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Thursday, May 03, 2007

THE QUITTER by Pekar&Haspiel

In case you're curious about the odd selection of some upcoming posts, I've decided to sample a bunch of the holdings in my library's "graphic novel" section, both on the chance that there's a gem I'd missed and as a way to encourage them to expand that section.

by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel

I never really got into the whole "Harvey Pekar" thing. I read the occasional thing from him back in the 1980s and 1990s, usually liking a few short bits in each book I read, most of the others not making a major impact on me, nothing really blowing me away. Saw a few of his Letterman appearances, too, but have to say I thought he came across as more an amusing crank than anything else.

I got around to seeing the 2003 AMERICAN SPLENDOR film last year, and I thought it was a pretty impressive bit of film-making, with a unique structure and some bold choices that were pulled off with considerable skill. Some of the more obvious divergences with reality kind of bugged me more than they should have (hey, I know who drew OUR CANCER YEAR, okay). And as an actor, I thought Pekar himself was probably in about third place in terms of playing a plausible "Harvey Pekar" character in the film.

Anyway, in the wake of the the film's relative success, Pekar got a couple of book deals, including for this 100-page volume from 2005 published by the fledgling graphic novel house Vertigo. I guess there was some licensing reason why it wasn't published under the AMERICAN SPLENDOR banner, but like SPLENDOR it's autobiography by Pekar. In this case a single long story drawn by Dean Haspiel, tracing his life from childhood until his early twenties, with a brief segment skimming through a few later highlights until the present day.

It's not really something that's changed my mind about Pekar, I'm sorry to say. Haspiel's art is nice and clear, doing a good job of capturing the mid-century setting of most of the story, but just didn't seem as smooth a match for Pekar as some of the old-school SPLENDOR illustrators (Crumb, Zabel/Dumm, Stack). It was just a bit too slick, I thought. As for the writing, I liked parts of it, especially the bits about his appreciation for old jazz and his record collecting (which also tended to be my favourite topics in the older SPLENDOR books I read), but a lot of it just didn't interest me. It's mostly about his problems fitting in through his whole life, from school to family to jobs, and his inability to commit to things and tendency to be a quitter (hey, that's the title of this book!). I found the narration by present-day Harvey a bit overly analytical at times, and found myself wishing he told more of the story through the dialogue and voice of young Harvey. Even that young Harvey voice I often found a bit unrealistic (I really don't think that when he picked up the mail he said "Oh, man! Another letter from Ira Gitler. Great! They're so substantive").

I was also really disappointed with the ending. Five pages from the end, after only getting up to the early 1960s and the start of his jazz writing taking off, and then he finishes the book with the abridged history of AMERICAN SPLENDOR (meeting Crumb in 1962, starting his comic in the 1970s, the movie coming out and his current life) and then just stops. It almost felt like he got close to the end and said "Man, people are gonna wanna hear about Crumb and the movie and stuff. Damn, no space to mention being on Letterman". It was really disappointing, and unfortunately seems to rob this story of having a proper resolution in favour of a "Pekar's greatest hits" selection.
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