Wednesday, 17 August 2016

American Splendor: Another Day

Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel & others
American Splendor: Another Day (2006)
Ten years later and I only just discover that Vertigo published Harvey Pekar, which is about the one thing to inspire regret at my having lost touch with what was going on in the comics biz back then, and additionally means I can forgive Vertigo for driving me away with Grant Morrison's Unreadables and Garth Ennis' award-winningly awful Preacher, a comic predicated on the daringly innovative high concept of rural working-class Texans being uneducated with a tendency to marry their own sisters. Nice work, Garth - very brave.

Backtracking further, by 1989 I had finished a three-year fine art degree course and was living alone and on the dole in a damp single room bedsit in Chatham, Kent, sharing a house with ageing alcoholics and persons who were more or less just living there whilst waiting to die. The degree course had left me no more employable than I'd been when I started it, and had taught me only that I had nothing in common with anyone describing themselves as an artist. In June I went for an interview with Royal Mail, and was taken on as a postman, a job in which I remained for the next two decades; but meanwhile back in 1989, Bill Lewis - who lived in the same road - sold me a stack of American underground comics, including a couple of issues of Harvey Pekar's self-published American Splendor, notably issue three which included a story called Awaking to the Terror of a New Day wherein our man forces himself to keep on moving forward through a seemingly futile existence more or less identical to my own without slashing his wrists. That was when I realised that Harvey had something unique, or at least something which is generally in short supply. Harvey understood.

Autobiographical comics briefly became a big thing around the early nineties, although not many of those I saw were that good - the worst possibly being Joe Matt describing his heavy pornography habit in one comic in wilfully lurid detail, then spending the next issue describing his girlfriend's reaction to reading the comic describing his heavy pornography habit with masochistic relish. On the other hand, American Splendor coming from a sixties blue collar sensibility was always heads above other representatives of the genre - a unique hybrid which somehow really needed to be a comic rather than just prose, and yet which never bothered with any of the comic as arts cinema pretensions associated with the comic book's supposedly having grown up - even though that's exactly what this is, and far more so than whatever the latest reinvention of fucking Batman may be. Harvey told it like it was, making wonderful use of the timing and emphasis afforded by sequential panels, then stopping when he'd said what he wanted to say - no real punchline, often not even a moral, sometimes leaving us wondering what had happened to the rest of the story and all because that's how life works, I suppose. It may seem mundane, and it may fixate on details like what thoughts run through your head when asking a neighbour to come and fix your toilet because your eyes don't work so good and you've lost your glasses and all he needs to do is fix the chain back onto the stopper, but never mind comics, this stuff is poetry.

To further infect the review with autobiographical detail, I'd had a shitty day, suffering in the heat of Texas in August, worried about a stray cat which has stopped eating and generally succumbing to good old existential nausea. I'd been reading one of the worst things I'd read in a long time - and the quality of my reading always affects my general mood - and had become fixated on all those people who just can't find it within themselves to add anything good to the world, instead just leaving a path strewn with worm-casts of recycled culture. Who are these people, these product-sponge cunts - as Louis CK calls them? Why are they alive? Why must I be aware of [name of person who doesn't matter excised for the sake of diplomacy]'s existence, and of the blog he has written explaining what he was trying to say in his five-thousand words of generic fanfic delineating a further adventure of [description excised because I'm not having that fucking argument again].

So I picked this and sure enough I feel restored, because Harvey always seemed to understand. There's something profound in his comics, and I've now been reading them for nearly three decades, but I still find it hard to pinpoint what it is, except that I know it's something between the lines, or the panels, I suppose. It may even be as much what it isn't as what it is, if that doesn't sound too preposterous a proposition. There's something calming about Harvey's voice, it being something far removed from all the bullshit and the shouting, or which is at least able to understand and make sense of the bullshit and the shouting - just read Delicacy in this collection, two wordless pages illustrated by Hilary Barta, the comic equivalent of a silent film, I suppose, and packing such a punch that I laughed out loud. That's real art, and if you don't see that, then I feel sorry for you and for the fact that we have nothing to say to each other.

As with David Bowie - of all people - I somehow still can't quite believe that Harvey is gone, because a world which doesn't have Harvey Pekar in it seems weird and unfamiliar, but thankfully we still have his voice.

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