Thursday, May 23, 2013

Harvey Pekar

(a repost from July 12, 2010, the day Harvey Pekar died and, I guess, part of my little series on influences that began with JG Ballard last week (I'm surprisingly worked up in this little obit, I'm not quite sure why...))

If its even a little bit true that our elite institutions like the BBC, The New York Times, Hollywood, The New Yorker etc. are dominated by middle and upper middle class white males perhaps it explains why we often get so many patronising and phony images of blue collar people in the arts and why artists like Harvey Pekar were so bitter. The establishment in England is largely run by men who went to private school; I expect (although I'm only guessing) that the East Coast establishment in the United States is also largely a closed club of elitist faux liberals who are, in fact, reactionary defenders of their hegemony. Pekar was an angry scourge of corporate America and elites of all shades and with the old boys network against him (famously he was banned from Letterman for badmouthing GE) it's a minor miracle that his epic vision of ordinariness became so well known. His multi volume comic book American Splendor was a paean to everyday life as an office drudge in that most hardluck of American cities, Cleveland. Pekar had no car chases or superheroes in his comic. He was the superhero himself, a superhero who got up in the morning, went to work through the cold, dealt with bureaucracy and tedium, his aches and pains, his petty humiliations and know, life. Anomie, weltzschmerz, angst - these were Pekar's muses. But he tempered the misery with a rare intelligence, irony and humour. His parents spoke Yiddish at home and Pekar wrote firmly in the Mittel Europa Jewish tradition of Kafka and Sholem Aleichem, IB Singer and Bruno Schulz. 
Like Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski, Pekar was a poet of the mundane, an artist of the regular. He lived a blue collar life amongst blue collar people. I remember years ago watching that ghastly, false Clint Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby and being amazed by the conniving, cheap, unpleasant working class caricatures. That's how they really see us, I thought to myself. Harvey Pekar was the man we sent back into the lists to tell truth to power and speak for us. He was our knight errant in K Mart jeans and Payless Shoes. Pekar spoke for the losers, the failures, the grifters, the bums, the working poor, the unworking poor. He saw beauty where others saw only despair, he saw abominations where the powers that be saw slum clearance schemes and new developments. He loved old jazz and old records and old books. He liked talking to old people in coffee shops to hear what they had to say. He hated standing behind old ladies in lines at the supermarket. A lot of this made it into his comic books.
When future generations want to know what life was like in the late twentieth century I don't think they'll bother with the Hollywood movies or the Pulitzer Prize winners or the hipsters writing clever stories in the New Yorker, no, I think they'll probably just read American Splendor instead.