Friday, 7 March 2014

My Postcard from Harvey

In September, 1987 I moved from a house I'd shared with other art students in the village of Otham, near Maidstone, Kent to a bedsit in Glencoe Road, Chatham. By coincidence it turned out that I had moved to within a hundred yards of the home of Bill Lewis, renowned local poet, writer, painter and associate of Billy Childish. I didn't know Bill, but I recognised him from readings, and we knew some of the same people; so once the opportunity arose - in Gruts, café on the High street at which we had both become regulars - I introduced myself.

For a short while we were each semi-regular visitors at the other's house, drinking tea, talking about art, religion, the supernatural, and whatever other common preoccupations we shared at the time; and somehow this led to Bill selling me a big stack of American underground and ground-level comics from the late seventies and early eighties, the work of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffiths, Skip Williamson, and a host of others with whom I was less familiar. He sold me these comics as a job lot, and although there were a few titles I found initially mystifying, the price was good, so it would have seemed churlish to pick and choose. Within the pile were two issues of American Splendor which stood out due to being magazine sized, autobiographical, and written by someone of whom I'd never heard - Harvey Pekar - although one issue featured art by Crumb and was thus of obvious interest.

Because American Splendor seemed less conspicuously humourous from a cursory glance, and was concerned with the mundane daily existence of some guy from Cleveland, it took me a while to get around to reading it as I worked my way through Bill's stack of comics, but when I did, it had a profound effect upon me. I was poor, single, living in a strange town, moderately fearful regarding an uncertain future, and had just started working at a job I was not sure I really liked too much; and so Harvey's Awaking to the Terror of a New Day in American Splendor issue three really struck a chord. The story is nine pages of introspective musings upon one man's struggle to make it through a single day of which it has become tough to find the positive aspects. It's about the point at which you realising you're not so much living as merely surviving, and it somehow seemed that a middle aged Jewish guy from America had said more to me about my own life than Morrissey or any other supposed voice of a generation. I became fixated on the comic, and quickly hunted down all the back issues I could find.

Harvey's autobiographical tales often appeared to have very little in the way of subject matter, but the art is in the telling; and somehow these stories just had to be comics, even if truthfully they were barely ever more than illustrated prose. As raw text, the emphasis would be all wrong, but with an artist underscoring each seemingly unremarkable scene of Harvey trudging on through his life, somehow the pace is exactly right. Harvey's stories often felt oddly profound in their zooming in on some seemingly inconsequential event as though it were of cosmic import. My favourite example remains Stetson Shoes, drawn by Gary Dumm and also from that third issue, an account of Harvey buying a pair of shoes from a second-hand store. It's sheer simplicity, the satisfaction communicated as our man finds that the shoes fit and are a good price, is a thing of beauty, despite how absurd that may well sound.

Harvey Pekar saw value in the most unlikely places, with no subject so trivial as to be undeserving of attention, and his rambling, doubtless indulgent strips probably need to be read to be truly appreciated. There is no angle to his writing. He offers no zen parables on the minutiae of modern life, and there is none of the ruined melodrama of Bukowski. He wrote about the pleasure of finding a cheap pair of well-made shoes when they were most needed simply because it was a small but significant moment that would be lost in almost any other narrative context; and his work endures because it's honest, and because most of us inhabit the same world.

On more than one occasion I've seen the Pekar name employed as a yardstick by which to beat at the supposed inherent tedium of narrative realism, but the argument has not thus far ever been much less than moronic. Endless retellings of Superman are the art form at its most elevated, so it is claimed, but to reflect on daily existence, to experience wonder at the purchase of a pair of shoes shows a lack of imagination; and so imagination is presumably easily identified because it wears a cape, flies in a spaceship, or delivers snappy Samuel L. Jackson style one-liners just like on the telly; as opposed to an ability to take pleasure in whatever is there in front of your eyes. It's the cretinous Doctor Who obsessive swearing he would rather gouge out his own eyeballs than sit through a Mike Leigh film, because real life is boring, yeah? It's the fundamentalist Christian stood before the Grand Canyon, entirely unable to appreciate it as it is, or to articulate any sense of wonder that doesn't invoke his or her belief system. It's the child who screams and refuses to eat any more green beans and yet still has room for a bright turquoise bubble-gum flavour ice cream cone. It's terminal adolescence offered as a statement, because it's either that or accept it as a failing. If a person is unable to engage with either a Harvey Pekar story, or at least a story of its type, then I feel genuinely sorry for them, and for their inability to deal with our world without first spooning on the sugar.

In 1991, I had the big idea of writing to Harvey Pekar and offering my services as a cartoonist. I sent him photocopies of my work, and crossed my fingers, prematurely excited at the thought of illustrating the prose of someone who had been such an inspiration. Of course, I knew it probably wouldn't happen, but when I received a handwritten postcard from Harvey himself it still felt like an occasion for celebration, regardless of the fact that he had effectively told me thanks but no thanks; specifically:

Dear Lawrence,
Right now I'm set as far as artists are concerned, because my next two projects are being entirely done by Frank Stack (a 200 page graphic album) and Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm (a 32 page comic). I appreciate your interest in my work however, and think the stuff you sent me, the writing as well as drawing, is good.
Sincerely - Harvey Pekar

Like so many of Harvey's stories, this one doesn't so much have either an end or a conclusion as a point at which it simply draws to a halt. I no longer produce comic strips, although I do write, and Harvey passed on at the age of seventy back in 2010. I still get a tremendous thrill when I read the postcard, and think of that guy in Cleveland, Ohio going through my stack of photocopied comic strips. It seems a small yet wonderful thing.

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