Typically when one hears the words “autobiographical comic”, one of two things comes to mind. One is crudely-drawn images, paired with pretentious, pseudo-intellectual dialogue, presented on a second-hand website by an undergraduate student who is attempting to become the next big thing in web comics. The other is self-congratulatory screeds by ancient masters of the genre, who haven’t done any original work worth noting in years. Truly, the genre is generally the work of has-beens and wannabes.
There is one glowing exception to this truism, however. There is one man who has managed, if not to make a living writing true-to-life autobiographical works, at least managed to gain some level of fame and respect doing it. This man is Harvey Pekar and for over thirty years his American Splendor series has made him a beloved figure among the underground comics community. Recently, Vertigo Comics began publishing Pekar’s original work and just as recently, my library was able to pick up a copy of Pekar’s autobiographical comic The Quitter
The Quitter is unique among Pekar’s work in that rather than discussing his day-to-day life, this work goes back to explore his past - the thirty some-odd years before he started writing comics, to be precise.
This is a brisk change of pace from your usual biographical comic, which usually devotes only a small amount of time to the formative years of the writer and then spends the lion’s share of time discussing how they found out about comics, how they created this character or where they got the inspiration for this, that and the other.
Only one brief page discusses Pekar’s comic collection as a boy, which is but one of many hobbies he has. And only the last few pages discuss Pekar’s friendship with the infamous underground artist Robert Crumb (Fun Fact: despite a love of comics, the two became friends because of a mutual interest in jazz), how Pekar became a reviewer of jazz music to a writer of comics and how he had a movie based on his work and is still worried about paying the bills despite now getting big offers from Vertigo Comics.
So what is The Quitter about?
A boy with a good memory who sees no reason to study when he can memorize the material so easily.
A teen who begins to develop major neuroses thanks to an emotionally absent father and a domineering mother, who chides him for getting one B when he could have gotten all A’s.
A young man who is such a perfectionist, he gives up on everything in his life rather than settle for being second-best, figuring that good enough is not good enough.
Pekar’s story goes through his early years, telling of how he quit playing sports when he couldn’t be a starter on the varsity team. How he decided to become a great street fighter, until he realized just how limited the career possibilities are for someone whose only skill is picking fights with people who rarely deserve it. How he left the Navy after a matter of weeks in shell-shock because despite his perfect memory, he couldn’t keep up with how his clothes were supposed to go into his kit bag or how he was supposed to do his own laundry. And ultimately, how despite a desire to succeed at something… anything… he settled into a life of dull routine while grasping at what few straws of glory he could manage.
All of this is lovingly illustrated by Dean Haspiel with Lee Loughridge in a style that captures the quiet despair of Pekar’s early life in the decaying neighborhoods of Cleveland. With everything colored in shades of grey and pure black and white used sparingly, the piece maintains the look of a 50’s sitcom even during the more action-packed or disturbing moments.
The whole book has wonderful art but the moment that I think best defines the piece lies in a section where Pekar describes the misery inherit in working in his parent’s mom-and-pop grocery store – a shop which nobody goes to except for older patrons who prefer a simpler storefront business or people in a hurry who just need one or two items. Pekar vividly describes how much of the job was standing around, waiting for something to happen and dealing with people he feared would turn to dust as the entire world moves around him.
In that moment, thanks to Haspiel and Loughridge’s art, everything clicks as it should in a fine comic as art and story fuse into a glorious whole. The grey tones perfectly capture the aura of decay in young Harvey’s landscape as well as the despair which is just gaining a finger-hold in his soul.
Despite this gloomy tone, The Quitter is a remarkably hopeful work. It shows a man who ironically found his calling by giving up everything and made something of himself by following his heart’s desire and eventually lucking into success of a sort. If you’ve never read a Harvey Pekar book before, this is a great one to start with