“American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar, Master of the Mundane

“American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar  

 “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”  –  Harvey Pekar 


The “American Splendor” comics are not about superheroes.  Harvey Pekar who died last July due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs was the chronicler of the mundane and the dispirited.  The comics for which he wrote the words and for which several artists including Robert Crumb drew the pictures were sold in underground magazine shops, ‘head’ shops, etc.  They never did have very good sales, and Pekar kept his job as a file clerk in a government office up to the end of his life.   He documented his everyday life as a file clerk in Cleveland in his “American Splendor” comics.  Now Pekar’s comics have been packaged in high quality trade paperback book form, and the books are quite popular.

I have just read the first ‘American Splendor’ collection which was all written in the Seventies, the post-Hippy era.  This was an era when everything was ‘awesome’ or ‘far out’.  Most men wore their hair long, some elaborately styled but most rather ragged and shaggy.  Feminism was in full force, yet women were still called ‘hot chicks’ or ‘foxy ladies’.  This was the time of disco and the one-night stand, and the drugs were plentiful.  Pekar and the artists capture the full scruffiness of the era in these short stories.

Each of these stories which are all only a few pages long chronicles the common incidents in Harvey Pekar’s life.  Lots of the pictures are just him facing toward us explaining something about his life.  Many of the pictures are of him walking the streets of Cleveland or talking to other employees during his file clerk job. His main interest outside work was collecting jazz records and many of the stories are about that.  Sometime the pictures are just Harvey walking down the Cleveland streets thinking about how he can get some famous recording.

 Harvey Pekar was very much a depressive, and that certainly comes out in these stories.  Yet also at the same time in the stories he does meet and go out with a lot of different people.  Pekar is very observant and picks up on the way different characters talk and their small quirks, all of which go into the stories.  Some are about women he dated, and Pekar is honest enough to tell the story even if they didn’t end very successfully for him.  Honesty is the quality that comes across most clearly.  Nothing here is prettified; this is real life.

 This collection is very good in its portrayal of life in the Seventies, a time when couples were more likely to shack up than marry, and there were a lot of post-college men and women living in single apartments.  The collection ranks for me right up there with “The Ice Storm“ by Rick Moody in its description of the Seventies.  Who can forget that scene in “The Ice Storm” where during the suburban house key party, all the men throw their car keys in a hat, and all the women without looking draw out a set of keys, and each woman spends the night with the man whose keys she draws.  Ah, the Seventies.             

After reading the “Maus” series, the “Persepolis” series, Posy Simmonds’ “Tamara Drewe” and “Gemma Bovery”, and now “American Splendor”, I am running out of graphic novels to read.  I’m not interested in manga or anime, superheroes, vampires or zombies.  Just about anything else would be of interest.

I’m hoping that some of you can come up with some more graphic novel recommendations.  Thanks.

3 responses to this post.

  1. I love American Splendor. In our household we read some of Pekar’s later comics as they came out, after discovering that first collection. They’re Dreiser mixed with, well, a working-class Philip Roth and a depressive Jonathan Lethem? Something like that.

    There are so many of these I haven’t read. I’ll have to look for them again.


  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Not sure who Harvey Pekar most resembles in his writing style. I suppose the school of urban naturalism starting with Zola, then Dreiser might fit for Pekar. I haven’t read any Lethem, probably should. I also haven’t read any of Pekar’s later work.


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