Zooming in on Pekar’s ‘The Quitter’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Harvey Pekar is an unlikely candidate for success in any field, yet he attained national acclaim through his autobiographical comic books, which were adapted into an award-winning film, American Splendor, starring Oscar-winner Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife-collaborator Joyce Brabner. The 2003 film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pucini won applause from critics and graphic novel fans for its effective merging of documentary footage featuring the real Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, commenting on the depictions of themselves, and animated versions of the comic books they published under the title American Splendor. Pekar’s more recent graphic novel, The Quitter, which he wrote with art by Dean Haspiel with Lee Loughridge (Vertigo Books), was the latest work by a Jewish graphic novelist to be discussed as part of the ongoing series at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.

Webster University Professor Warren Rosenblum again offered introductory remarks about the author and his work, just as he has done with the previous books discussed, A Contract With God by Will Eisner; Maus, by Art Spiegelman and Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer; Stories, by Ben Katchor. Pekar, who is strictly a “story-person” graphic novelist, has worked with the famous “Underground Comix” artist R. Crumb. While American Splendor focused on more recent aspects of Pekar’s life and career, The Quitter, cleanly and traditionally illustrated in “super-hero” style by Dean Haspiel with Lee Loughridge, is a linear autobiography of the mostly bleak landscape of the graphic novelist’s life.

In his remarks, Rosenblum said he felt that Pekar’s The Quitter “had hardly any Jewish irony,” and “it is gratuitously violent; he presents himself as an urban outsider who is never ‘in the city,’ somewhat in the manner of Woody Allen or Philip Roth. In his original Cleveland neighborhood, he doesn’t belong, and is beaten up by the neighborhood black kids. He has a recurring obsession with weakness and the need to cover it up with toughness. He discovers in his new school that his earlier fights prepare him to win one-on-one fistfights. In one panel, after a fight, he looks at his fists like Spider Man or another super-hero discovering his super-powers.”

Rosenblum added that Pekar’s persona in The Quitter also has a continuous Jewish anxiety of not being smart enough to go on a typical Jewish path to college and a career. He disappoints his mother, and the ongoing themes are feelings of being an urban outsider, Jewish weakness and fear of not measuring up.”

There are elements in common between Pekar’s The Quitter and the earlier graphic novels in the series at the St. Louis Public Library. In A Contract With God, Will Eisner deals realistically with life in a Jewish tenament neighborhood in New York in the 1930s, containing similar elements to the inner city Cleveland environs in The Quitter. In Maus, Art Spiegelman uses a two-volume graphic novel to tell his father’s story of surviving the Holocaust, and makes a less than fully successful attempt to achieve more open communication with his father. In The Quitter, Harvey is embarassed over the Yiddish accents of his Jewish immigrant parents. His few achievements always fail to impress his mother, who worries that her son won’t amount to much. In one episode depicted in the book, Pekar, as a high school student, runs away when his father comes to pick him up and calls out to him in his Yiddish accent. When the embarassed Harvey runs away, the father thinks he is playing a game and is amused rather than insulted.

Pekar’s father is pleased with Pekar’s performance at his bar mitzvah, but father and son never truly “get” each other.

Pekar is shown attempting a career in the U.S. Navy only to be mustered out for emotional difficulties. He later drops out of Case Western Reserve College, and for most of his life has had menial and tedious jobs working in stores or as a file clerk for the federal government.

Pekar, like many cartoonists and graphic novelists, calls his memory “photographic,” and his autobiographical narrative, illustrated by Haspiel largely rings true.

Even after Pekar finds his “calling” as a successful graphic novelist, happiness and contentment continues to elude him. In his final dialogue balloon at the end of The Quitter, the grown-up Harvey Pekar says, “It’s something I’ll maybe always worry about, even if the books I’ve slated for current publishers sell real well. I’ve always dreamed of being able to relax and feel trouble-free for long stretches of time. I’m 65 now. Will it ever happen?”

Maybe it will happen, and maybe not. But just as the angst-ridden novels of Philip Roth and films of Woody Allen continue to entertain millions, so it will probably be with the graphic novels of Harvey Pekar, who continues to be too hard on himself. Perhaps even his critical, never impressed Mom and Dad would be pleased with his current level of artisitic achievement.

(The series on Jewish graphic novelists, titled, “Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novels, with a discussion led by Webster University Professor Warren Rosenblum, will conclude with a discussion of The Rabbi’s Cat, by Joann Sfar, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 26, in the auditorium of the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Lindell Boulevard. The program is free and open to the public).

Sign up for Your Morning Light