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Harvey Pekar

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Right now might be the golden age of Cleveland’s poet laureate.  Pekar, who became famous for his Everyman comic American Splendor while working as a hospital clerk, retired from his day job in 2003 (as seen in the movie about his life), and has since upped his output significantly.  Since 2004 Pekar has published 8 original books, 3 of which are collections of American Splendor, which he continues to write.  Also on this list are 2 biographies, 1 autobiography, and 2 collaborative histories, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, and the recently released The Beats, which tells the (loosely fictionalized) story of Jack Kerouac and his (mostly true) Beatnik compatriots.

The Beats is getting mixed reviews.  While I haven’t read it yet, the complaints I’ve read online (too many liberties with the source text, trudging narration at times) sound familiar.  Last summer I read Students for a Democratic Society, and while much of the book was exciting and rich in content, the latter part of the book, the personal histories, dragged a bit and lacked direction.

Still, it seems a safe bet that The Beats will be worth checking out.  First of all, this is Pekar, an unmatched voice of plainspoken dissent- if anyone should spearhead a discussion on the group that kick started American Counterculture, it’s him.  But more importantly, the rise of “Graphic Histories” over the past few years has been a great boon to sequential art.  Outside of Pekar’s own historical works, there have been solidly and successful graphic versions of The 9/11 Report and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire (in which he is drawn like Sam Watterson) to name just a few.  There have also been excellent original graphic histories like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel and Rick Geary’s ongoing Victorian murder series.  Comics as a form lends itself well to history: associating an image with a date or name helps the information stick in the mind, and symbiotic quality of comics offers new ways for the historian to streamline the story he wishes to convey- instead of writing three sentences describing rural life in the 1800s, the same information can be conveyed in a single panel as text block, word balloon, and drawing.

It’s fitting that Pekar, the champion of underground comics in the 70s and 80s, would now be at the vanguard of the graphic history movement.  To quote the man himself, “He’s a real piece of work.”

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Written by Peter Kelly

March 24, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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