By Harvey Pekar
Published November 2005
Date reviewed: November 4, 2005
Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal
He may not be a superhero, but in the field of independent comics Harvey Pekar is as much of an icon as Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. For close to 30 years Pekar’s chronicled life’s ups and downs in the autobiographical comic “American Splendor,” picking up on the odd behaviors of everyone around him and bemoaning everyday problems like car trouble.
Now, with the release of the graphic novel “The Quitter,” Pekar finally answers the question of what made him the comic hero he is today by chronicling his youth on the streets of Cleveland. Illustrated by “American Splendor” contributor Dean Haspiel, “The Quitter” proves it’s a strange trip to being a file clerk/comic book writer and there’s always something new to pick up on along the way.
As the title indicates, Pekar’s youth was filled with quitting – leaving the football team when he wasn’t made a starter, dropping out of college after a C+ on a geography test and leaving a mailman job over a crippling fear that he couldn’t tie a bundle of mail right. His self-doubt also pushes him back in life, with an inability to wash clothes leading to a massive panic attack and a discharge from the Navy.
Pekar heaps a bit of blame on himself as an “incorrigible screw-up,” but what is really clear in this book is outside origins of his problems. The fact that it’s a graphic novel as opposed to “American Splendor’s” loose stories means Pekar creates a strong sense of narration, pointing out how his intensely insecure mother and failure to handle mechanical tasks create his obstacles for years.
The narrative also makes the revelation that Pekar, who made his physical trials with chemotherapy and hip replacement a key point of “American Splendor,” was actually a feared street fighter in his youth. After watching Pekar get beat down by daily life for so long it’s comforting to see him take the advantage, and the moment where he takes his fighting a step too far is one of the most gripping panels in the whole book.
And there is a fair share of gripping panels, as Haspiel’s style of solid lines and shades of gray gives “The Quitter” a film noir atmosphere with plenty of shadows to hide doubt and self-loathing. Out of all the “American Splendor” artists Haspiel’s art is some of the cleanest and most flattering to Pekar, and is perfect for capturing Pekar’s bipolar youth – sardonic in one panel and sullen in the next.
But “The Quitter” isn’t solely about Pekar’s shifting moods and giving in to adversity. His lifelong love of jazz shines through in the book, and it’s clear as he recalls his record collecting and musical analysis he’s still just as interested in them 45 years later. What makes this interest so impressive in “The Quitter” is seeing that he had just as much reason to abandon it – critique from employers and disapproval from his parents – but he continued to write reviews, proving even a quitter can stay with something.
Concise and vivid, “The Quitter” is a worthy addition to Pekar’s canon, perfect for anyone who’s read an “American Splendor” comic or seen the film adaptation and wants to find out what shaped this working class hero. There may not be a happy ending to the story but the book still ends with a semi-uplifting message: no matter how bad things get, there’s always something down the road you may not screw up on.