores have back issues or they have collections of his stories bound into a paperback book. Most of his graphic novels can be found on the bookshelves of all the major book stores.

The good news is that Harvey Pekar is busy writing graphic novels which are mostly autobiographical as were his comics. So the more you read, the more you get to know him. And it is great fun to know Harvey Pekar even though his life is not always a bed of roses.

Now the title “American Splendor” might seem familiar to some of you but not in the context of a comic book. That is probably because back in 2003 a film was released called “American Splendor” and it was based on the life of Harvey Pekar and on his comic stories (which are essentially the same thing). Paul Giamatti played Harvey Pekar and was the role that sent his career into high gear.

The fact of the matter is that “American Splendor” is a terrific movie and a great adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s work. Someday I hope you get a chance to see this film on the big screen but until then, search it out when looking for a DVD to watch.

Another good thing about Harvey Pekar is that he still takes my calls even after I’ve been retired from The Grand Rapids Press for three years. He even seems glad to hear from me. Harvey Pekar tells me that he will have a new graphic novel out in September and that it will be about life in Cleveland. Sounds exciting to me.

Remember the name – Harvey Pekar- an American treasure.

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