Huntington, West Virginia “On The Fly”

Huntington, West Virginia “On The Fly”

One of my back-pocket projects is a survey of Harvey Pekar's work after the original, self-published run of magazine-sized issues of American Splendor. The common critical wisdom about this body of work is that it's not nearly as innovative, powerful, or well told as his earlier comics. To be sure, after the release of Our Cancer Year, his comics production became sporadic and little-promoted by his periodical publisher Dark Horse. That said, I would contend that there is much of value to be found in these strips. In particular, Pekar started to move away from musing about small yet meaningful moments in his own life to documenting the lives of others he found compelling. Two of his better efforts in this regard were Transatlantic Comics (done in conjunction with Colin Warneford, an artist who discussed his struggle with Asperger's) and Unsung Hero (a straight-up oral history of a Viet Nam veteran, drawn by David Collier).

If anything, Pekar's work suffered somewhat in the wake of the success of the American Splendor film. He felt pressured to write to support his family and so took on a number of projects simultaneously. His historical books on the Students for a Democratic Society and the Beat poets have bright spots, but the typical Pekar storytelling rhythm is lacking; as a result, those books are a slog. Pekar's long-form comics aren't always up to snuff either. His autobiographical The Quitter has its moments, but the very traps he avoided in his autobiographical work (that is, concentrating on an overarching narrative structure instead of letting little moments dictate the flow) sink this comic, and Dean Haspiel isn't a great fit to illustrate the subject matter. While his Macedonia is a fascinating account of one woman's attempt to understand why one country didn't fall apart (thanks in part to Ed Piskor's clever and grungy character work), Ego & Malice is another biography that felt bloated and looked dull.

Whether it was because the post-movie book deals dried up or because he was dissatisfied with his own work, Pekar returned to the short story format at which he excelled. He had two separate mini-series published by DC/Vertigo that paired him with a number of interesting artists. He similarly worked with a number of young cartoonists for webcomics, and had a number of other irons in the fire. He died before most of them were published, including the new Huntington, West Virginia "On The Fly". In many respects, this book feels like his '90s Dark Horse work. It's small-scale and observational, applying a magnifying glass both to himself and to several people he meets.

In terms of his artistic collaborators, Pekar has worked with a number of greats, as well as many artists whose only notable credits are illustrating a Pekar story. Pekar generally favored a style that was somewhere between naturalism and a slightly cartoony, expressionistic approach. That certainly describes what Summer McClinton does in this book, though it seems like she struggled to make each image interesting on its own. Some of the pages feature striking images, while other pages look sloppy and amateurish in terms of character consistency and design. There are times when she goes overboard in using shading, hatching, and other ornate details, while at other times her character design looks undercooked. I got the sneaking sense that she overcompensated for a lack of a strong grasp on anatomy and reliance on photo reference by adding more lines.

Art by Phillip Bond

That said, I got used to the idiosyncratic nature of her style during the course of the book's 159 pages, and there are certainly a number of times when her drawings are lovely in a quirky manner. That is especially true of her drawings of women, as she seems to have a better grasp on female body language than male.

As for the stories, Pekar scrambles his narrative approaches in each of the four stories. The first, "Hollywood Bob", introduces new readers to his milieu by way of telling them about the limo driver who drove him to the airport for his post-movie speaking gigs. Bob is a classic Pekar character: someone who's slightly larger than life, doesn't quite fit in with society at large, has faced a number of struggles, and generally lives outside the margins. Bob, a former professional thief and petty criminal, slowly achieves success with a tire shop and a limo business. Bob's colorful experiences are brought to life, aided by the fact that Bob knows lots of famous people as a driver—extra spice is added through Bob's conspiracy theories and books about same.

"Tunc & Eileen: Their Ups And Downs" is a straightforward biography about two friends of Pekar's. While their stories are less overtly colorful than Bob's, they had their own share of personal dramas. Eileen grew up with two hippie parents who raised her on a commune and later a kibbutz. Tunc is an emigre from Turkey who quickly immersed himself in US underground culture and comics in particular. Both had their share of relationship problems before they ended up together. They tie into Pekar with regard to their mutual passion for comics, and I get the sense that he wrote about them to help Tunc with regard to his burgeoning comics library.

Art in this and remaning images by Summer McClintock

This was the most successful of the biographical comics in the book in all respects, as McClinton seems more comfortable in illustrating a story that didn't have the same kind of storytelling demands that the more traditional panel-to-panel transitions presented. Drawing images depicting a long passage of time allows her to create more striking and individualized figures. Pekar distills their stories into their most interesting parts without giving short shrift to the tiny moments of their lives.

On the other hand, "Neighborhood Sparkplug (and my Buddy)" was the least successful story in the book. It's an account of Pekar's friend Steve and his two business concerns: a refurbished diner that fails and a toy store that thrives. This is a classic Pekar "process" story, more about what a person does than a depiction of their character. The problem is that what Steve does isn't very interesting to a general reader. It reads like an extended advertisement for Steve's toy store. Just as problematic is McClinton's art; her depiction of Steve in particular is wobbly at best.

The book's titular story is my favorite, as it's the one that follows Pekar the closest. This is a Pekar-on-the-go story, one where he meets a lot of different people and gets things done. Whenever Pekar got out of that rhythm (like in a long-form story), he frequently struggled to control the story's pace. (Our Cancer Year is a notable exception, partly because his wife Joyce Brabner co-wrote it and partly because it's so episodic and dramatic in nature.) Pekar travels to a book fair in Huntington but is mostly concerned with getting his per diem for meals and expenses. He amusingly grouses that most of the other authors there write mysteries or romance novels. Along the way, he encounters a lot of people who help him out: his guide at the festival, the owner of a local comic bookstore, her boyfriend, and a weird local color sort of character with a podcast.

While most of these folks are intrigued by Pekar's notoriety and/or talent, Pekar is not afraid to take advantage of their genuine kindness. He also tries to help them out as much as he can with their various projects. Late in his life, Pekar became popular simply for being himself: a representation of the struggling everyman who nonetheless has dreams and aspirations. Far from being the curmudgeonly novelty act of Late Night with David Letterman, Pekar became a DIY inspiration. I was happy to see one of his last projects echo the sort of stories that earned him so much good will in the first place. It's successful in part because the particular rhythms that Pekar brings to comics (the long pause, a staccato series of images, naturalistic but clipped dialogue) always fit best when he talks about his own life. The pleasures to be gained from Huntington, West Virginia "On The Fly" are small, but for devotees of Pekar's work, those are the best kind.