Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant. Cleveland. Introduction by Alan Moore. Scarsdale, NY, and Marietta, GA: Zip Comics and Top Shelf Productions, 2012. 128 pages. $21.99 (hardcover), $9.99 (digital).

                                The Best Location in the Nation.
                                Metropolis of the Western Reserve.
                                The Mistake on the Lake.

                                Three nicknames for Cleveland, Ohio

“From off the streets of Cleveland”: Harvey Pekar (1939–2010) is a writer whose work is stamped with the name of a city. There is nothing glamorous or sinister about Pekar’s Cleveland; it is not Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Nor is there anything mythic about the Cleveland landscape; it is not the Paterson of William Carlos Williams’s epic poem. But to borrow a phrase from Williams: Cleveland is “the local conditions,” the city of Pekar’s birth, a place in which to work, worry, and observe.

[Click for a larger view.]

Cleveland is two books really: a brief history of a city and the story of Pekar’s life there, through three marriages and thirty-odd years in a “flunky job” as a file clerk in a Veterans Affairs hospital. Pekar’s story of the city begins and ends on notes of hope: the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 World Series win over the Boston Braves (the Indians’ second and last Series win to date) and the development of a medical mart and convention center (scheduled to open in 2013). But the story of twentieth-century Cleveland is largely a story of decline, with years of industrial might (iron and steel, manufacturing, railroads) followed by unemployment, poverty, crime, and suburban flight. This story, alas, has become a quintessential American story, told again and again in empty storefronts and abandoned properties.

Pekar enters the story in 1939. He recounts a relatively pleasant childhood and adolescence: a far less violent picture of his early years than the one he gives in The Quitter (2005). Here we see young Harvey playing baseball, mastering public transit, discovering the joys of used-book stores, and savoring the “frosty malt” at Higbee’s (a locally-owned department store, now gone). In adulthood, Pekar finds security in a Civil Service job (one requiring little or no intellectual effort, which he reserves for his reading and writing). Pekar regulars Mr. Boats and Toby Radloff appear in scenes at work. Pekar’s first two marriages fail (he is less than generous in his depiction of his partners), but a third marriage, to Joyce Brabner, sticks. And thus the world familiar to readers of American Splendor comes into view. Chronology and continuity are sometimes off, as when Pekar recounts his second wife’s life after marriage and asks, one page later, “What happened to her?” before beginning to tell the story again. At other times, digressions are masterful, as when Pekar’s account of his daily routine makes room for commentaries on Cleveland radio personality Diane Rehm and bookseller John T. Zubal.

Pekar’s world comes into view through the labor of Joseph Remnant, who has become one of my favorite illustrators of Pekar’s stories. His style is reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s, with considerable crosshatching and much loving attention to the sometimes invisible clutter of city streets (chimney pipes, streetlights, telephone poles). For those who know Cleveland well, panel after panel will evoke familiar elements of the city: the Arcade, the Detroit-Superior Bridge, the Public Library, the Terminal Tower. The research that went into Remnant’s work must have been considerable. Here is one detail that for this non-Clevelander was decisive, a panel from Pekar’s account of the life of John T. Zubal:

I don’t know Cleveland, but I know the Bronx, and I know Fordham. Behind John and Marilyn stands the clocktower of Keating Hall, the centerpiece of Fordham’s Bronx campus. That Remnant would take the time to include this detail, one that just a handful of readers might recognize, says much about his approach to making art.

Remnant’s work also delights me in that it gets Harvey Pekar right — not that there is one proper way to draw him, but that there are many ways to go wrong. Remnant’s Pekar is cranky but not crazed, frayed but not frazzled. He wanders the streets of Cleveland in this volume at all ages and in all moods, bent forward in his later years, a man for all seasons and just one city.

What I find most moving in this book in Pekar’s idea of a good city: concerts, libraries, museums, parks, bookstores, and record stores. That’s very much my idea of a good city, and it’s an idea that grows more fragile by the day.

[Harvey Pekar by Joseph Remnant. From the title page.]

Thanks to the publishers for a review copy of the book.

Related reading
Cleveland (Top Shelf Productions)
All Harvey Pekar posts (via Pinboard)

More Pekar and Remnant collaborations
“Autodidact” : “Back in the Day” : “Legendary Vienna” : “Muncie, Indiana” : “Reciprocity” : “Sweeping Problem”

comments: 7

count reeshard said...

Thank you, Professor Leddy, for the tip on what looks to be a terrific read. Your blog is always interesting, but posts like today's are genuinely life-affirming.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Richard. I love being able to write something about HP.

Elaine said...

As a 14-year veteran of Life in NE Ohio, I can say that the snow falling is very true-to-life. However, the fact that Harvey is not wearing hat, muffler, gloves, shoe covers, and possibly carrying an umbrella to keep off the snow.... well, the illustrator didn't get it ALL right!

(Juuust kidding. Sort of. If you need directions to The Cleveland Clinic, or Case Western, or Severance Hall, or Rainbow Babies' and Children's, just let me know.)

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, I hope you read and like this book. Do you already know Pekar’s stuff?

Jazzbumpa said...

I know very little about Cleveland and nothing at all about Pekar.

But your review is splendid.

Nicely done, sir!


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks. Harvey Pekar might be my favorite chronicler of everyday American life. Try the American Splendor movie for a good intro to his world.

Elaine said...

'American Splendor' was my introduction to Harvey Pekar; it was very entertaining and I loved seeing the real people at the end.

It's the only 'graphic novel' I've bothered to look at. However, I am rather tempted by this book.