I sometimes get asked what my “favourite comic of all time” is. All of us who reflect on creative works, whether that be music, film, TV, theatre, literature or any other kind of art, have all heard that question. It’s, of course, an impossible question to answer with any absolute accuracy. My “favourite movie” or “favourite song” changes every day, or at least every week. But my list of favourite comics of all time stays remarkably consistent.
And while it might not be the greatest or most important comic ever written, my favourite comic is The Quitter.
I’m sure that strikes a lot of folks as an odd choice. By 2005, when he wrote this comic, Harvey Pekar had been retired from his day job for a few years, the American Splendor film had been and gone, the glory years of reinventing comics and promoting them on David Letterman were over and Pekar’s health problems seemed to be in the rear view mirror. He was in that “window of good health between the time I retire and the time I croak,” in his words. And “croak” he would, tragically, just five years later.
For someone who turned his whole life into a comic book, day by day, Pekar alluded to many of the stories told in The Quitter without ever really landing on them with any specificity. Yet in his later years, his brilliant, observant mind seemed to turn more and more often towards his childhood, his parents and the choices in life that brought him to this point. For example, he rarely discussed his Jewish heritage in his classic American Splendor comics, although that cultural identity certainly came out in a million little ways in the stories he told and the way he told them. And while he discussed his hometown of Cleveland many times, it wasn’t until very late in his life that he devoted an entire book to it (the superb Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland). He also wrote a major book about Israel (Not the Israel My Parents Promised), waded into specific politics with Macedonia and finally put down on paper the formative years of his life in The Quitter.
Firstly I love the title. So many people, when approaching old age, romanticize both their childhoods and themselves, making themselves out to be more than what they were and exaggerating their responses to their challenges. Not Pekar. He never considered himself anyone’s role model and probably didn’t want to be considered as such. The Quitter is full of self-doubt, anxiety; “fear and self-loathing” to coin a phrase.
And then there’s the artistic style, by Dean Haspiel. “Dino”’s black and white style is cartoonish, but his clean lines and expressive faces make him an ideal foil for Pekar’s ideas. There’s none of Robert Crumb’s stylistic extremity here, just an uncanny knack for finding the dynamic drama in every scene. This is comic book art, for sure, and makes little to no attempt at overt realism, but that just creates a satisfying amount of artistic distance from the material, which is so intimate and personal that to render it out with photographic accuracy might make it too grim. Haspiel’s work is certainly never that, but instead maintains a light touch, giving Pekar’s words and storytelling a chance to breathe.
Pekar talks openly about his parents, but instead of idealizing or mythologizing them, he reflects on his effort to understand them and to see their point of view. He also admits their shortcomings freely, with one of his main themes being that they, as immigrants, never really understood life in America, with its racial tensions and different sense of possibility than in old Europe. He discusses his mother’s communism, and his father’s devout Judaism and we can sense his ambivalence towards both traditions.
Later, he discusses his tough days as a street fighter and football player, something that may come as a surprise to those who have an image of Harvey as a willowy, hunched-over bookworm. A spread of photos at the end confirm that in his younger years, Pekar was a formidable physical presence.
As in his usual tradition, the “real” Pekar sometimes appears in the middle of a story to comment and reflect on it from his desk in 2005. One particular panel that resonates with me is when he looks back on how his Mother expected perfection from him, chastising him for getting easy A’s in school when he brought home a single B. For any other student, that would be a great showing, but Mrs. Pekar calls him out on what she perceived as laziness. The middle-aged Pekar of 2005 interrupts and tells it like it is, in plain language: “It’s bad to be like that…. even today I can’t be cool about it. And there are lots of people like me.” (I can personally confirm that there’s at least one other.)
Pekar’s relentless honesty about himself and his shortcomings, about his almost infinite capacity for screwing things up, about his terribly low self-esteem and need to be praised for his work is inspiring to those of us who struggle with those kinds of issues in our own lives. In fact, one of the reasons why Pekar remains a much-loved figure in comics to this day might be because he reflects his audience so well. When he engaged in intellectual discussion he could be relentless and as formidable as any scholar. But in The Quitter we come close to understanding the real Harvey Pekar. A confused guy acutely aware of his own failings who nevertheless managed to find his way in the world.
As as sometimes-teacher, I’m often placed in a position where young people ask me for life advice. Next time, I’m going to hand them a copy of The Quitter and say that the best laid career plans often evaporate before your eyes, but if you’re true to yourself and keep trying, maybe quitting isn’t so bad. Maybe that’s as good as any of us can hope to do. Harvey Pekar did all right, didn’t he?
So, in the end, I love The Quitter because it has the courage to tell an honest story (which is not the same as a “true” story). Because of that courage and honesty, it’s great art.