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Splendid Americans

By Charles EP Murphy

Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar in 1985. Picture from Hallwalls' archive.and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

As we’ve seen, the fate of comics – who makes them, what shape they take, where they sell – is subject to random chance and being in the right place at the right time. Entire careers and franchises and distribution markets can be altered.

It can also have a far greater impact: on the personal lives of the people making them.

Fanfare for the Ordinary Man

Harvey Pekar (1939 – 2010) was a working-class Jewish file clerk from Cleveland, with a big interest in jazz and literary novels, and a lesser interest in comics. By a quirk of fate, he met underground comics legend Robert Crumb years before Crumb became famous, through their mutual love of collecting jazz records. Pekar became interested in underground comics and the possibility of the medium – “you c’n do anything with words and pictures”, as he wrote himself thinking in “The Young Crumb Story” – and by another quirk of fate, Crumb visiting with artist Bob Armstrong gave him the nudge to try creating his own. As he knew some artists with ‘names’, he was able to get them drawn and published.

It was after four years of small underground strips that he decided to create his magnum opus, American Splendor: an autobiographical comic series about his daily life in Cleveland. With a revolving array of artists, he would depict his time at work, his co-workers, collecting records, medical issues, being mugged, and his bemusement on discovering other Harvey Pekars in the phonebook. He would go on to work on several graphic novels, one, Our Cancer Year, about his first of three battles with the disease. While sales never spectacular and his early work lost him money, he was praised by literary critics and other comic creators, and the genre of English-language autobiographical comics can be traced directly to him.

“The Young Crumb Story” in American Splendor #4 shows Pekar saying “Just imagine, if I’d never met Crumb I’d a’ never gotten inta writing comics. That just goes t’show ya” before getting increasingly nervous about the whims of fate, wondering about “all th’ people I didn’t meet” who might have gotten him into something else. Then he ends the conversation abruptly and leaves, the subject too heavy for him.

In 2003, his comics and life story were adapted into a critically acclaimed film (with several appearances by him in interviews), leading to more work including a comic called Our Movie Year. Some would romanticise this and be excited, but not Pekar. In the very first page of Our Movie Year, he tells us: “I’m not all excited or worked up about it [the movie]”, and on the second claims he had tried several times to “get people to base flics on my comics so I could earn extra money in my old age. You approve of that, don’t you?” Throughout the collection, he frets the money and work it generated won’t last.

When discussing his death for the New York Times, artist Joseph Remnant said: “There was always this dichotomy with Pekar. He had his sophisticated, avant-garde writing gig, and the next day he had to go to work in this hospital.”

As well as all that, and likely more significantly for him, he’d met his third wife – and frequent collaborator – through comics.

Joyce Brabner was an artist, a volunteer for art programs for prisons, and a comic shop co-owner when she got into American Splendor. When one of the last copies was sold before she could read it, she wrote to Pekar asking if he could send her a new one – sparking off months of correspondence before she went down to Cleveland to meet him in 1983. On the first day, she got intense food poisoning and was confined to the bathroom.

At the end of the weekend, they’d got engaged. (In their 1985 strip “A Marriage Album”, an abridged retelling, Pekar refers to getting married the third time as “another Harvey Pekar crap shoot”, with Val Mayerik’s art showing him intensely rolling the dice.)

After his death, Brabner became the caretaker of his legacy and had a memorial placed at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library – a collection of Pekar’s writing tools, a desk, and a statue of the man emerging from a comic page – in the hope of inspiring other writers, and included paper and tools for people to draw their own comics.

(In what the library owner called an act of “cosmic balance”, this was unveiled the same week as a Superman statue, commemorating Schuster and Siegel, was unveiled at the local airport . Ironically, when Kickstarting the funds for the memorial, Brabner had said she couldn’t believe a newspaper was asking if the city would build a Pekar statue as “this city has never been able to raise enough money to build a statue of Superman” )

So, what happens if Pekar doesn’t create American Splendor in the exact way and at the exact time as OTL, or never becomes a comic writer at all, and the two never meet?

“That just goes t’show ya…”

Assuming he still writes comics, then in terms of Pekar’s career, Brabner’s absence would be huge. She became responsible for handling finances, arranging travel itineraries, and publicising the comics – publicity which ranged from making cheap dolls out of his clothes to sell at conventions to helping organise his trips to appear on TV. Bookstore owner Suzanne DeGaeteno noted to the Cleveland Magazine, “Harvey was able to do things he would never have been able to do himself."

Brabner is also responsible for the film happening. Pekar had been aware that producer Ted Hope was interested in an adaptation but, as Brabner told the Independent in 2004: “He figures it'll never work out, so he doesn't bother to call. I find this out a couple of months - or maybe even a year later - so I call this guy up directly and we had a deal in five minutes.” The film brought Pekar and his work to a larger audience and would lead to new miniseries and graphic novels through larger publishers, achieving the income he was desperate to get in his old age.

Without her, then, there are far less Pekar comics in the world and those that exist are harder to get unless you know the right comic shops. They likely wouldn’t still be in print today. There definitely wouldn’t be a memorial to him, as he would most likely be a fringe ‘hipster’ creator for most and not a relatively well known Cleveland literary figure.

On her own, she has written & co-written political comics like Real War Stories, CIA expose Brought to Light, Second Avenue Caper about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and The Courage Party, intended as an all-ages explainer about sexual assault. All of this is down to being married to Harvey Pekar, and it started when artist Lou Ann Merkle had visited Pekar for advice on producing what would become Real War. Brabner told her the plans were “totally wrong and I’ll tell you why and I’ll help you”, and was backed up by Pekar as someone who knew what she was doing, and went on to arrange for various big-name comic creators to be involved – ones she knew via her husband’s work.

That’s the career impact.

In their personal lives, the two were married for almost thirty years. In the film, there’s a comedic beat of their marriage being depicted with a montage of panels of Brabner looking annoyed while the real Joyce tells the filmmakers “Harvey tends to push the negative or the sour”. “I’m a gloomy guy,” he says later in that interview.

This wasn’t a quirk – he had severe depression, which would become extremely crippling in the early 2000s and required frequent stays in the hospital. During this period and for years after, Brabner was a full-time carer – and with a few close friends, covered up how bad it was for fear he would be taken advantage of – so he could continue to work. Before this, she’d kept him going through his severe first battle with cancer, and she did the same with his two subsequent bouts. The exact state of his health wouldn’t be known to the public until years after his death.

This support didn’t just keep him able to work, it kept him alive at all.

And in 1998, a homeless musician showed up at Pekar’s house with his eight-year-old daughter. The girl, Danielle Batone, reached out to Brabner for help while the men were talking, and this led to Pekar & Brabner becoming her legal guardians.

If Harvey Pekar hadn’t started creating comics or if a single butterfly had altered his career, he wouldn’t have ever come into contact with Joyce Brabner – the circumstances are too precise and tied to a specific work’s specific release date and the actions of a comic shop co-owner in Delaware. If he hadn’t met her, he may have remarried and divorced before 1990, or possibly have never remarried, and been without the necessary emotional and logistical support to make it through his first cancer attack. Neither of them would have fostered Danielle. All three would have had a harder, colder life.

All of that was averted because he got into comics and decided to make his own.


Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.


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