March 5th, 2014
Harvey Pekar’s and Joseph Remnant – Cleveland
It’s hard to think of this as anything other than epitaph, given its status as a posthumous release, but the question remains, is this a memorial for the man or the city he lived in? Neither, as it happens - Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a book full of and about life, with both the city and its people being given ample space to breath on every page.
Pekar’s Cleveland has traditionally been an overbearingly crowded place, with even the most casual walks around town populated with an abundance of word balloons, thought bubbles and interjecting faces that threatened to black out the sky. That abundance of words and opinions is still present in this book, but even when the text is at its densest it’s always carefully contained at the top of the panel, leaving the environments depicted underneath gloriously un-squashed.
The city and denizens of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland are every bit as rich with opinion and story here as they ever were, but I can imagine some people finding the first half of the book a little bit plain, filled as it is with broad historical overview rather than the crooked, close quarters detail at which Pekar has always excelled. Pekar’s generosity and his sense of interest manifest themselves differently in the first stretch of this narrative, where they are implicit in the amount of space city and artist are given to establish themselves in concert with each other.
Remnant – his name far too apt for the job - renders Cleveland with an adherence to architectural detail that echoes the work of Eddie Campbell and his assistants in From Hell:
Here, as in that great book, buildings have a life of their own on the page – part of the environment Pekar and co exist in, but rendered with a solidity that rises above mere background detail:
Let us think of these places as being real; perhaps they are! Remnant’s background players have a similarly suggestive definition to them. Sometimes they add a lot to a simple scene – take the bit players in these panels for example:
The guy in the front of the first panel looks like he wants to cudgel himself to death rather than keep on contributing to Cleveland’s economic well-being, while the guy behind the ballot box in the second frame doesn’t look best pleased to feature in this particular historic moment.
Pekar’s history of Cleveland takes up the first forty or so pages, and while it draws a generally progresses in a straight line it does jump back and forth a bit on its way to the present. This detailed tour through the city would be enough to make Cleveland a quiet pleasure, but things gets a lot louder when Pekar arrives on page 42, breaking the story in half as he does so.
From this point onward, the reader is in the more familiar position, walking and talking with Harvey as he makes his way through the city he lives in:
It’s not all entirely straightforward though - certain details and anecdotes repeat themselves, sometimes with new details sometimes almost verbatim, forcing to reader to ponder whether these are stylistic choices or examples of wonky editing.
Take the story about how John T. Zubal’s used bookstore used to be a Hostess Bakery for example. On page 51 we’re told that “Even now, years after John acquired it, it’s possible to eat the Twinkie filling safely. It was all chemicals and didn’t deteriorate.” This story recurs again 44 pages later, prompted by its appearence on a TV show hosted by Antony Bourdain. On this occasion we’re told that the Twikie filling “had been there 10 or 15 years, but the the stuff was all chemicals and didn’t rot after all that time. It was still edible, and Bourdain tasted it on the show.”
Glitches like this make it clear that the history you’re reading the by-product of a slightly dysfunctional, human memory. The title says it all, I guess – this is Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and its most striking details and points of interest are therefore likely to be the ones that kept Harvey coming back after all those years.
Reading through the book again, I’m struck by the way that Pekar’s trademark hunched stride seems to be shared by all of the denizens of his Cleveland. More than his particular outlook on life, with Remnant’s help Pekar gives everyone in this book – even the baseball stars – something of his physical manner:
It’s no wonder the people of this town stoop so much, given the amount of history that’s piled up on them – history that is here present in almost every panel in the form of Pekar’s narration. The buildings may stand un-bothered by the running commentary, but Remnant’s human characters show evidence of this strange gravity in their every motion.
Sometimes it’s as though the barely contained agitation of Robert Crumb’s illustrations has been pushed downward into the characters’ feet by the weight of Pekar’s words:
Rather than adding up to a portrait of a defeated man or a defeated city, however, this adds to the sense of defiance that runs through the book. Pekar is plenty familiar with the many economic and social problems that have effected in the city, and he’s careful to qualify his more optimistic impulses while filling the reader in on these issues, but that optimism is still there. It’s not for nothing that the book open’s with Pekar telling the reader that he’s “had plenty of good days.”
The book ends on a vision of a Cleveland free of people, free of Pekar, free of life:
The trick is to remember that they’re not in here for a reason. They’re out there, in the world, struggling against the weight of their own stories one footstep at a time.