Conversations with Harvey Pekar

I started reading Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor in high school, when I was anxious about my future and frustrated by my present. Little did I know then, Harvey would soon become a friend and a confidant of sorts. At 16, my impending adulthood terrified me, and I worried often about my ability to do the ordinary things that an independent person must do to get by. I was convinced that facing the logistics of life—finding a place to live, paying the bills, going to the dentist—would deplete any happiness I might find. The bureaucracy and tedium of high school left me outraged, and like many young people who came of age during the Bush administration, I had a pretty grim view of humanity’s future. I found hope and comfort in American Splendor, even as the comics actually confirmed some of my worst fears about the adult world. Harvey’s autobiographical protagonist faces all the challenges I worried about, and he doesn’t always respond to them with the calm maturity I hoped I would someday develop. Most of the stories in American Splendor take place at the hospital where Harvey worked for most of his life as a file clerk, or on the streets and stoops of his run-down Cleveland neighborhood. They chronicle his strained relationships with loved ones, his bouts with cancer and depression, and his frustration at practically everything. American Splendor reassured me despite all this gloom. A lot of the comics recount run-ins with a cast of eccentrics; some strangers, some co-workers and friends. I think one of these vignettes, an encounter with a guy named Crazy Ed, inspired Pekar to start writing comics in the first place. I spent a lot of my life at the time wandering around the city and riding buses, so I had plenty of conversations with strangers myself, and I often enjoyed talking to them more than anything else I did. Pekar recognized that these interactions are not just funny anecdotes: they can sustain one’s spirits and make it easier to persevere. Getting through the day was hard, he affirmed, but it was worth it. Not for any great philosophical reason, but because ordinary life is filled with strange occurrences that are not to be missed. American Splendor helped me imagine a future I could handle, and I considered Harvey Pekar an ally on my path to adult stability. When I saw a P.O. box listed in a back issue of American Splendor, I decided to write him a letter to thank him. I told him that his comic books reassured me that things would turn out okay, and that I loved the Mr. Boats stories (a series of comic strips about an elderly co-worker given to making grandiose statements in elevators). I didn’t really expect a response; my brother had made similar overtures to R. Crumb and never heard anything back. A few weeks later, though, my mom called me at work to tell me that I had gotten a letter from Harvey Pekar. Luckily, I worked in a bookstore, so I could brag about it without having to explain who he was. The wrinkled, beat-up envelope from Cleveland contained a short note, in which Harvey thanked me for my letter and said I could give him a call if I wanted to talk some more. He had free long distance, and he didn’t have time to write long missives. I couldn’t believe that an accomplished writer wanted to talk to me, although I knew from references in the comic books that he had become friends with fans before. I was extremely nervous the first time I called. His wife picked up the phone, and I stumbled through an awkward explanation of who I was. Once Harvey got on the phone I relaxed a little bit and we talked for a while. His voice was strained and raspy, due to a problem with his vocal chords that was charted in a series of comic strips. I felt bad about keeping him on the phone because it sounded so painful. Our first conversation was friendly but short. We mostly talked about comics we liked; he was very enthusiastic about young comic book writers like Keith Knight, and gratified by the medium’s newfound popularity. He was surprised that I found anything uplifting in American Splendor, since his work was often derided as too curmudgeonly. We agreed to talk again soon and he got off the phone to go to bed. We had longer phone conversations over the next year. Harvey was warm and funny in conversation, but he also sounded worn out and subdued. In his comics, he portrayed himself bursting with energy and anger and enthusiasm. I knew this was an exaggeration of his personality, but I think the time I knew him was especially hard for him. It was a bad time for me too, and having someone to commiserate with helped. I was so grateful that he was interested in my problems that I felt presumptuous trying to help with his; I was just a kid and I didn’t have much perspective. I remember one very serious conversation about living with chronic depression. He was amused that I expected him to have some words of wisdom on the topic, since he had struggled with these problems his whole life without overcoming them. Nonetheless, he did give me some advice that was both pragmatic and frightening, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. I think Harvey didn’t even consider it good advice; it was just the only thing that worked. He told me that you have to force yourself to do whatever needs to be done to get through the day, no matter how you feel, and at some point later you’ll be glad you did. We talked about lighter stuff too, mostly books and art. Harvey also told me to read as much as I could about everything I was interested in, and to keep educating myself whether I was in school or not. He believed in reading to satisfy curiosity and gain expertise, not just for pleasure, a philosophy in keeping with his pragmatic, unromantic approach to writing (another thing he encouraged me to do regularly). And, as any reader of American Splendor would expect, we spent a lot of time complaining. We met in person twice, at comic book conventions in San Francisco and Portland, but I enjoyed talking on the phone more. The conventions were busy and crowded, and I was even shyer in person. When I introduced myself for the first time, I was flustered and asked if the convention gave him any free food. Recognizing a fellow cheapskate, he responded enthusiastically and gave me a handful of energy bars. I was very sorry to hear about Harvey’s death last week. I’m sure our conversations meant more to me than they did to him, but I hope they cheered him up. Our acquaintance demonstrated one of the things I had loved about American Splendor: the importance of connections to strangers. The fan letter I wrote on a whim led to a brief but valuable friendship. Those talks helped me grow up. I took his advice and forced myself through the rest of high school. I’ve settled into the adult life I was so afraid of, and most of the things I dreaded turned out to be pretty easy. I wish I could thank him, and ask him for advice again, this time on figuring out what to do with my freedom.

The Screwed Up World of Amy and Jordan

Comic books and outsider art share an unspoken kinship. Both were once reviled as the products of deranged minds, unfit for artistic recognition, but both are finally achieving legitimacy. Outsider art now generally refers to untrained artists working outside the mainstream art market, but it began as a condescending term for the art of children, the insane, and socially marginalized groups--until recently, the supposed readership of comic books. Films like The Soloist and In the Realms of the Unreal make the unhinged, destitute savant a recognizable trope, and Hollywood is discovering that the "graphic novel" end of the comics spectrum can be just as popular as the standard Marvel fare. Alan Moore's Watchmen was crowned one of Time's 100 Best Novels, and fine writers like Harvey Pekar, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and Alison Bechdel are getting their due as well. I hope Mark Beyer's work will find a place in the canon. His masterpiece Amy and Jordan brings the aesthetic and neurosis of outsider art to comic books. Amy and Jordan is a series of four panel strips that ran in the free paper New York Press from 1988 to 1996. Beyer published a few books, but Amy and Jordan disappeared without a trace (except perhaps for boxes of newspaper clippings saved by devotees), until Pantheon released a collection of 292 strips in 2004. The resulting book is a treasure of the comics medium. [image source: Pantheon] Amy and Jordan has only three recurring characters: the eponymous couple and Amy's sickly son Ba Tilsdale, who dies of neglect but occasionally returns as an ominous statue. Amy and Jordan's relationship is antagonistic, yet they're resigned to being stuck with each other--somewhere between Akbar and Jeff and Vladimir and Estragon. They share a decrepit apartment (critics speculate that they live on the Lower East Side) and slog through various mediocre jobs. Each strip chronicles a mysterious or unfortunate occurrence. The minor, disheartening tribulations of urban life--navigating the subway, run-ins with weirdos, vermin--take on monstrous proportions, and the city becomes a horrific carnival of disaster. Amy and Jordan are menaced by "demons carrying carving knives" and gigantic insects, and plagued by poisoned food. Many of the strips combine ordinary annoyance with surreal violence: when Jordan goes outside to ask a crazy man to stop screaming, the man responds unexpectedly: "He's wrapped his snakelike tongue around my body. I'm paralyzed. I can't move! Well it's good. Now Amy can sleep unmolested." Beyer's stilted, clunky dialogue makes even the most disturbing events funny, and his characters' reactions to tragedy are gruesomely pragmatic. Upon discovering that their neighbor's apartment is full of murdered children, Jordan equivocates: "He's a mean, spiteful, bitter, ugly old man. When he dies nobody will care. On the other hand maybe I'm wrong. I suppose he has some endearing traits." Amy and Jordan's pre-Giuliani New York is full of abandoned babies, suicidal neighbors, and malevolent children. Watching the parade of downtrodden souls trudging past their window, Amy concludes, "The world is a horrible place filled with terrible people." This is grim stuff, but Beyer's fantastically inventive artwork keeps his world from sinking into despondence. Beyer's artwork pushes the comic strip format in a tradition extending back to Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, who distorted and destroyed the panels in his strips. While many comic strip writers simplify their characters into a few recognizable pen strokes, Amy and Jordan's malleable forms reflect the instability of their world. His work displays many characteristics of outsider art, such as horror vacui, the need to fill every millimeter of space with detail, and obsessive repetition of shapes and patterns. His work is very similar in theme and content to that of Martín Ramírez and Madge Gill, two heavyweights in outsider art. It is also beautiful, exciting work. His bold black and white compositions and bizarre images create an indelible impression on the reader. Beyer is untrained, and can be considered a legitimate outsider artist, but he is unusual in communicating equally well in image and text. Henry Darger wrote the world's longest book, but his images are more powerful than his text. Beyer balances the tone of his dialogue and depiction perfectly--the ultimate feat for a graphic novel. His cityscapes are oppressively whimsical, their disintegration into pattern creating a mood of menace. Urban horror is a favorite theme of comic books. The Dark Knight captured the hatred and fear of the city that characterizes "edgy" comics like Transmetropolitan. Although I love Batman, the squalid city always struck me as a dishonest, conservative simplification. Amy and Jordan's urban hell is free of Manichean dichotomies, and its everyday absurdity is more realistic than Gotham. Rather than battling evil or gleefully embodying it, Amy and Jordan are just as ambiguous as the city. Their moral code is constantly in flux, responding to their situations or capricious urges. Jordan bandages a bleeding stranger with his shirt, and boasts "Don't ever let it be said that I'm not a great humanitarian!" Later, he tries to sell Amy's crying son in a pawnshop. The protagonists' relationship is similarly erratic. Both seethe with resentment, plot against each other, and blame each other for their degradation; yet sometimes they are almost sweet. Jordan brings Amy a teddy bear (unaware that it's infested by termites), and Amy reassures Jordan, "I don't think of you as dung, even if everyone else does!" Beyer's ghoulish visions turn what is probably crushing personal trauma into art. Most outsider art is a compulsive attempt to maintain the artist's sanity, and this desperation is palpable in Beyer's gallows humor and frantic crosshatching. Too many comics coast on manufactured nihilism, but Amy and Jordan feels like an act of exorcism, transmuting real anguish into entertainment. It is a testament to the the survival instinct. Amy and Jordan fly through life on irrational optimism, and it seems that creating them lets Beyer do the same.