Geek obsession: Harvey Pekar
Why it’s daunting: Despite the fact that he worked as a V.A. file clerk while creating his observational comic book series American Splendor, Harvey Pekar was a prolific writer, leaving behind several thick anthologies as well as a slew of shorter stories, some collected into single volumes, many not. That Pekar collaborated with dozens of artists inevitably means some stories strike home more forcefully than others, and even the most solid anthologies have their rough patches. Plus, there’s the fact that American Splendor’s stories tend to center on a balding crank with an overriding disdain for most of contemporary culture, not the coziest of protagonists.
Possible gateway: American Splendor: The Life And Times Of Harvey Pekar
Why: Value-wise, you can’t beat this reasonably priced, 300-plus page anthology, which collects the volumes formerly known as American Splendor and More American Splendor. (The current cover, with art from the 2003 film adaptation of American Splendor starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, will cost you the individual books’ R. Crumb-drawn covers, which appear as tiny insets, but you can’t have everything.) More importantly, settling down with a large dose of Pekar is the way to go, since the breadth of his enterprise reveals itself with each new strip. Pekar didn’t just work with a wide palette of artistic collaborators, including R. Crumb, Joe Sacco, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Drew Friedman, Eddie Campbell, and the Hernandez brothers; he wrote in a panoply of styles, as memoirist, historian, and a poet of the mundane.
In an early strip called “Hypothetical Quandary,” Pekar trudges to a bakery, shoulders slumped and hands in his jacket pocket, as he mulls over a publisher’s failure to get back to him. Even as his resentment simmers, he contemplates the ways success might change his life: “Maybe my writing would suffer,” he thinks. “I’ve got a pretty unique viewpoint.” After he’s exhausted the possibilities in both directions, Pekar falls silent and his attention shifts to the still-warm burden in his arms. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he thinks, “Ah, fresh bread!”
One of Pekar’s great gifts as a writer is the ability to isolate such fleeting moments from the course of an ordinary day, the kind we might overlook while preoccupied with the worries coursing through our heads. Pekar’s quite the neurotic himself, but writing seems to serve as a way to step back and savor the fresh-bread-ness of life.