REVIEWS

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

Watching the comics medium evolve over the last forty years—after arguably being in a rut for just about as many years prior to that—has been a thrilling thing to see. The late Harvey Pekar was, without question, a major player in that development. This fact is all the more remarkable because he did it strictly as a writer. Specifically, he brought a literary approach to comics more associated with written fiction than anything comics had seen up to that time.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, starts out with a bang with Pekar’s account of the Cleveland Indians winning the 1947 1948 World Series. Pekar, and the book’s illustrator, Joseph Remnant, do a great job of depicting this magic moment.

I was a little too young for that one, but I vividly remember the 1954 series when the Indians almost did it again. This is also referred to in the book. In fact it is effectively used to illustrate the gradual decline of Cleveland through the remainder of the twentieth century. There is a certain irony in this because Harvey’s story, with its various ups and downs, is essentially a story of a life well lived. Fascinating highlights of that life are vividly depicted throughout this book.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, co-published by Zip Comics and Top Shelf, is the first book of new material to come out since Pekar’s death. However, Pekar was involved in its production and was enthusiastic with its early progress at the time of his passing. It is a fitting memorial because it is a stellar achievement in so many ways. The book is a fabulous kaleidoscope of people, places and things, but never loses sight of its primary objective: to tell about and make a case for that much maligned city, Cleveland, Ohio.

Thanks to Joseph Remnant’s superb artwork, you become increasingly well acquainted with the physical look of Cleveland’s evolving landscape. Cleveland’s mighty Terminal Tower, once briefly the tallest skyscraper in the world, is shown in various contexts and seemed like an old friend by the time I finished reading this book.

Joseph Remnant is a relative newcomer to comics, but I have been a fan ever since I saw a great three-page strip of his in Mineshaft #24 about three years ago. His contribution to the success of this book cannot be overstated. I think it is worth mentioning that Remnant’s style is reminiscent in some degree to that of Robert Crumb. But I also think that influence serves this book particularly well, since Crumb did indeed illustrate some of Pekar’s most memorable stories. Not to harp on this, but one thing Remnant did in terms of Crumb’s influence that works  well here, is that he seems to specifically homage Crumb’s classic page, “A Brief History of America”, in the book’s prologue about Cleveland’s early history. His fine job there elevates what might have been — and so often is in other works — a relatively tedious part of the book.

Not only did Remnant draw this book but, along with Chris Ross, he designed it. And the book has a great look over all. The two drawings on the cover show you at a glance what the book is all about better than any words ever could. Without question, Remnant is a rising star in the world of art and comics.

Pekar was always known as a curmudgeon. That quality is still here, but there is a surprisingly strong feeling of optimism as well. Without ever descending to smarminess, this is a book with a lot of heart. In many ways it is a fitting summary of Harvey’s life as depicted for so many years in his stories. But curiously, it could also serve very well as an introduction to that world.

Some fascinating new aspects of this life and world are on display. Some are wonderfully fleeting, like Harvey’s delight in the taste of ten cent chocolate malts sold in Higbee’s department store. Particularly interesting is Harvey’s description of the courtship, marriage and divorce of his second wife, and later, his more successful marriage to Joyce Brabner. There are also new and interesting observations about his well-known encounters on TV with David Letterman. The ups and downs of his book and record collecting are quite entertaining. As a life long accumulator of both, I found much to relate to there.

I also enjoyed his description of his forays into the world of literary criticism. I well remember his articles about George Ade, Stephen Crane, and other great American fiction writers that initially appeared in the pages of B. N. Duncan’s Tele Times. (A periodical with a typical print run of about one hundred.)

I think this illustrates a truly interesting quality about Harvey Pekar: he was no snob. If a person wasn’t utterly boring and had something interesting to say, Harvey was approachable. He was a good listener and it was a quality he managed to hold onto as he gradually became famous. I believe it is one of the things that made him great. It is certainly one of the things that makes Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland such a notable standout among his many books.

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8 Responses to Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

  1. Briany Najar says:

    Really tremendous sense of space in these drawings.
    Air.
    The tree on the right in that last drawing – almost tangible.
    Looks great.

  2. kim deitch says:

    Yeah. Remant is hot.

  3. patrick ford says:

    The artwork is fantastic. It’s always great to see someone pop up out of the blue.

  4. kim deitch says:

    I didn’t know Harvey Pekar all that well. We’d sniped at each other in print over the years. So I was just a tad wary when I finally met him about three years ago at the New York Big Apple con where we were both booked. He immediately disarmed me, when I walked over to his table, by telling me that He’d selected that old death row story of mine for the issue of Best American comics that he was editing. What could I do? What would you do? I bought a copy of his latest book, The Quitter, on the spot and got him to sign it. About six months after that when that anthology he edited came out he was on tour with it and I did a gig with him for it in Brooklyn along with others who were involved with the book. An interesting thing happened that night. At some point a couple of cops working the beat walked in an said, “Hey, we heard Harvey Pekar was here. Could we see him a minute?” Well Harvey came over, shook hands with both of them, and they told him what big fans they were. I guess they chatted with him for about 30 more seconds and then they left. But that made a real impression on me. He had the sympathetic ear of the man on the street; no small achievement.

  5. Briany Najar says:

    I saw a couple of police-men in a comics shop once and they were flicking through a comic called “Wanted.”

  6. kim deitch says:

    Never mind Graphic Novels. Has it been a while since you read a really fine comic book? If so Joseph Remnant’s Blindspot 2 is the book for you. Google his name and get one. That’s my hot tip for the day.

  7. Matt says:

    Indians won the ’48 World Series, not ’47. And we’ve been waiting for another one ever since. :-)

  8. Jack says:

    I finally read this last night and was blown away. Not even Crumb would have done as good a job on the book as Joseph Remnant did. The “Short History of America” reference stood out, and I think Remnant also emulated Crumb’s Harlem drawings for Help in the early 60s. Harvey’s script kind of rambled, but I loved it anyway. The tangents about chocolate malts and how growing his own corn would make him feel like Orville Redenbacher were my favorites. Overall, it was a perfect capstone to Harvey’s career, and it’s a shame he didn’t live to see the final product.

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