I believe it was Pat Oliphant who in a recently televised speech announced that we are now living in a golden age--of cartoonists. He spoke in reference to political cartoonists, but the same applies to the field as a whole. In our short-attention-span, media-oriented culture, cartoons have achieved a new status, whether in the pungent satire of a Garry Trudeau, the bizarre natural history of a Gary Larson or the wry humor of a Bill Watterson. They are filmic, telling their stories frame by frame, but remain manageable, concrete, personal. With the publication last year of "American Splendor" (followed this summer by a second volume, "More American Splendor"), Harvey Pekar has expanded the field, bringing comics up to the level of adult literature.
A less likely pioneer into the cloistered world of serious literature could hardly be imagined. Pekar did not graduate from college, attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop or go to an art school. In fact, he does not even do his own drawing, by his own admission bullying cartoonist friends such as Robert Crumb into bringing his crude sketches to life. He is a self-described "working class intellectual," a tough Jewish guy from the streets of Cleveland who draws upon his everyday experiences. Late night TV viewers may be familiar with him from his occasional appearances with David Letterman, where he comes across as exactly the kind of driven, bad-tempered character he is in his stories. When Letterman once tried to tease him about his new fame and fortune, Pekar hoarsely shot back that he still hadn't made a dime on his books, and that a rich jerk like Letterman had a lot of nerve.
In fact, the cover of "American Splendor" shows Pekar on a Carson-style talk show playing the quintessential blue-collar slob, offending one and all. What you see is what you get--almost. Pekar clearly relishes his long-sought celebrity. He has free-lanced for years, contributing music reviews to magazines like Downbeat and trying to sell his articles on history, politics and economics. But it's in the adult comic genre that he has achieved success, perhaps because there is no entrenched establishment to overcome.
There have been "adult comics" before. In the '30s and '40s, EC comics and others published a wide variety of potboiler horror and detective comics for adults, before a board of censors was established and confined the industry to childish trivia. In the '60s counterculture, a number of "adult comics" came out in defiance of the censors, extolling the new psychedelic, free-love life-style. Some of these (including Crumb's own "Zap" and "Mr. Natural") were wildly original and provocative, but most were pointless, often pornographic fantasies, and the movement soon lost momentum.
Recently, in both Europe and Japan, an adult audience has arisen for a kind of comic-book reminiscent of the old EC crime dramas. Descended from "fumetti," in which frames from movies or series of stills were given balloon-dialogue, they are meticulously illustrated, often using photolithography for heightened realism, and evoke a smoky, decadent world of sex and murder.
However, none of these, either foreign or domestic, has really dealt with the poetry and prose of everyday life. Crumb and his sometime girlfriend Aline Kominski began to explore the territory with "Dirty Laundry," a joint project in which they exposed their private lives, but the result was trivial and contrived. Pekar is the first to capture in cartoon form the larger drama of ordinary existence.
Almost all of the stories in these two books are autobiographical, following Pekar through his workday or his times out of work, meeting his friends, his wives--he has been married three times--and the various other characters that populate his neighborhood and his life. They tell of huge frustrations and small victories, of a constant struggle to be found worthwhile, to matter, to be taken seriously.
"American Splendor" is really a series of vignettes, anecdotes in which we are introduced to Harvey and his friends. We start out with Harvey just talking to us, telling us about his unusual name, wondering about a couple of other Harvey Pekars who appeared and then disappeared from his phone book over the years: "What were they like, I thought. It seemed that our lives had been linked in some indefinable way." Then comes his days as an addicted jazz collector, his small aggravations with his first wife, his depression when nothing seems to be going right for him.
In "Awaking to the Terror of a New Day," Harvey is already divorced. One desperately lonely evening, he calls up his ex-wife, only to become abusive when she tells him she is involved with someone else. The next morning, the snow is coming down and everything looks hopeless. Still, walking to work, Harvey begins to make plans for the day, and this alone cheers him up. "I'm pretty far from having it made, but I ain't dead yet."