Tales of a Quitter
Thumbing through Harvey Pekar's back pages

Oftentimes a comic-book hero will appear fully formed in the first issue; only later is his or her back story revealed. Batman, for instance, first swooped in from Gotham's shadows in Detective Comics #27, but it wasn't until issue #33 that we learned what motivates his thirst for justice.

So it is with comic-book antihero Harvey Pekar. In American Splendor #1, published in 1976, we meet a schlubby VA-hospital file clerk. He's a genial grouch. He lives in Cleveland. He loves jazz. He deals as best he can with the troubles and travails of everyday life. He ponders, he puzzles, he frets, he fumes. He just is.

Now, with The Quitter (DC Comics; $20) we get the full story of how Harvey Pekar became Harvey Pekar. A book-long narrative rather than the usual series of semi-epiphanic moments, it's the most substantive and rewarding look yet at the strangely compelling life of the Lake Erie everyman. We meet a kid named Herschel, born to Polish immigrants five weeks after the start of World War II. A Jewish kid in an all-black neighborhood. A kid who later found he could earn respect by beating the crap out of other kids (and proceeded to do so regularly). A smart guy, good at sports. But a guy who either self-sabotaged or simply quit each time he got the idea he might fail at something - be it baseball or football, community college, a series of menial jobs, a disastrous stint in the navy, or a failed first marriage.

Luckily, Herschel, a/k/a Harvey, found something he could stick with. He's been storyboarding his little life stories (The Quitter is superbly illustrated by Dean Haspiel) for three decades now - and we're the better for it.

Fight or fail
If the only Harvey Pekar you know is the mopey grump played to perfection by Paul Giamatti in the movie American Splendor, it might surprise you to see Haspiel's muscular drawings of a strapping young lad whaling the shit out of guys (complete with onomatopoeic words and comic-book concussive lines). Pummeling a Nazi-sympathizing classmate until he lies limp near a urinal, bludgeoning a braggart soda jerk until he's bloody about the face - he was a regular Artie Levine.

On the phone from Cleveland, Pekar, in that inimitable high-pitched rasp, says it was a calculated decision. "I noticed that the toughest guys were the guys who got most respect. At least among the people I knew." As soon as he laid that first guy out on the sidewalk, "all of a sudden I was like the hero of the neighborhood or something. I thought, this is the way to go! So I got into fights." He fought because he was insecure. And his insecurities stemmed from his parents. "My mother was this obsessive-compulsive person always telling me prepare for the worst," he says. "And she got me believing that. I would come home with a real good report card, maybe more A's than B's, and she would get on my case about the B's I got. Everything I did, I wanted approval."

So he tried. Just not always that hard. He was an okay ballplayer, but quit when the fastballs started getting faster and his strikeouts mounted. He was a great football player, but walked away in spite when the coach benched him. College didn't work out so well. The less said about his time in the Navy the better. A string of crappy service jobs found him goofing off, or having panic attacks. Nothing seemed to fit. "Whenever I got involved in an activity that was important to me, as soon as I ran into a little trouble with it, I quit," Pekar says.

But he found some stuff that kept his interest. He loved jazz - all of it, from Satchmo to Hard Bop to microtonal improv. He got to be pen pals with Downbeat editor Ira Gitler, who encouraged him to write reviews. A feature on Fats Navarro was published in Jazz Review in 1959, and he still writes today (he's done a few reviews for this very paper).

Pekar got a stress-free job doing filing work at the VA hospital. A nice government pension to boot. He stayed there for 37 years. "A real easy job. I didn't have to go home and worry about it, worry if I was gonna screw up and get fired tomorrow." Finally, he says, "I was able to find these things. After trying a million things I was finally able to stumble on the things that made my life stable."

Storybook ending
As a kid, Pekar was almost as obsessive about comic books as he'd been about jazz. (And literature. And boxing.) All the same, he considered them a "second-rate art form." Then realized something. "They're words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures. There's no limit on what order you put 'em in, or what kind of illustration you use. It's not the fault of comics. I have access to the same choice of words as Shakespeare."

And he had another thought. Boring stuff can be interesting. "The idea came to me that anybody's story just about, if handled correctly, would be the basis for a great novel," he says. "I think my life is as interesting in its way as other lives. The kind of things that concern me, even little things, like the fact that I'm constantly losing my keys and stuff like that. They could identify with it."

So he drew a few stick figures, some scrawl-filled speech balloons, and let his buddy Robert Crumb take over from there. Waiting in line. Freeloading friends. Searching for rare jazz sides. A cancer diagnosis. All grist for the mill. All looked at with an unflinching eye.

"I don't mind being honest about my life," Pekar says. "I never really did anything that terrible. I mean, I've done a lot of things that I could be ridiculed about. Like, okay, like I'm a cheap guy, or something like that, okay? But, I mean, I don't, like, put that on par with being a murderer or something like that. I have no problem writing about these things. I don't think they're major faults of mine."

Neither do his fans. Pekar always had a cult following. He was even a semi-star for his confrontational mid-'80s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. But it was the movie adaptation of American Splendor that really boosted his stock. (And "by my standards, made me a lot of money.")

Still, he insists, "the movie really hasn't changed the way I live at all. I live in the same house, I dress the same way, I eat the same way. I've made some extra money, but it's all pretty much been put aside for my kid, y'know? I dunno, I just wanna stay at home and keep my nose to the grindstone. Because I like where I live okay. And I enjoy doing comic-book work. Anything I can do competently that someone will pay me for, I'll do it."

Next up, Pekar's Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, a bio of the Brooklyn weirdo and Overheard in New York editor, which is due out in March. After that, he says he might like to come to Boston for a while, maybe do a comic-book life story of his favorite jazzman, atonal saxophonist and clarinetist Joe Maneri.

Does he like writing about other people as much as he likes writing about himself? He chuckles dryly. "I dunno, man. I dunno if anything can top writing about myself. I'm so in love with myself."

Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard@phx.com