Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

quitterBriefly, a procedural note. No more Amazon linking. I’m done with them. Go to a comic book store. Or if you want your books cheap–I mean really cheap–go to the Library.

The Library. Use it.

So, that’s what I did when I got “The Quitter.” I’ve long loved Harvey Pekar‘s work, though I will say that indeed I was first exposed to it through the film. I feel like I was sort of late to the party with Pekar, like he was a major household name by the time I’d gotten to his stuff. He had, after all, been on Letterman. But I still find myself in conversations where my interlocutor has never heard of him.

Briefly, then, Pekar made his name by self-publishing the comic, American Splendor, which chronicled his own life in Cleveland. Pekar explicitly conceived the work as a counter-point to superhero comics. The medium, he suggested, could handle more than the product he’d read as a kid suggested. This wasn’t a unique observation and Pekar gave much credit to Robert Crumb, but Pekar seems to have ran, as much as anyone and definitely more to my liking than Crumb, with his argument.

The Quitter, as more than one review I spot-checked while looking for an image of the cover noted, isn’t explicitly labeled “American Splendor” but in substance it’s part of that larger project. Much is made of Pekar’s unflinching, to use the word everyone else seems to, self-examination, and that’s definitely what we have here. The book follows young Pekar as he tries various things out only to quit when they become difficult or uncomfortable. Surely Pekar overstates the case in his title, but he is examining something I’m familiar with myself.

One brief episode illustrates for me the essence of Pekar’s art. Harvey gets in an intense violent fight with his father. No Freudian cliches whatsoever, but as important as that is it’s not my point. My point is that on the very next page, life continues in comparatively banal fashion, almost as if the fight never happened. “Almost” is the key word. This strikes me as Pekar the observer at his finest. That is how things work in life. There is a terrible, huge thing that takes place, but you still have to go to the store to get groceries, or put gas in your car, or whatever. Life works that way, and it’s something lesser artists, who imagine that the job is to deal with the apparently big things alone. But–the example is just from my head, not from the book–going to the supermarket after a tragedy is, in fact, a big thing. It’s a very big thing, and entirely necessary to portray in art.

My stolen glances at a couple reviews indicate that a number of people called this Pekar’s finest work, and certainly that is a reasonable argument. People are saying the same thing about Jaime Hernandez’ The Love Bunglers, and that’s an argument I can accept, too. My point here–more true for Pekar who was of comparatively advanced age when he wrote The Quitter–is that I have always felt that any artist, all things being equal, ought to produce better work as they get older. Problem is, music buff that I am, a lot of popular musicians don’t seem to do that. Comics seems to be more friendly to older artists. I haven’t fleshed out why yet, but I’m wondering about it.

Los Bros Hernandez, Chelo’s Burden

I enjoy comics, and in particular I enjoy comics as comics. That is to say, I don’t appreciate the idea of the graphic novel. Two problems with it: first, it reeks of classism. The formerly upwardly-mobile white hipsters who use it don’t want to admit they read comic books. They reference Melville or Pynchon (never Joyce, and never, ever Morrison) but don’t read them, at least not cover-to-cover.

My more substantive objection to the term is formal. Comics as a medium do not lend themselves to the novelistic linearity, nor to the type of verbal detail novels demand. What they do well–story that unfolds rather than begins, reference to other story, previously told or no, and multiplication of possible meaning through the combination of visual and textual means–they do better than novels. Add to that their lowbrow status and comics offer a type of expressive freedom commercial novel culture cannot.

No comic clarifies this better than Love and Rockets, and no narrative thread in Love and Rockets better than Gilbert‘s Palomar stories.  Chelo’s Burden contains his first Palomar episode, and it starts well.

It was Chelo who talked Vicente’s mother Gabriela into not drowning him when he was but a few minutes into our grey world.

This is what using the medium is all about.  The frame comes at the start of the piece, introducing on the one hand Chelo, but also Vicente, his mother, and the world.  This, in one sentence.  Novels need to follow each thread through its implications, and the good ones do so without wasting words.  Comics, like poetry, send a reader out from the text into implications and imagination.

The image, too multiplies the effect.  Vicente clearly has some serious health issues, so much that his mother was ready to drown him as a newborn.  What’s he doing, though?  He’s got a nice, semi-smile, at ease look.  He looks like a fairly happy kid.  The meaning of the image takes a contrary tack to the meaning of the text.  This is not irony: there is no real meaning contrary to the explicit meaning.  Both meanings, contrary, are simultaneously true.  As a medium, comics put this mechanism into play as textual communication contradicts visual–as in drawing–communication.  The two function through different parts of the brain, so to speak.  Text cogitates, image experiences.  The two, operating simultaneously, multiply the meaning of the work as it is experienced by a reader.

Love and Rockets is not just Gilbert, but brothers Jaime and Mario as well.  Mario considers himself less talented a writer than his brothers, and his contribution to Chelo’s Burden bears this assessment out.  There is general disagreement over the relative merits of Gilbert’s and Jaime’s work.  Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories are the equivalent of Gilbert’s Palomar, his major contribution to the medium.  In a nutshell for the uninitiated, Maggie and Hopey are two young Latinas whose friendship becomes, on and off, romantic.  Over the long-term, there’s not a human relationship better-explored in the medium than that between the two.  Jaime’s Maggie and Hopey stories here are evidence of this.  Saying this, I’m a Gilbert man myself.  For every explication of Maggie and Hopey’s relationship, Gilbert offers a fully-articulated implication, however paradoxical the notion, of Palomar, and that really sets me off in a good way.