05 March 2012

From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes...

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2003 (contents: 1976-87)

Acquired January 2012
Read February 2012
American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar
and More American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

Stories: Harvey Pekar with Joyce Brabner
Art: R. Crumb, Kevin Brown, Gregory Budgett, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray, Sean Carroll, Sue Cavey, Val Malyerik

As far as I can tell, this shouldn't have worked. American Splendor isn't ever about anything, or rather it's about everything, with Harvey Pekar just picking moments in his life that he finds vaguely interesting. Or not even that.

Many of Pekar's stories are almost anti-comic in the amount of narration that Pekar provides to go with the art. There's no word/image hybridity here; without the narration, the pictures would just be isolated fragments, and it would be nearly impossible to deduce the stories. In the story "American Splendor Assaults the Media," there's so much text that there's barely room for images in the panels-- and the images are just Harvey Pekar as he tells you about the events. With little-to-no-alteration, it could be a straight text piece.

But somehow, American Splendor is utterly comics. I'm not sure why the pictures are there sometimes, but if they weren't, you'd have something very different. The stories might be dominated by Pekar's voice (so much so that sometimes who the artist is seems irrelevant), but the art does a lot to give it that voice. The first story in the book, "The Harvey Pekar Name Story," is the clearest demonstration of that. This story is just four pages of headshots-- the incidents the story describes never appear on-panel-- meaning that the illustrations are used to convey Pekar's body language as he "tells" the story. Though the narrative communicated would be same if Pekar had simply typed up the story as straight prose, the comic form gives it a sense of timing and humor. I actually once did an experiment where I gave the story as prose to my class and then as a comic, and all of them reported enjoying it much more as a comic. I myself liked American Splendor a lot, and I think I would have found it unsatisfying in any medium other than comics, so clearly Pekar is doing something right.

(My favorite story, by the way, was the one about Harvey's relationship with the guy he would bum rides off of, but refused to do any favors for in return.)

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