Farewell to Cleveland

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland: written by Harvey Pekar; illustrated by Joseph Remnant (2012): Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010, was one of a handful of the finest comics writers ever produced by the United States. His essential topic was his life and its interaction with the people, places, and ideas he came into contact with. He could be hilarious (“A Good Shit is Best” perhaps being the epitomal version of Pekar’s deft hand at dialogue and the rhythms of story). But his role, in comics and in culture as a whole, often seemed to be as the champion and the chronicler of the mundane and the human.

This posthumous graphic novel, beautifully rendered by young artist Joseph Remmant (seriously, he looks like he’s all of 12 in the back-jacket photo and boy, can he draw), takes us through a brief history of Cleveland, Ohio that also touches upon Harvey’s life and times. It’s poignant because of what it is (probably Pekar’s last new work). It’s poignant because of what it shows (the rise and fall of an American city).

Remnant’s art uses a lot of photo references for the historical stretches of the narrative. Nonetheless, while exquisitely detailed, the art is also warm, with a nice sense of the cartoony when it comes to human beings. Robert Crumb was one of Pekar’s long-time collaborators, and there’s certainly some of Crumb in the approach to the human form. We’re just a couple of ticks off representational.

Pekar’s life and work were remarkable. The point of that work — of the friends and lovers and casual acquaintances and historical moments and jazz legends and everything else showcased in that work — was that the remarkable is all around people, not in some magical fantastic way, but in the various things ordinary humans say and do.

The observational moments worked organically with those in which Harvey railed against the anti-human policies of politicians and businessmen, and with those in which Pekar stood pretty much appalled at the breadth and heft and utter emptiness of popular American culture. But he could still laugh about it, and he could still reminisce fondly about the Cleveland Indians of 1948, who actually won a World Series.

Pekar’s work helped create a sub-genre of comics — the confessional auto-biographical independent comic — that was something truly new on the American comics scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’d say he looms above it like a Titan, but I think he’d find the idea insulting. He’s down on the street somewhere, looking for a jazz record, looking for a new used bookstore. Highly recommended.

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