Robert Crumb’s Best Art Was Some of His Most Subtle

The partnership between Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb was one of the more curious, and one of the most artistically satisfying in all of comics. Friends for years before even considering making comics together, these two strange, insular, intellectual and intense artists would spend long hours together uttering monosyllabic grunts, listening to old jazz (which was their first common interest) and ultimately producing some of the most daring work to date in our favourite medium.

One of their first and most important collaborations was for the second issue of American Splendor, published in 1977. Pekar was still finding his way as a storyteller, and still trying to determine, for example, how much explicit content was wise for him to include in his groundbreaking comic. But Crumb was right there for him, right from the very beginning. Their workflow was very much an “I wash, you dry” arrangement in which Pekar would write synopses, or sometimes scripts, and illustrate them with crude stick figures. Crumb would render out the stick figures, adding little touches that brought Pekar’s unique combination of intellectual rigour and street tough talk to life. The story in question here, as an example of great comics art, is “The Harvey Pekar Name Story”.

At first glance, this seems like the opposite of what the general public would expect from a comic book. We all know the popular (mis)conception of our favourite medium: that it’s completely superhero-based, colourful, filled with life and energy and movement to appeal to the children who make up the bulk of the readership. Pekar’s work, by that measure, was often resolutely anti-comic, deliberately presenting stories that were the opposite of what was expected from the medium. It should be noted that Crumb and other famous “comix” artists really did produce work that was full of life and energy, and often very effectively satirized the prevailing comics genres, sometimes even topping them for sheer energy. But Pekar brought something else out in the artists with whom he worked.

Crumb’s work for Pekar isn’t much like his work for his own comics. Gone are the exaggerated female figures (for the most part) and some of the other more sexually grotesque imagery. Instead, we can see Crumb very much in the service of Pekar, particularly in the “Name Story”

Presented in four, 12-panel pages, each panel of this monologue about finding someone with the same name in the phone book contains a single, suited figure, speaking directly to the audience through the “fourth wall”. The “grid” setup of the page is relentlessly artificial, allowing Pekar to break his words up among the frames, something that could be an issue for him in other stories where his words crowded his frames. Here, some frames even pass without words, providing an effective break in the speech. The almost formal exercise in which Crumb revels is the challenge of drawing the same exact figure, over and over again (48 times in fact) without the story becoming boring and also counterpointing the narrative in subtle ways.

On the first page, Pekar talks about his unusual name, about how it’s really a Slavic name, but that his ancestry is “neither Celtic, Germanic, French or Slavic”. As he says this, in frame 6, he raises his hands, palms open, in a gesture of “coming clean” and being honest. But it’s interesting that he never does land on his point (he’s Jewish, and that creates a sometimes challenging impediment to a simple ethnic definition) and the next frame contains no dialogue at all. Pekar simply looks at us, studying the audience for effect. Then, the next two frames, 8 and 9, show Pekar turned slightly with respect to the fourth wall, as if he saw something he didn’t like in that frame without dialogue and now he’s turned to be defensive, which suits the admission he makes in the frames (that he was teased as a child due to his unusual-sounding name).

The next page contains many interesting beats, such as the first two frames, showing an almost handsome, movie-star version of Pekar with raised shoulders and a calm, elongated face, shifting immediately into a hunched-over and angry version of Pekar in the third frame of the second page. The dialogue, “I didn’t like that”, is perfectly suited to the acting moment. Pekar takes another pause in frame 6 of page 2, after he dismisses those who called him “Harvey Rabbit” in his childhood, saying, “The thought they were being quiet clever,” but his expression says everything we need to know about how “clever” they were really being.

Frames 10, 11 and 12 of page 2 are possibly the highlight of the whole piece, where Pekar admits that after people stopped making fun of his name, he started to forget it. He started to think that his name could be anything. It could even be, “John Smith”. The way that Crumb draws Pekar saying the words, “John Smith” is a revelation. Compare it to the other renderings on this and the previous and subsequent pages, and you see that Crumb is deliberately drawing Pekar in frame 11 in such a way that minimizes or hides his more obviously “Jewish” features. His hair is neatly combed, nose small, eyes smaller and set in a pleasant expression suggesting laugh lines: it’s the “John Smith” version of Pekar, a great way to illustrate how much Harvey yearned to just “fit in”. But of course, Pekar never fit in and couldn’t fit in anywhere. He had such extreme opinions and looked at the world with such a levelling eye that “John Smith” was a fantasy, and Crumb draws him as such.

The next two pages contain 24 more images of Pekar, again presented in that relentless grid. Pekar discusses interacting with the families and friends of other people who happened to be named “Harvey Pekar” by coincidence. When he was told that one of the other “Harvey Pekars” had died, Crumb once again draws a frame with no dialogue, but in this case there isn’t anything remarkable about the image. Crumb hasn’t deliberately exaggerated or minimized Pekar’s expressions or features. He simply stands there, contemplating death with a neutral expression, only looking at the audience out of the corner of one eye. It’s a remarkably deferential and quiet look for Pekar. Contrast this with the final two frames of the piece, where Pekar finally says the famous words, “Who is Harvey Pekar?” and Crumb ends the story on a dialogue-free frame. But in that final frame, Pekar is square-on with the “camera” and regarding the audience with that challenging look Harvey could sometimes adopt. He refuses to have the last word, and by the drawing he almost challenges us, the audience, to have the last word. The result is silence, such an effective and little-used tool in comics.

Crumb would work with Pekar again, but they only matched the effect on this subtle, very anti-genre formal exercise that would prove to be one of their most important and challenging collaborations.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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