Tag: Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland and Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

by on Aug.02, 2012, under Comics

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.

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Comic Book Movies Revisited

by on Aug.16, 2011, under Comics, Movies

Back when he crapped all over comic book movies Josh K-Sky and (and I, in the comments) neglected to mention A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s brooding gangster film. I only recently got around to reading the graphic novel by John Wagner (recently reissued by Vertigo), and it’s one of many examples of what was apparently once called Bluestone’s Law (after pioneering film critic George Bluestone): only bad books make good movies; good books make bad movies.

In general, Bluestone’s Law as I understand it secondhand is based on the idea that deviation from the original is more respected when the original is not beloved. We’ve largely gotten past that whole problem of “deviation” when it comes to novels, but we haven’t with comics, and I think it might be instructive to consider why.

Most people, I think, still see comics and movies as really pretty similar. Comics are the closest one can get to a movie on the page, goes the subconscious expectation. Both tell stories with dialogue supported by visual depictions of action, and comic book authors have adopted many visual storytelling tricks from movies. Comic book scripts and movie scripts even look a lot alike, and many TV screenwriters have dabbled in comic book writing.

The fact that their comics have not generally been very good should give a hint, though, that the visual support to dialogue works pretty differently in movies and in comics.

Art in comics must be very simple. It has to convey an action in a space maybe two inches tall by two inches wide. Artists will pack only as much into those small spaces as can be intelligible.

But within those limitations it can be extremely evocative. It activates the imagination when done well, leading us right into theĀ  “vivid and continuous dream” that John Gardner names as the action of all good fiction. We see movement and emotion in our heads.

Because that movement and emotion is linked to specific visual cues, however, we believe mistakenly that it’s all there on the page. Beloved comics get transferred to the screen by directors who want nothing more than to reproduce what everyone loved so much in print, and they sit there, visually dead.

When comics do work on the big screen it’s usually because directors find ways to make them look great there. Vince Locke’s art in A History of Violence the book is forgettable, so Cronenberg was free to go his own way. Harvey Pekar works with different artists in every story, so Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were similarly free in American Splendor.

Which brings me to James Gunn’s Super, just out on DVD, and its contrast with last year’s Kick-Ass. Like Kick-Ass, Super is based on the idea of an ordinary guy dressing up as a superhero.* Unlike Kick-Ass it was not preceded by a comic, and when I try to imagine it as a comic I can’t see it translating well.

Rainn Wilson plays The Crimson Bolt, aka Frank D’Arbo, a guy who finds himself adrift when his wife abandons him and returns to heroin. A vision from God and some late-night Christian superhero TV convince him to become a costumed hero, and when he visits a comic book store to do research on heroes without superpowers he accidentally picks up Ellen Page as a sidekick, Boltie. Because he doesn’t have powers he settles on hitting his villains with a wrench. Or shooting them when necessary.

All the way to the bloody climax Gunn rides the line between comedy and despair. He lets the actors play their roles with absolute seriousness, and doesn’t ever try to undercut how messed-up and deluded Frank is supposed to be. He and Boltie are crazy people, and when he bashes a guy in the head for cutting in line at the movies, it’s appropriately horrifying.

In the same moment, though, the violence is undercut by a slapstick visual tone. Not Three Stooges slapstick where the violence doesn’t hurt, Troma slapstick, where the gore is extreme and doesn’t feel quite real.

That specific tone simply wouldn’t work in a comic. I’ve tried to imagine some of the most arresting images in Super as comic panels, and I think they’d either be unleavened horror, or else that nasty, mean-spirited visual slapstick that characterizes most of Mark Millar’s work (including Kick-Ass) and Garth Ennis titles like Crossed. There simply isn’t enough space in a panel for most artists to enact that uncomfortable middle ground where Super lives. All of which means that while Super may be a far better movie than Kick-Ass, I’m not sure it’d be half as good a comic.


*It’s weird that in neither of these movies do the protagonists bother to learn about the Real-Life Superhero movement. The Kick-Ass 2 comic book series offers something along these lines, but in this day and age it’s hard to fathom anyone doing non-Internet-based research, as Rainn Wilson’s character does in Super, and when they did wouldn’t they immediately stumble on the RLS phenomenon? Plus both movies assume RLS’s would be vigilantes, whereas in truth they seem to be motivated more by an endearing concept of heroism. Less crimefighting, more soup-kitchen fundraising.


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