It’s been nearly two years since the America’s unofficial poet laureate of the working class, Cleveland’s own Harvey Pekar, passed away, but thanks to the estimable folks at Top Shelf Comics, we’ve been given one last glimpse at his creative genius via their publication, in hardcover no less, of what’s apparently his last complete work, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a book that serves as both a semi-mournful look back at a once-great city’s heyday and a final, and comprehensive, autobiographical sketch of its narrator’s life and an analysis of his admittedly complex relationship with the place that he called home for all of his 70 years.
For those of you out there unfamiliar with Pekar’s American Splendor (what, you mean you haven’t seen the movie?), it was a (mostly) self-published anthology series of short stories in comics form written by Pekar, a VA hospital file clerk and blue-collar intellectual, and illustrated by a bevy of the finest sequential artists of its day (most notably underground legend Robert Crumb) that ran for well over a quarter century. Although largely viewed (and categorized) as an autobiographical series, in truth it’s probably more accurate to say it was a “slice-of-life” series, since Harvey was just as likely to include stories about things that happened to people he knew as he was to relate stories about his own life and experiences in its pages, and often brief snippets of overheard conversations formed the basis for some of his most memorable strips. In short, it wasn’t always so much about Harvey Pekar himself as it was about events he witnessed, or that were related to him by others he knew.This presumably final work seamlessly blends the two, as it bobs and weaves downright seamlessly between tales of the city of Cleveland proper and Pekar’s life and times within it. While he’s unarguably the main character, in truth his geographic locale as his “co-star,” as he both recounts straight narrative chronology of the city and gives detailed background on some of his favorite establishments within it. The net effect is a sort of historical odyssey through Cleveland, with detours chosen for specific purposes by our guide, who writes with both the appreciation and disgust of someone who knows his subject well (some might say too well). With painstakingly detailed art by the talented Joseph Remnant (a name I’d previously been unfamiliar with, but that I will definitely look for in the future) that conveys both the actual, physical reality of the city as well as the mood and atmosphere that permeates its environs, and a wide-ranging story that spans decades of the author’s life and even takes care to accurately relate events that happened over a century before his birth, the phrase “labor of love” would definitely apply here — except for the fact that Harvey makes it perfectly clear that he’s had a love/hate relationship with his hometown almost from the word go.
Longtime American Splendor fans will be glad to know that stalwart characters such as Toby Radloff and Mr. Boats are present and accounted for, but for those unfamiliar with Pekar’s previous work and the real people who populate it there’s no reason to be put off from reading this — in fact, even though it’s his final piece of graphic nonfiction, the truth is that serves as an excellent “jumping-on” point for new readers, as it’s such a comprehensive (yet conversational and frankly uncomplicated) work that one needn’t know anything about the city itself, or even who Harvey Pekar is for that matter, to find it a thoroughly engrossing and evocative work.
In fairness, however, it’s incumbent upon me to state that Pekar was never what one would call a “feel-good” author, and if the observations of a major metropolis that’s been on the decline for at least 50 years written by a guy with a definite curmudgeon’s perspective (and speaking of lovable, intellectual curmudgeons, Alan Moore provides the introduction) aren’t your cup of tea, then you’re going to find the tone of this book rather off-putting from the outset. Sugar-coating harsh realities was never Harvey’s “bag,” and while thos of us who are in tune with his wavelength will appreciate the rare form we find him in here, folks who like things a bit sunnier and less nonchalantly harrowing might be well advised to give this book a pass since it’s many things to be sure, but positive and uplifting aren’t among them.
I loved it, of course, and immediately read through the entire thing from start to finish a second time before putting it down. The only downside is that it made me miss Harvey’s distinctive, authentic, and altogether necessary voice more than ever.