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The arts

His life in pictures, warts and all

August 14, 2003|Andrew John Ignatius Vontz | Special to The Times

While the masses clog the sidewalk along Melrose Avenue enjoying the sun on yet another perfect L.A. day, a trio of pale emo geeks that look like they were freshly plucked from a Weezer video step into the subdued lighting of the Golden Apple comic book store.

One, a waifish man, tugs at his Italian Stallion T-shirt, then strolls past aisles of improbably proportioned action figures and new releases filled with superhuman characters until he comes to a halt at the relatively smallish "alternative" section at the back of the store. He grabs a copy of comic writer Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" anthology from where it rests below a shelf holding titles that are the sexy norm for this branch of the comic evolutionary tree with titles like "9 Lives," "Bad Girls" and "The Girlz of Goth."

"I'd never heard of him before I saw the trailer for the movie," he says referring to "American Splendor," the film about Pekar's life. He flips through the artful black-and-white line drawings that fill the anthology's pages. "It looked amazing and I was curious."

Since 1956 Pekar has scrupulously documented the minutiae of his relatively mundane life in a self-aware and whimsically grumpy voice. His work is long on insight into the human condition but decidedly lacking the flying men in blue tights, web-slinging metrosexuals and leather-clad baddies with cyber-enhanced brains that dominate the medium's staple titles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Harvey Pekar -- The article on Harvey Pekar in Thursday's Calendar Weekend should have said that Pekar's comic "American Splendor" debuted in 1976, not 1956; and there were autobiographical comics published between 1965 and 1972, not 1952. In addition, a comic called "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" was erroneously called "The Fabulous Furry Brothers."

But it's the very normalness at the core of his work, which at times has centered on the thoughts, feelings, experiences and the people he met while working as a full-time file clerk at a VA hospital in Cleveland between 1968 and 2001, that has won Pekar a reverent and urbane but small fan base and an esteemed position in comic history.

Along the way Pekar's introspective, personal work has drifted into the public eye, most notably when he appeared occasionally on "Late Night With David Letterman" between 1986 and 1988 -- all recounted in "American Splendor," of course.

In the world of comic creators, aficionados and critics Pekar has been a factor since 1956, when his underground series debuted. Still he'd remained relatively anonymous until filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and producer Ted Hope decided his life and work would form the basis for their upcoming movie.

Pekar's innovations made inroads toward comics being taken seriously as an artistic and intellectual medium to the point at which today the latest issue of the New York Book Review features a multi-thousand word essay about Daniel Clowes' Ghost World comic and Joe Sacco's autobiographical, journalistic comics Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine.

Gary Groth publishes the work of Sacco and Clowes on his Fantagraphics imprint and founded the Comics Journal, a periodical that features serious, intellectual writing about the medium and in-depth interviews with comic artists and writers, in the same year that American Splendor arrived on the scene.

"There were autobiographical comics published between 1965 and 1952," says Groth, referring to Robert Crumb and Justin Green among others. "Pekar took inspiration from that and was a writer so he started writing autobiographical stories and he enlisted Crumb to draw some of them."

The widely influential Crumb and his cohorts in the underground comics scene of the late '60s brought significant artistic talent to the medium. Along the way, they injected the staid comic form with sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and the general deviance of the then burgeoning psychedelic counterculture.

While there are auteurs in the comic world who write and draw their work, for the most part the division of labor in the medium is highly regimented so it's common for a writer not to draw his comic. Pekar began his career working with Crumb but has collaborated with a variety of illustrators over the years of varying degrees of renown, among them Gerry Shamray, Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik, Sue Cavey, Sean Carroll, Frank Stack, Sacco and Gregory Budgett.

Although the comic art accompanying Pekar's writing is always black line drawings, the aesthetic varies greatly depending on the artist, sometimes changing from story to story within a volume, something rare among comics, which normally strive for a unified, signature aesthetic.

"The aspect of Harvey's work that has always appealed to me is Harvey's continued honesty," Dumm says. "It's been the attempt not to sugarcoat anything."

The core constituency that has championed his work has always been dedicated, but never been numerically overwhelming.

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