I was about 3 or 4 when I went with my father to his work. He was a super (like a head janitor and handyman) at a convalescent home at the time. I really didn’t know why I was going with my father to this place, I just know that we were taking a detour from the everyday routine of leaving the day-care I spent my days at while both of my parents were at work to somewhere new. We walked into the office where a lady with black hair was sitting. She seemed uncomfortable and seemed to be much more rigid and ‘formal’ than any of the adults that I had come into contact with at the time. My father then proceeded to let lose a varage of curse words at the lady behind the desk and a short argument ensued. When it was finished, we then quickly left the convalescent home and I realized that I had witnessed something very “cool:” a shitload of cussing at someone in authority! When I asked my father why the incident had transpired, he replied that it had to do with money and his boss not treating him how he wanted to be treated. As we drove to our home, I discovered a new sensation in my father’s truck; I realized it was pride.
In the last couple months, I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident. What are the ways in which every day, people accomplish great feats in the midst of the seemingly most mundane. In part, I’ve been thinking about this a lot due to a new collection of graphic novels that I’ve discovered: American Splendor that deals primarily with the issues of class, alienation, love, work, and life in a working-class neighborhood. It hails from Cleveland, which is a city that has given the proletariat two incredible gifts. One is the hip-hop group Bone-Thugs and Harmony, and the other is Harvey Pekar, the author of the series and inspiration for the 2003 film of the same name.
I grew up collecting comic-books. I admit it, I was into that shit. First was the Marvel and DC greats of the time, X-Men, Batman, and Spiderman (so many men!) Then, I drifted off into other territory, mainly Dark-Horse books such as Aliens vs. Predator and other dark and gory sci-fi titles. But, there was one comic that eluded me until I was older, American Splendor. Like many people, AP was introduced to me through watching the 2003 film of the same title, which I watched repeatedly several years ago and recently re-watched. The films borrows a lot from the comic, which is centered around the life and times of Harvey Pekar, a ‘working class intellectual,’ a street fighter, a thief from work, a jazz lover, a neighborhood icon, a serial divorcee, a loving husband, and a file clerk. He writes of himself: “A buddy once called him a working class intellectual. He’s a scholarly cat, but the way things worked out for him, he wasn’t able to get much formal education. He reads a lot and is a published author but has had to support himself by working menial gigs. Long ago he resigned himself to that.” AP doesn’t fit in with most comic books. There are no superheroes and no animals that can talk. It also doesn’t read like a normal comic; each book is usually 60-70 pages long, and includes several different stories of different lengths. Each story is also usually illustrated by a different cartoonist, some of them in a cartoony style, others in almost photorealistic pose. Over the course of the book’s life, Crumb became the most famous illustrator of AP, as it became another book which gave even more fame to the underground artist.
There are many themes within American Splendor; many of them dealing with class, alienation, and the surrounding question of what one should actually do with your life. When I say class informs much of Pekar’s work, he does not come across as a militant, a unionist, or a communist or anarchist (although he makes references to all of them in his writings). His class based politics and consciousness comes across as extremely genuine and organic. It is also a sort of tension. For much of his life, after a series of menial jobs and dropping out of community college, Pekar takes a job as a file clerk. It’s a job that he dislikes because it is work, but also one he enjoys because he likes the people that he works with and because it gives him inspiration for his writing. Furthermore, the routine gives him order to his life and the comfort that his bills are paid. We often get the feeling that Pekar has such high anxiety, that the work he does actually helps he relive some of the street. The pay, which isn’t a lot, is at least enough for him to live on. It’s also a job that brings him into contact with a lot of middle class people such as doctors, which he often holds in contempt or has strained relationships with. And, it’s this alienation based on class and having a consciousness based on class that informs and continues to come up in Pekar’s work again and again.
Pekar isn’t an academic, he’s had almost no ‘formal education’ outside of high school, yet he reads non-stop and devours works on literature, history, economics, and politics. His relationships with many of the people at his work are strained because his ideas are often over their heads. Yet, he also feels uneasy around academics and university types. His attempts to make it as a writer always fall short. American Splendor always just breaks even. The small amount of publicity that it does get him usually doesn’t make his work blow up or allow him to get the credit that he feel he deserves. As the years wear on Harvey, he does manage to get some of his work published in magazines and journals, starting with reviews of jazz records and then moving onto essays on political and historical subjects. Still, as someone outside of the academic world, it’s hard for a file clerk to make it or gain any sort of credibility. It’s this class divide that infuriates Pekar, as well as his dealings with mainstream publications who review his work such as the Village Voice.
Pekar describes this anger: “He finds it much more difficult to get his political and historical articles accepted. However, since he has no reputation as a writer in those fields, he must buck an establishment of college professors and “name” journalists, who editors favor because of their reputations.” Motherfuckers. This is better than anything they’ve printed in six months. But they turn it down because they never heard of me. Assholes, I wonder if they even read it.” Pekar knows that the mainstream media is dirty, but he also sees the class glass ceiling in it as well, and knows that his talent should rightful shatter it.
He comments after one of his articles is published in an African-American magazine: “But he makes progress. He gets some articles on African History accepted by a magazine aimed at Black readers. He’s still bitter about things in general though.” [It was easier to get this stuff published because so few people know anything about African in this country. Dumbass college History professors here mostly learn about th’ Western hemisphere and Europe. They don’t know shit outside a’ that.]”
Class tensions also are a constant theme in Harvey’s relationships. He often feels that women who find his hobbies and intellectual pursuits interesting look down on him for being a working-class guy and a file clerk. Furthermore, many of his interactions at work he finds boring and intellectually un-fulfilling. It’s a catch 20-20, that so many of us ‘readers’ and ‘thinkers’ of the working-class end up discovering while in the work force. You’ll always be the weirdo at work; that “faggot” who sits there and reads a book while the other workers shoot the shit. And, while the opposite sex might find you intelligent, they still don’t want to take you to meet their mother. It reminds me a lot of the time a guy bought me a corn dog right before we went to work at the latest construction site delivering cabinets and I told him I was vegetarian. He just gave me a look of disgust and disbelief. My current girlfriend, who comes from a solidly upper-middle class background (by Modesto standards) as well has yet to take me home to the folks. Once a family friend saw us together and told her, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” When I inquired as to what that comment meant, she replied, “Oh, you know, look how you’re dressed.”
In an exchange with one of his best friends at work, Toby, who rose to fame on MTV as a ‘genuine nerd,’ Harvey explains to him why he thinks that the characters in the film, “Revenge of the Nerds,” are nothing like him. “It’s an entertaining flick an’ I c’n see why you like it, but those people on the screen ain’t even supposed to be you! They’re college students whose parents live in big houses in the suburbs. They’re gonna get degrees, get good jobs and stop bein’ nerds. They’re not twenty-six year old file clerks who live with their grandparents in a small apartment in a ethnic ghetto. They didn’t get their computers like you did, by trading in a bunch of box tops an’ $49.50 at the supermarket.” To Pekar, class is a lived reality, but also a consciousness that informs his take on the rest of the world. It’s a way of measuring and evaluating interactions with others and it’s one that I enjoy because his perspective on class is very similar to my own.
The reader should be keen to keep in mind however, that Pekar is not an activist. He doesn’t spend his time marching or protesting. He is however, very politically engaged and very solidly political with the people he lives with in his neighborhood. In some stories we catch him discussing gentrification with an older woman and racism with others. He finds many activists to be self-centered and dishonest people, although several anarchists he meets in 1980’s Boston he describes in a positive light: “What I liked about Marty and Sal was that they had real warmth, real empathy for people. I’d known a lot of radicals and agreed with them on a lot of issues, but not all were real nice people. Some were arrogant, power-hungry, even dishonest. Some didn’t really care that much much, except in an abstract way, about the poor people that they said they were trying to help. These guys gave me a good feeling, they even looked like a radical idealists should look, like guys in a depression era play by Clifford Odets.” It would be unfair to say that Harvey dislikes ‘counter-cultural’ types – for he is one. A ‘beat’ to be exact, or perhaps just a jazz enthusiast. Towards the end of his life, Harvey wrote a book about the Beats including Ginsburg and Kerouac. We don’t really see him taking drugs, but he definitely isn’t a “square.” At the same time, his poverty stricken junk food diet often leads him into confrontation with other none four-sided objects. Remarking on a trip to Portland: “Now these people live in a commune an’ everybody in the commune is into pure food. I’m not, so it caused me a little problem at breakfast the next day.” [Say, uh, you got any cornflakes?] [Cornflakes? Are you kiddin’? We have some granola that’s about the closest thing.]”
Harvey’s condemnation of class-society extends beyond just the shop floor. After leaving jury duty in one story he explains: “That night I thought more about the so-called justice system in this county and got madder and MADDER. Rich people like Nixon and Agnew go free while some poor people get years in the slammer for committing far less serious crimes. These right-wingers bitch about all the crimes in this country. But they don’t have any idea how much some a their values have t’do with causin’ it. America is a country where competition rather than co-operation is praised, where it’s thought that society will benefit from people being set against each other.”
Just as Harvey enjoys the ‘community’ of work, he also enjoys the neighborhood he lives in. He quips: “You need a community of friends, it really helps ya keep goin’. Findin em though, that’s sump’n else.”
Women, however, are also a constant theme. Harvey is married and divorced several times, often at the end of drawn out downward spirals with his partners. Harvey’s lifestyle of constant reading and record-collecting drive mean female friends away and put strains on extended relationships. In the end, he meets and ends up marrying a woman named Joyce, an activist and a prison English teacher. She would go on to write a book about the Iran-Contra scandal and who’s ideas would deeply influence Pekar. Like Harvey, she’s a voracious reader and bookworm, and came into contact with him after writing to obtain a copy of American Splendor. Meeting Joynce would also influence Harvey into taking a stand on the David Letterman show, a TV program in which Harvey was a constant guest, usually brought on just to be made fun of. On one appearance however, Harvey wore a t-shirt in support of striking NBC workers and Letterman had him kicked off.
Pekar also has a mean streak with women, many of whom he quickly decides can’t look past his blue-collar, even though he considers himself smarter than them. After being blown off in one encounter he exclaims: “Lousy cunt. I’m ten times as smart and knowledgeable as her or any guy she ever went out with. She got a nerve brushin’ me off.” This is a theme that has seemed to follow Pekar throughout his life. In school he wrote: “…most of the students have wealtheir parents than he does. Partly because of this, he is socially backwards, afraid to ask girls out.”
Race is another them in Pekar’s writings. Harvey is not a racists and has several friends of color also himself comes from a working-class Jewish background. Being white, he “…grew up in an area full of blacks and italians where the best fighters got the most respect.” Although crime is an issue in his neighborhood, he cautions in his stories about being the victim of thieve who are black that: “There’s no point in getting self-righteous about black crime when you consider how many Europeans have slaughtered each other. Besides there’s too much variety among human beings to judge individuals on the basis of a racial or a national stereotype. It’s disgusting to see someone have an unpleasant encounter with a person and condemn an entire ethnic or racial group because of it. The guys who stuck me up dumped my wallet in a parking lot. It was found and returned to me by a black couple who seemed genuinely sorry about what happened.”
Above all, Harvey simply tries to find meaning in his life and cut through the alienation of everyday life. He realizes that his life revolves around capital: his entire routine, his off-days and time, his eating habits, where he lives, what he can afford, his transportation, etc. At the same time, Pekar does not want to be defined by this, and seeks instead to rise above the awkwardness and tension that is intrinsic within him and become widely recognized for his hard work and creativity. The problem was, not many people were buying. Despite great reviews and appearing on Letterman, sales of AP often were piss-poor, and Harvey after paying for the book to come out himself often was left with a lot of copies that simply collected dust.
For working-class readers of AP, the pages come alive not because the stories are the most thrilling or even that exciting. Some of them are extremely mundane and sometimes cheesy. But, we do see ourselves in them and are able to recognize in another person’s life that class, work, and where you live in fact do matter. They shape the kind of person we are, the quality of life that we have, and often the interests and circles that we travel in. Pekar’s thoughts and experiences are often liberating to read when day-in and day-out we are bombarded with images and stories of working-class characters that are presented as lazy, stupid, and ignorant.
Recently I watched the film, Baby Mama with my girlfriend and was extremely disgusted. In the film, a working-class couple agree to have a baby for an upper-middle class woman who is willing to pay $100,000 to an agency. In the film we are taught a couple of things: middle class people’s problems are funny because they are so trivial brought on by their wealth and privilege. Working-class people’s problems are their fault however, brought on by their stupidity and laziness. Again, this narrative only enforces the ideal that the poor are so because they are stupid and the middle class manages us because we can’t look after our selves. We’re idiots, over-sexed, and a danger to ourselves without supervision.
Perkar’s world is much different – and in many ways much more terrifying. What are we doing with our lives that are completely animated for the sake of profit-extraction? For Pekar, the search for this meaning often leads to extreme depression. (At one point in his life he contemplates buying a ticket to Miami in order to starve to death under a palm tree). How do we live our lives as we wait for the majority of our years to be sucked away by those in control over this world? How do we find meaning in the remaining hours? Perkar tried to find this meaning – often in the most mundane and everyday stories of regular people in Cleveland that he lived next to and worked with. And that is a beauty that can never be taken away or distorted.
The truth about real, genuine working-class art and literature is that it does show that our lives are shit. Things are bad. We aren’t happy. We take drugs, and drink, and sometimes hit our kids. We aren’t paid enough but try and live like we are. We are not having fun and we do not enjoy our position. Our work does not define us, it rules us. But this is not a result of our stupidity or simply the nature of things, but the result of systems of violence and class rule. Pekar’s work illustrates this wonderfully, and presents an intelligent, political proletarian as its center piece which states its case.
Pekar passed away in 2010. He will be missed.