Bittersweet. A phenomenal acknowledgement for our efforts published in one of the most highly regarded institutions of our times. I couldn't have asked for a better review. I told my brother Mike we'd get 'em and we did.
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New York Times Book News and Reviews
By Harvey Pekar.
Illustrated by Dean Haspiel.
Unpaged. Vertigo/DC Comics. $19.99.
Review by DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: December 25, 2005
Street Fighting Man
EVEN as a longtime fan of Harvey Pekar and his autobiographical comic book series, "American Splendor," I have to admit that I approached his latest effort in the same way Pekar approaches his own life: with a mixture of despair and resignation. Surely, I thought, now that he is 66 and has turned his stories of quotidian existence in Cleveland, his conflicts with David Letterman and his battle with cancer into fodder for his comics, and has turned those comics into a movie (also called "American Splendor," in which Pekar was played by Paul Giamatti), and has turned the experience of making that movie into a comic, his tank of self-immolating anecdotes must be running dangerously close to empty. And at a time when a new generation of graphic novelists, including Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, continues to find ever deeper levels of profundity in the conventional and the mundane, it's hard not to notice how conventional and mundane much of Pekar's work now seems in comparison.
So it is that much more remarkable that "The Quitter," illustrated by Dean Haspiel, a frequent "American Splendor" contributor, should be Pekar's most poignant and satisfying effort to date. In a tale that reaches all the way back to Pekar's post-World War II childhood, "The Quitter" largely abandons his cultivated image as a lovable neurotic who comes completely unraveled when he loses his voice or misplaces a favorite book. Instead, the adolescent Harvey depicted in its pages is an aggressive, potentially explosive child, embarrassed by his Polish Jewish immigrant parents and their failure to integrate themselves fully into American life, and discouraged by his inability to make friends on Cleveland's ethnically mixed streets. When he discovers he has an aptitude for street fighting, Harvey takes sadistic delight in showing off his skills at the slightest provocation. But he also develops an aversion to any problem he cannot solve by beating it up, and with each increasingly savage victory he comes closer to a painful lesson about the consequences of his brutal behavior.
Given how often Pekar has criticized the banality of superhero comic books, it's also surprising how his narrative mirrors the trajectory of a traditional superhero origin story, where every seemingly unrelated plot element - in this case, a father still struggling with his new surroundings, a cousin recently discharged from the Navy and a narrator with a tendency toward violence - eventually converges in a single, life-altering moment. The crucial difference in "The Quitter" is that this climactic incident does not empower its hero, but rather weakens him, by demonstrating how inadequate his powers really are. And while any reader who can recall the story of Cousin Heshie from "Portnoy's Complaint" will already be familiar with the denouement that Pekar is building up to, that doesn't make it any less devastating when it finally arrives.
There are times when Pekar will, as Pekar does, retreat into self-pity or self-promotion, but these instances are rescued by the artwork of Haspiel, whose thick, angular lines perfectly capture both the young Harvey's bottled-up rage and his elder counterpart's exasperation, and whose affectionate but honest depiction of the frustrating, easily frustrated Pekar might, in time, prove to be more iconic than R. Crumb's.
At the end of "The Quitter," Pekar refers to other book projects he's working on, but there's an eerie, valedictory mood hanging over its final pages as he surveys his career, like a shopkeeper taking inventory one last time before closing up for the night. And I can't help wondering: if Pekar was capable of holding back a story this potent for as long as he did, is there other vital information he might still be withholding from his readers? Did he knowingly save the best for last? But then I might just be having a Harvey Pekar moment of my own, irrationally convinced that events can turn out only for the worst, instead of reasonably concluding - and hoping - that there will be more best last works from him to come.
Dave Itzkoff is an editor at Spin and a frequent contributor to the Book Review.