Harvey Pekar died just about two years ago, in July 2010. By the time he passed, most people who cared about comics had at least heard of him, if only through the 2003 biopic/adaptation American Splendor (which Josh K-sky called one of the only two great comic book movies ever made). With artist after artist over the years Pekar reproduced a recognizable style: short pieces, focused on the hassles and joys of an ordinary guy with a civil-service job in middle America. The only longer work of his I can remember is Our Cancer Year, from 1995, which describes his struggle with cancer.
But in the last few months two new books have come out under his byline, and both depart from his usual style significantly. He retired from his civil service job in 2001, and seems to have had much more time to research and write, because each of these books delves deeply into a single big topic.
The first, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, tells the story of his beloved hometown, from its founding to the present day. Apart from being a fine historian, he has a charming way of describing big political and demographic shifts so simply that you think he’s being naive—until you realize it’s a product of hope. If he can drag big forces down to the human level, it is possible to imagine them changing.
The inner-ring suburbs like Cleveland Heights don’t have the appeal they once did. The city’s population is fairly well-divided between whites and blacks, but black kids are way overrepresented in the public school system. White families live in Cleveland Heights for a little bit, but then move to outlying suburbs. When their kids get to school-age, some whites don’t even consider moving into Cleveland Heights; they think it’s down the tubes already. This is a shame, because the Cleveland Heights Board of Education is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to upgrade the schools! Cleveland Heights is still a quiet, law-abiding area. but it’s been put “BEYOND THE PALE” by many whites.
And you know what? He’s right. There’s nothing mystical or larger-than-life going on here. If white families made different choices, things would be different. It is kind of that simple.
Along the way he tells the story of his life, beside the modern history of Cleveland. It’s a familiar story for fans of the American Splendor comic, but yet another way he grounds big changes in everyday reality.
In the second book, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Pekar travels around Cleveland and talks to artist JT Waldman about the entire history of Israel, from Biblical times to the present.
I love the framing device of this book perhaps more than anything else about it. Pekar’s Cleveland is like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Mark Twain’s Mississippi: not quite the real place, more like a mythical place that exactly resembles reality. Reading this book together with Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, you realize that the sites he visits with Waldman—like Zubal’s bookstore—are his holy sites, as important to him as the holy sites of Israel.
This subtly but powerfully reinforces one of his major themes: once you take God out of it (and Pekar tells us flatly that he doesn’t believe in God), Israel becomes no more important than any place a person might love, like Cleveland. Its people therefore come in for the same standards of judgment that Clevelanders might apply to themselves. Pekar’s story is as much about the relationship of American Jews to Israel as it is about Israel itself, so using his beloved American city to demystify Israel is incredibly effective.
(Partly, I suppose, I like it because I sympathize with Pekar’s point of view. But I have read better, more persuasive pieces of argument. Agreeing with Pekar might be a necessary condition for me liking his book, but I don’t think it’s a sufficient one.)
Pekar tells his own history alongside Israel’s, just as he did with Cleveland: how and why his parents became fervent Zionists, and how he became disillusioned with Israel after it occupied the West Bank in 1967 and began building settlements there. He needs a device to separate his story from history, so JT Waldman does his history pages with period-appropriate art. For example, he draws the scenes of Roman occupation to look like mosaics, the medieval diaspora to look like the Bayeux tapestry.
Look, as I said, Pekar doesn’t make the most eloquent argument along these lines that I have ever heard. But it is quite moving to read these two last works of his together. These were the last two big subjects he chose to tackle, the two he cared about enough to treat on a grand scale. He could be a bit of a crank, but he was also a profoundly decent man, and his sincerity and honestly come through in the way he talks about both.