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American Splendor #2

Written by Harvey Pekar, illustrated by various artists
Vertigo/DC Comics
32-page comic book, $2.99

I'm still getting used to the idea of all this Vertigo business. First, there's the issue numbering -- there's no indication that there was ever an American Splendor prior to Karen Berger getting her hands on it, so someone approaching these books for the first time would never know that Harvey Pekar spent several decades in the underground/indy wilderness before moving his endlessly acclaimed series first to Dark Horse, then to Vertigo. Perhaps Karen thinks it's only really being published now, and the lack of a volume number is some kind of aesthetic statement or something.

 

Everything right and wrong about Harvey Pekar's collaboration with Richard Corben summed up in two panels, from American Splendor #2, ©2006 Harvey Pekar and DC Comics.

 

Likewise, the decision to pepper this series with mainline genre cartoonists has led to, shall we say, variable results. On the one hand, you get to see what Richard Corben and Chris Weston might do with a Pekar script. On the other hand, you can also play "How weirdly shaped did this guy make Harvey Pekar's head?" with the results. The winner, in case you're curious, turns out to be Corben, who produces the most lived-in suburban landscapes of any Pekar collaborator since Crumb, but draws Pekar himself like some twisted magician had transformed his head to modeller's clay and then stretched it a bit for laughs. There are panels in Leonardo Manco's story, "Another Year, Another Check," that look like Howard Chaykin drawing Ernest Borgnine, and the caricature of Pekar by Chandler Wood in the first panel of "Joy Gets the Job" could be used to phychologically scar small children for life. I'd mention Dean Haspiel, but I'm still trying to wrap my brain around his Jack-Kirby-inked-by-Evan-Dorkin linework being used to illustrate American Splendor stories, and likely will be for some time yet. (There's nothing wrong with it, but the effect strikes me as jarring in ways I'm still struggling to articulate.)

 

Chris Weston's art is perfect for this sequence from American Splendor #2, ©2006 Harvey Pekar and DC Comics.

 

The one great discovery here is Chris Weston, who turns out to have been practically born to draw Harvey Pekar stories. As anyone who remembers The Filth can attest, Weston can make the rumpled, haven't-swept-the-floor reality of the mundane world look interesting like few other artists working in comics today. That he does it with such a slick, polished line means that even when not trying for such effects, as here in the story "Comic Convention Comic," his versimillitude makes unglamorous, everyday people seem simultaneously flawed and flawless, like a weathered old Chevy Biscayne drawn by J.C. Leyendecker. A bit less successful is the one collaboration I'd been chomping at the bit to see for some time now: Harvey Pekar and Eddie Campbell, the two opposing poles of autobiographical cartooning. Alas, either Pekar or his editor, Jonathan Vankin, erred seriously in giving the artist a talking-heads script. Campbell makes a game attempt, and almost pulls it off anyway -- check out the way Campbell frames Pekar handing his credit card to the shopkeeper, or how the little panels surrounding the penultimate one amplify the Benny Goodman joke -- but both his poetic sense of imagery and his genius for visual narrative are largely wasted on this script. The story works, mind you, but the lost potential is almost palpable. I'd love to see another attempt, but only after Pekar reads Three Piece Suit and learns more about the strengths of the artist for whom he's writing. (On the plus side, Vankin at least lets Campbell letter his own pages.)

 

Eddie Campbell draws talking heads; a good opportunity wasted in American Splendor #2, ©2006 Harvey Pekar and DC Comics.

 

If I haven't really mentioned Harvey Pekar's writing yet, it's because there's almost no need to do so. At this point he's an irreducible unit, his anecdotes and asides honed to a finely tuned formula that conveys perfectly the values and worldview he's trying to impart to the reader. I've heard any number of people describe the title of his longrunning comic as being somehow "ironic," but it seems clear to me that such people miss the point. Pekar means it from the heart: The everyday world does indeed contain considerable joy and sorrow, scope and beauty -- in other words, splendor -- embedded in every moment, if only one knows where to look. Harvey Pekar has spent the last three decades of his life learning not just to look, but to capture it on paper in such a way as to convey his message even when filtered through the hands of whatever artist he could rope into doing the job at a given moment. Regardless of who draws it, there's no mistaking a Harvey Pekar story in temperment or presentation, and few artists can take minor incidents and turn them into philosophical statements as casually or with as much feeling as Harvey Pekar. His editor and publisher may still be figuring out how to present his work, but Pekar himself has been ready for prime time for years. It's always a pleasure to see American Splendor.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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