The world of comics and graphic novels has changed a lot since Harvey Pekar launched his seminal publication American Splendor. Despite the underground counter culture movement, headed in part by a Pekar collaborator Robert Crumb, the market was still heavily saturated with the super hero genre, even more so than now. Rather than create a new genre Pekar chose instead to ‘write what he knew’, his life. Autobiographical comics are everywhere nowadays, the internet especially is full of them, but Pekar’s American Splendor was arguably the first in the field. Unlike many of today’s graphical diarists Pekar does not illustrate his own tales and instead uses a stable of friends to draw them for him. The most famous of these is Robert Crumb and in this collection his style stands out as visually very different from the other artistic contributors.
This collected edition, released to accompany the film of the same name is, in effect two collected editions in one. There are a lot of Pekar’s strips bound into the hefty volume and they give a good overview of his story telling and, more importantly, his life. Pekar is not prone to narrating key moments, but instead chooses to dwell on the minutiae of his day-to-day existence. There are stories of work colleagues (from his many day jobs), tales of failed dates and romances and much homespun philosophy. The introduction to this edition is supplied by Crumb, who describes Pekar as an egotist. However in most of these strips our ‘hero’ does not come across as such. He appears to be self-doubting, occasionally weak willed, irascible, argumentative and on the whole likable, but not egotistic and rarely driven.
Some of the strips bring a smile to the face, such as ‘Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines’ and ‘Mr Boat’s Miracle Cure’ Others are unusually heart warming, for example ‘Grubstreet USA’ and ‘A Marriage Album’. He also exhibits bravery in opening up his life, warts and all, with tales of petty crime and the break down of relationships, most notably of his first two marriages. Pekar rarely deviates from his autobiographical narrative, but when he does it is usually for a philosophical rant, such as ‘Read This’ or ‘Common Sense’ where the reader also gets an idea of what sparked the outburst as well.
The weakness in this format is that the stories are not told chronologically and there is rarely a preamble to any one tale. This leaves the reader occasionally playing catch up with the plot, especially as to who is who. Or more than one occasion Pekar jumps from being married to be divorced and back again across two or three strips. Sadly this particular edition compounds this by cramming two already sizable collections under one cover. The design of the book does not gather similar stories together, either by date, or by topic, and instead presents them relentlessly one after the other. A little editorial control on the tiller could have gone a long way to making this engaging book easier to read. Perhaps this relentless feel accurately portrays something about the author and reflects the egotistical and driven nature Crumb mentions in the introduction. A good collection to dip in and out of, ‘The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, American Splendor’ is better enjoyed in smaller doses.