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Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore contributed a story to Joyce Brabner’s Real War Stories project. Brabner got into comics, as she tells it, by appearing in one—specifically Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor.
Only the gutter margins where the strata peeled back into sunburn tatters gave away the lawyers of human time compressed below, ring markings on the long-felled cement tree-stump of the Boroughs. – Alan Moore, Jerusalem
American Splendor gradually evolved from the meandering anecdotal form into more long form and piercing accounts of Pekar and his life. Many of the stories were simply several page accounts of conversations Pekar had with various people in Cleveland, while others offered more piercing accounts of Pekar, his anxiety, stubbornness, and sense of himself. A story in American Splendor #3 entitled “Awakening to the Terror of a New Day,” for instance, starts with Pekar on the phone with his ex-wife, trying to get back together, only to be rebuffed, at which point he loses his temper at her and is castigated for it, concluding that “I shouldna lost my temper. That’s one reason chicks don’t dig me. They’re scared a’ me.” He lays down in bed, wakes up anxious, masturbates, and is left feeling hollow and empty inside. He takes a bath, reflecting on his job, and how he doesn’t want to get out of the tub. “Sometimes I wish I could freak out,” he thinks, “have a nervous breakdown, anything to get away from the same routine.” Instead he rises from the tub, gets dressed, grouching about how his clothes are tattered but how he doesn’t want to spend money on new ones because “what could be more ridiculous than fat slobs spendin’ a lot a’ money on clothes. They’re gonna look lousy anyway.” He has breakfast, leaves for work, and decides on the walk that he should take the civic service exam and look for a government job. The comic ends with him sitting at the bus stop, resolving that “I gotta take the days one at a time… make a plan an’ try t’ follow it out. I might be able t’ make it if I get my ass in gear. I’ll check out the gover’mint gig scene an’ think over where I stand with th’ chicks I know. Mybe I’m overlooking someone. T’day’s Thursday. Tomorra’s Firday. Saturday I c’n sleep late.” A final caption notes that “Man looks wherever he can for hope,” and the strip ends. It’s elliptical, willfully unsatisfying, but more than anything is simply a poignant reflection on working class life in Cleveland in the 1970s.
Pekar’s work drew a number of admirers, although the comic remained a niche operation that ran at a steady but sustainable loss. Among them was Alan Moore, who, always a keen fan of the underground scene, was aware of Pekar from early on, discussing the comic briefly in one of his fanzine reviews for The Daredevils in 1983, and drawing the obvious comparison between Pekar and Eddie Campbell in his 1985 Writing For Comics. Penning an introduction to Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland in 2012, Moore described him as “one of the very finest writers ever to grace the comic medium,” praising his perceptiveness and ability to paint a portrait of Cleveland. Moore even contributed art to a one-page story in American Splendor #15, meticulously stippling his way through five panels of Harvey Pekar listening to a man named Bob Wachsman Tummler telling a corny joke.
It’s not hard to see what about Pekar drew Moore to him. As Moore himself noted, Pekar was “a resolutely blue collar artist, and one of only working class voices that I’d come across in comics with a level of political commitment, especially a left-wing one.” More to the point, Pekar, like Moore, was a writer who was intensely rooted in a sense of place: he lived his whole life in Cleveland, and consistently stuck to his observational descriptions of the place. This had obvious influence on Moore, who in 1987 was on the verge of forsaking international travel in favor of hunkering down in Northampton and focusing on crafting, as he described Pekar’s work, “a eulogy for a lost city and, increasingly, for a lost social class.”
Moore also, however, found much to admire in Pekar’s gobsmackingly stubborn streak. This was depicted in numerous American Splendor strips, where he consistently depicted himself as an ornery, cranky, and generally hard to deal with guy. As Crumb described it, “he had a difficult personality. He was so intense; just coming out of his skin with burning intensity all the time, which could be exhausting.” But this stubborn streak was often focused on creative integrity and artistic freedom. A story in American Splendor #12, for instance, focused heavily on Pekar’s anxieties over a local paper wanting to do a review of the Doubleday-published American Splendor anthology, with a lot of focus on exactly how his work might be perceived and treated. Part of this, surely, is anxiety—another routine element of Pekar’s self mythology. But it’s telling that the anxiety is so thoroughly focused on the question of how his art is perceived. More broadly, Pekar was distinctive for the fact that, even after his comics career took off, he never gave up his job as a file clerk, maintaining his resolutely working class existence until he retired a few years before his death.
Perhaps the most infamous moment of Pekar’s stubbornness, however—one that Moore enthusiastically mythologized—was his series of appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and its successor show The Late Show with David Letterman. Pekar was an astonishingly combative guest, coming out and immediately objecting to Letterman’s characterization of him as “curious,” leading Letterman to jokingly tell him to settle down. Pekar proceeds to bristle when Letterman suggests that he could quit his day job and make it as a writer, saying that “people are after you to write other things,” objecting that Letterman could not possibly know this and angrily declaring that he’s “no showbiz phony.” In the course of a thirteen minute segment he goes on to insult Letterman’s appearance and fake hair (“Have you thought about a decaffeinated coffee?” quips Letterman), badgers him about whether he likes being a celebrity, tells the audience to shut up when they boo him for saying he doesn’t like the show, insults Letterman’s questions, and complains about how little he’s being paid to appear.
Pekar, it should be noted, went into this prepared—he depicted the interview in the next issue of American Splendor, along with his own reasoning that Letterman was “light weight shit” who only cared about getting laughs, dismissing his reputation as a put down artist, noting that “He’s just in there with dummies, ‘at’s why he looks good. I musta rapped with dozens a’ faster guys in delicatessens,” and concluding that “he’s middle class, polite, he don’t talk fast. I’ll overwhelm ‘im—even if ‘e gets off a good one I’ll hit ‘im quick with two or three shots—won’t give the audience a chance to react to ‘im. Street fighting tactics.” And Letterman was sufficiently impressed to make a semi-regular thing of inviting Pekar, who continued to berate his way through appearances, including stunts like showing up in a t-shirt supporting the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Electricians against NBC, the network on which he was appearing and then proceeding to sharply criticize General Electric, NBC’s owners, for selling defective nuclear reactors in Ohio, leading Letterman to abruptly cut to commercial. This culminated in a 1988 appearance in which Pekar, who was especially prickly after Letterman introduced him as leading a life of “whining desperation,” absolutely laid into the host, referring back to his criticism of General Electric the year before and asking “why you defended GE. I thought that was really dumb because it made you look like a shill for GE,” leading Letterman to denounce Pekar as coming on his show “to promote your little Mickey Mouse magazine here, your little newsletter, your little clubhouse, fun and games, rainy-day fun for boys and girls, weekly reader deal here, and you’ve blown every chance you’ve had,” informing him that this would be his last appearance on the show and calling him a dork while Pekar, bleeped out, told Letterman he was full of shit. (In fact Pekar made two more appearances on Letterman’s show, albeit after a five year gap.) Moore, clearly delighted by all of this, described it as “a spectacular meltdown.”
The reason Pekar was on Letterman’s show in the first place was ultimately the work of Joyce Brabner. Brabner had been a reader of American Splendor, but had failed to acquire a copy of the sixth issue, leading her to write directly to Pekar to try to acquire it. This prompted a correspondance, then a series of phone calls, and in 1984 she flew out to Cleveland to meet him. A day after her arrival, they decided to get married, a series of events Pekar, with Brabner, recounted in American Splendor #10. Brabner quickly took over the publicity for the comic, which she found she had a talent for. Her signature innovation came when she “started cutting up his old clothes and making little Harvey Pekar dolles; just like the Shroud of Turin, they were made with clothing actually worn by the author, like some holy relic,” crediting these with finally getting the comic to turn any degree of profit.
Brabner was Pekar’s third wife (and him her second husband), but the third time proved the charm. As Brabner tells it, she “really trusted his honesty from the start—the kind of honesty I find in reading his work,” and noted in an autobiographical comic they did together that after their previous failed marriages, “even when we drive each other nuts, we work on getting along.” (R. Crumb, meanwhile, suggests that Pekar’s first marriages failed because “He was too difficult. Then he married his third wife who is a rather difficult woman herself.”) They stayed together for more than twenty-five years until Pekar died of an accidental overdose in 2010, at which point Brabner took up the role of guarding and managing his estate, including getting a memorial constructed at his local library—a bronze statue (which Brabner dropped her wedding ring into the melting pot for) in front of a fiberglass recreation of one of his comics pages, positioned on a desk stocked with supplies so that passers by can create their own comics. To construct the statue Brabner turned to Kickstarter, tapping her old friend Alan Moore to provide a reward (and publicity boost) in the form of an online Q&A session at which Moore made his first substantial comments on Grant Morrison.
Brabner’s own comic career began with Real War Stories, a job she essentially got by sheer passion and enthusiasm after someone woking with the CCCO came by to talk to Pekar about the mechanics of creating a comic. From this she began a career making comics in a journalist/activist vein, often working, s she described it, “outside the world of comic book publishing. I continue to work with grant money. By and large, unless I bring in outside funding, comic book publishers don’t want to touch me.” One of these projects came in 1987, when Real War Stories #1 crossed the desk of people at the Christic Institute, who felt that Brabner could help them in communicating a different real-world story.
The Christic Institute was a law firm co-founded and largely fronted by Daniel Sheehan, along with his wife Sara Nelson and a Jesuit priest named William Davis. Its name derived from the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who postulated the existence of a “Christic Force” underlying the world, and the group’s legal work was explicitly activist in conception. The organization emerged out of Sheehan’s work on the Karen Silkwood case. Silkwood had been an employee at a Kerr-McGee facility, where she was active in the union and raised numerous health and safety complaints. In November of 1974, she became contaminated with plutonium. After attending a union meeting and going home with a packet of documents supporting her claim to have been contaminated at the plant—a claim she intended to go public with—she died in a car accident. The papers were not found in her car, and there was evidence that her car had been struck from behind, pushing it off the road. [Continued]