I managed to get the last copy of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland at Bergen St. Comics about a week ago, just before seeing A Cabin in the Woods. I’ve been waiting for this book for two years. Like quite a bit of Pekar’s work, this is focused on Cleveland (really they’ve all been in some way or another “about Cleveland”), but this is really more a history book of his hometown. It is totally appropriate that his writing career would end on this note. Funny how that happens when a writer’s life ends, their last piece of work is on something that you couldn’t imagine being more appropriate. As if they knew.
He boils it down simply, as usual. There’s nothing flashy happening in this book at all, the life of the city and how it relates to Harvey is the action. One panel, one narrative caption or piece of dialogue, pages are either five or six panels so it’s a thick read. Pekar is the king of, as my Mother says, “Keep[ing] it simple, Stupid.” He doesn’t try anything overtly flashy, he’s just straight forward and tells you how it is. Pekar is the definition of that latter statement.
Joseph Remnant’s detailed art is amazing, he portrays Pekar and Cleveland’s life as it appears from amazing historical depictions on the founding of the city, and the faces of the people in the city. No one in this comic looks like someone you might recognize, and now I understand why it took so long for it to come out. Remnant took the time to make Pekar’s last work, the root of it in the city and its people, and make the populace look completely unique. You may not read a graphic novel this year that has such distinct faces. I think this is accentuated because the art is black and white. Everyone has a particular look and the attention is amazing. Right down to the cuts between younger Pekar, his face and the modern Harvey are so perfectly portrayed. You can see the wild-eyed excitement in both of their eyes even though they’re in two different periods. The hairlines, the wrinkles, the slouch, etc. From Harvey in the sixties to Harvey in 2009. One chapter of his life to the current one, narrating the story, we can pull out Harvey in the crowd. It would be stating the obvious that this is a love letter to a city, a cartographic piece, but that, on the surface, is the first motive in non-fiction, usually though, in very good non-fiction, it ends up going deeper.
The heart-wrenching moment is really the end, of course, because it seemed like there was still more Pekar wanted to say, his last line is so bittersweet, but it just stops abruptly and he walks off the page, and the city goes on for another page without him. He exits the stage. But that’s how it goes doesn’t it? There is more to say but you don’t get to say it anymore, do you? You just stop. Your home goes on without you, even though you helped define it for a moment. And it seems like that was intentional, per an article my friend Rick Marshall did. Pekar, as in life, portrays the end in a way I imagine it must be like.
There are many questions the book asks, the answers I have absolutely no hope in solving. How much does a city define a writer, or vice versa? Does the writer leave any mark? Does he or she change a city? I choose to think they help to define a city’s period, but that is just a surface-level detail. That’s my shortcoming, I can’t dive very deep. I’m always just on the surface. These are universal questions that occur when it comes to writing non-fiction, especially the pioneering mission Pekar has been on since the early seventies. Inevitably who you are as a creator comes out of where you’re from, and that seems to be something that Pekar has been trying to answer his entire career.
Thanks for this, Mr. Pekar and Mr. Remnant, see you on the other side.