This is the second in my series of posts about Harvey Pekar. You can read the first one here.
Why read about the life of a Cleveland file clerk? Why follow his melancholy tales of queuing at the supermarket, fixing the car or visiting the doctor? Simple. It was all about Harvey’s voice.
Art by R. Crumb
Pekar’s typical mode is reminiscence. He’s often in his stories twice, as both protagonist and narrator. Working over the events of his past, he gleans significance in small moments. Which is not to say that this retrospective voice is always calm or considered…
Art by Greg Budgett & Gary Dumm
That look off-frame and the “Uh, am I still on?” help to undercut Pekar’s anger. Although he frequently lectures us as readers, he’s always aware that his outrage is funny.
The direct address of Harvey’s narration, the look out from the comic book frame into the reader’s eyes, is one of the reasons reading American Splendor seems so personal. We are invited to see the world as Harvey does, described in working-class demotic, sprinkled with jazz slang.
Look back at my example above. In the penultimate frame, Pekar freezes. It’s a moment of dead air, as he pauses for breath, thinking. It’s as though he’s broadcasting live.
Here’s another example, from The Young Crumb Story. Harvey pauses, as though improvising (look out for my posts on Pekar’s jazz criticism later this week!). Here, his hesitations lead on to embarrassment and then relief:
Art by R. Crumb
The door appears behind Pekar as though willed into being. What is that limbo space that Pekar-as-narrator occupies? Dolly Clackett suggested to me that it’s reminiscent of a TV studio’s blankness, which fits my narrator-as-lecturer analogy. In this space between story and strip, Pekar mediates action.
Sometimes, we even find ourselves literally inside Pekar’s head:
Art by Gerry Shamway
Pekar’s mode of narration, those moments in which he speaks out to us, are essential to the flavour of his comics. Admittedly, focusing on this framing device risks misrepresenting the stories, which usually centre upon his interaction and communication with the people of Cleveland. But it seemed important to me that I begin this series on American Splendor with thoughts about the interiority of Harvey Pekar.
Here’s our man…
Art by S. Cavey