Something about Nothing: Harvey Pekar and Slice of Life

Cover Art: The Quitter by Harvey Pekar, Art by Dean HaspielGone are the days when people with both a weakness for comic books and aspirations of becoming “serious” writers had to slink across town and hope no one they knew drove past as they walked out of the shop with the latest issue of Zap! or Weirdo wrapped in plain brown paper (to give it that little extra patina of shame).

I miss those days.

Furtiveness makes a lot of things in life more pleasurable. That’s why the cookie stolen out of the jar always tastes better than the one Grandma gives you and it’s why you will always remember sneaking out to see a forbidden love even though the object of your desire turned out to be bunny-boiling crazy or broke your heart like it was the paper seal on a motel toilet.

Nowadays full-fledged adults will tell you straight out they haven’t read a book without pictures in years, and that's a goodCover Art: Will Eisner's The Spirit, Book Two. by Various Writers & Artists thing. The average functionally neurotic American has plenty enough to feel guilty about. His/her reading habits shouldn't be one of them.

There are a lot of folks we should thank for the comic book' graphic novel's slow slouch toward respectability: the pioneers of thinking people’s comic strips like Walt Kelly, George Herriman, and Will Eisner; the underground comix artists of the sixties and seventies who gave the medium a certain high-cultural cachet it had never had before; Alan Moore for his clinical dissection of that fixture of the comic, the superhero, in his hugely popular Watchmen; and probably most of all, we should thank those several generations of kids who when it came time to "put away childish things" said to heck with that noise, and carried their love of the medium with them into adulthood.

And then there is Harvey Pekar.

 Pekar didn’t invent the “slice of life” comic, but he made it a lot more life-like. He took the mundane to a whole new—dare I say transcendent--level?  His best stuff is essentially plotless, his mode of choice is the monologue. His overarching tone, the long-form kvetch.

His life was literally and figuratively an open book, but he remains a bit of an enigma. Before he ever wrote a single panel Cover Art: Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuccheliof American Splendor, he was a published writer of book and record reviews. He was an autodidact with a wide and varied reading list. And he had no artistic skills to speak of. So, why comic books? When all he wrote was monologues, why did he choose a medium whose main selling point is its visual depiction of kinetic energy?

Answer: Art...with a capital A.

For all his working schlub demeanor and anti-art sensibilities, he saw his work as avant-garde and it was. He had a deep understanding of the post-modern artist's dilemma, and was the first to see and exploit that intuitive disjunct that causes people like me to ask, "Why comics?"  Long before Seinfeld brought a show "about nothing" to network TV, Pekar was spinning complex variations on the story-less story. When Seinfeld said his show was "about nothing," he meant that it had no high-concept narrative spine. Seinfeld wasn't about nothing; it just wasn't a show about an astronaut who found a genie in a bottle, and the culture-clash hilarity that ensues. Pekar's nothing wasn't "about" anything. It was nothing. His American Splendor tales were not tales at all. There’s no rising action, no catharsis as we traditionally think of it, no denouement. His best work acknowledges the fact that life, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, has no narrative arc. Existence rarely Cover Art: Epileptic by David B.builds to a climax. It just kind of is. We have ups and downs, episodes, vignettes and struggles both large and small, but rarely is there some defining conclusion that wraps the thing up in a tidy package the way that stories are supposed to.

A word about the words “Slice of Life.” The term has come to be more or less synonymous with “realism,” usually in the autobiographical mode. Pretty much any comic that does not feature superheroes, the supernatural and/or talking animals is considered slice of life nowadays. 

Books, etc. by or about Harvey Pekar
American Splendor / Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini [DVD]
The Beats: A Graphic History / text by Harvey Pekar et al, art by Ed Piskor et al
The Quitter / text by Harvey Pekar, art by Dean Haspiel

Other works by Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. Unsung Hero: the Story of Robert McNeill / text by Harvey Pekar, art David Cover Art: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison BechdelCollier. Macedonia / text by Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson, art by Ed Piskor. Our Cancer Year / Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar, illustrations by Frank Stack. Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History / text by Harvey Pekar, art by Gary Dumm, edited by Paul Buhle. Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation / adapted by Harvey Pekar, edited by Paul Buhle.

Other Slice of Life Comics   
Acme Novelty Library Series / Chris Ware
Asterios Polyp / David Mazzucchelli
Blankets / Craig Thompson 
Epileptic / David B.
Essex County (series) / Jeff Lemire 
The Contract with God Trilogy / Will Eisner
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic / Alison Bechdel 
Ghost World / Daniel Clowes
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth / Chris Ware
Local / Brian Wood & Ryan KellyCover Art: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Love & Rockets (series) / Jaime Hernandez
Persepolis 1 & 2 / Marjane Satrapi

Finally,  for those of you who want to verify that someone is out there trying to suck every bit of fun out of the medium there is Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature / Charles Hatfield. (Sample chapter heading: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Autobiographical Comics: Two Case Studies).

NOTE: This list is by no means exhaustive. It may not even represent the best of HCPL's collection of slice of life graphic novels, but it's stuff I've read and recommend. There's a whole world of manga and anime slice of life that I will leave to the more knowledgeable.

As always, comments, corrections, cookie recipes, colloquies, clouts of derision are warmly welcomed. Suggestions for future posts are even more so.

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