Up until now I’d only read short works by Harvey Pekar, a form that is suited to his style though lacks the ability to do any real in depth character work. In The Quitter, he pairs with artist Dean Haspiel to create a moving and effective coming of age story. In a sense the book works more like a novel, even though it is nonfiction, for the arc of the story is in a very real sense the origin story of Pekar’s American Splendor persona.
Since he covered about the entire time he worked for the federal government in American Splendor, Pekar begins this tale during his boyhood and takes us through to his hiring at the infamous job shown in his previous work. His parents were Polish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s, buying a small corner grocery and struggling to make ends meet. Harvey was born in America, and the culture divide between he and his parents is a constant source of problems. Harvey doesn’t get along with most of the kids in his mostly black neighborhood, frequently fighting. Yet his mother, a Communist sympathizer, tells him that blacks and Jews needed to get along to succeed, an interesting fact that makes his later intellectual development fairly interesting.
Harvey was a perfectionist who, if he considered his own efforts even slightly flawed, simply quit rather than let himself finish in second place. Haspiel presents Harvey's dilemmas in powerful split-screen shots, rendering Pekar's world in shades of black and grey. Unable to pass a math class, Pekar drops it. Not given a fair shake to play on the football team, he leaves that behind as well. He forgoes college because of his fear of math, then when attending later drops out when he gets a C on a geography test. Rather than buckling down and tackling his opposition, Pekar instead quits, carrying the shame of being less than a success with him forever. Anyone familiar with the angry tone in some of his earlier work can see where his personality really develops here.
But eventually Harvey discovers jazz, creating relationships with other fans and eventually writing reviews for magazines. He then becomes enamored with the comics of R. Crumb, and started writing his own, which of course continues to this day. In a sense, Harvey has found something he enjoys enough not to give up on. Hard work though it may be, it seems to have been tolerable because he was doing it as something he liked rather than trying to make a buck.
There is an emotional resonance in the book with which I identify greatly. Harvey felt like he was a smart but misunderstood young man who never was able to impress those who could have helped him out. In my eyes, he never had someone really encourage him and help him believe in himself. Haven’t we all felt that we could be more than we are now if someone had just given us a little boost when we were young?
The conclusion feels as though The Quitter will likely be Pekar’s last autobiographical work, but one wonders that if he was able to leave his childhood untapped for so long, couldn’t there be more than he is holding in reserve? I certainly hope so. His work has been instrumental in beginning to break comics away from the superhero dominance that has stifled the medium for so long.