I’ve never read a comic book quite like Ego and Hubris: The Michael Malice Story. Like so much of Harvey Pekar’s work, it’s deceptively intellectual material presented in an underground comix style (art by Gary Dumm), but unlike American Splendor, this book isn’t about Pekar. It’s obvious right from the first thought balloon that this is not Pekar’s voice, even though he is credited as writer and no doubt produced the dialogue from hours of conversations with the real Malice. But here it’s Malice, telling his own peculiar story about his own peculiar path through life.
Malice first appeared in a Pekar project as something of a “special guest” in the monumental Our Movie Year, written with Joyce Brabner. That book, detailing Harvey and Joyce’s life around the making and release of the American Splendor film in 2003, it was a different and ambitious work for the author, and was something of a sequel to the groundbreaking masterpiece Our Cancer Year, from 1994. Malice’s story there was titled “A Fish Story”, about Malice’s efforts to keep fish and other aquatic life alive and healthy in their unfiltered tanks during the blackout of 2003. (I remember that blackout myself, living in southern Ontario at the time.) In that story, you see a dry run for Pekar adopting a different narrative voice than ever before.
Changing voice was nothing new for American Splendor. The book was famous for the diversity of linguistic representation, sometimes a street patois, sometimes approaching hard-core scholarship. Pekar also allowed other characters to relate their stories, through him, often represented in the comic frame as a spectator. The classic appearances of “Mr Boates”, or “Toby” were great ways for Pekar to give his friends and colleagues the spotlight. But since the style of American Spendor and indeed most of Pekar’s work is a monologue, it was a rare thing indeed for him to hand the reins over to another character for a long period of time. But that’s exactly what he does in Ego and Hubris, and part of what makes it so interesting.
The other essential innovation in this book is Pekar’s ambivalence about the character himself. Malice is “a real piece of work,” says Harvey on the cover, and elsewhere he equivocates, dressing up ambivalence with phrases like, “The things we call ‘characteristics’ seem apparent in Michael Malice.” This studied distance from the character was something with which Pekar had some experience in his previous work, sometimes giving voice to characters he didn’t care for for short periods of time, but his distaste was obvious in most of those cases. Here, we aren’t sure exactly how he feels about this interesting person, nor are we sure how we feel. It’s quite a thing for an author to disappear behind his own work, and here Pekar pulls off the stunt like a pro.
What Malice and Pekar have in common is their Jewish heritage, a love of odd cult music and their childhoods spent on the streets of Cleveland. They are also both possessed of a towering intellect, but the essential difference is in how the two men wore their intellect. For the proudly working-class Pekar, his intellect was incompatible with his emotional issues and his social circumstances, so he allowed it to come out in an “aw shucks” organic way, listening as much as talking, being fundamentally fairly shy. He also didn’t have a great deal of financial ambition or career ambition, coming to that realization from many hard knocks in his youth (retold in The Quitter). By contrast, Malice is the ultimate “Mansplainer”, as we would say today. There isn’t a subject about which he didn’t have an opinion (which was also true of Pekar), and he couldn’t wait to tell someone else about it (the opposite of Pekar). His political views incorporated a libertarianism borrowed straight form Ayn Rand and deeply informed by large-scale socioeconomic theory. By contrast, Pekar came from a Communist family and generally supported left-wing politics, but kept things fairly local, like speaking up for Dennis Kucinich when he was Mayor of Cleveland back in the late 1970s. They share some other qualities, like a respect for animals, but on the whole (and longtime readers of American Splendor will find this ironic), Pekar was the more well-adjusted of the two. Pekar held down a job for 30 years, was married, helped to raise a child, managed his own celebrity, imperfectly at times, but managed it. He also made a significant contribution to American culture off the side of his desk. Malice, in his mind, is the type of is waiting for the world to realize his genius, but in the meantime he expects us mere mortals to thank him for lowering himself to walk among us. Even at the end of Ego and Hubris, Malice appears to have learned very little, and is still strides about the world with unearned confidence. He cover image, also by Gary Dumm, of Malice getting his wings literally clipped and falling into the sea is made perfect by the fact that Malice has a broad smile on his face, utterly unaware of, or uncaring about, his fate. No doubt Pekar saw that they were similar enough, yet different in important ways, therefore they could and did make some interesting work together.
Pekar has a great way of acknowledging their relationship in the beginning of “Fish Story”, from Our Movie Year, where in the very first panel Malice is drawn leaning over the shorter Pekar, emphatically explaining to him about animal relative intelligence. Pekar credits the story as “by Harvey Pekar, protagonist: Michael Malice”. The story itself is probably reflective of the best aspects of Malice – his compassion and care for his pets. But even in this portrayal he comes across as obsessive and narrow minded. He cares, but he cares in a very selfish way.
The opening page of “Fish Story” from Our Movie Year
Ego and Hubris begins with the words, “I was raised as a dog,” and goes from there. Malice seems to hate a lot of people, and that vehement dislike oozes off the pages. But the second page, he’s quoting his IQ and explaining that his mother was, “Pretty dumb”. He continues, in his description of his childhood, to point out numerous inconsistencies and injustices that he was forced to endure. He makes a big deal, for example, out of the sandals his father forced him to wear, which got him teased. His father claimed that sneakers were “Too expensive”, when in fact, as Malice points out, they were actually cheaper. It’s the sort of thing a child would get really steamed up about, but would quickly pass into a chuckling, ironic bit of eye-rolling reminiscence in later life.
But Malice is not in a chuckling mood. He’s dead serious, and just as angry over wearing sandals to school as a child now as when he was seven years old. His emotional development never seemed to progress beyond a certain point. Further episodes only aggravate the issue, as his parents are divorced and Michael predictably doesn’t get along with his father’s new wife. But the litany of complaints continue, and they’re not without merit: his father would open his and his step-mother’s private mail with no explanation or apology; Yeshiva only makes him roll his eyes at the crazy stories from the bible and he winds up having to pretend his family is more religious than it really is; he thinks he’s smarter than 99% of his teachers and talks back to them. And it goes on like that.
As Malice continues through school he excels on the one hand, winning a major Spelling Bee and developing a taste for comics, but continues to sabotage his success by standing up for himself to hall monitors (again… he has a point, but makes it badly), gym teachers, and his own father, who he dismisses as “An overly angry lunatic.” Later, Malice attends College and winds up joining a Libertarian think tank. In that rarefied academic atmosphere, his intellect is given some freedom to grow, but Malice’s impatience for the minds of others and his arrogance prevent him from committing to and finishing a serious program of study. He winds up as a computer tech support person working for a temp agency, while writing a major re-telling of the Bible alone in his apartment. He has some relationships with women, but they don’t work out (in Malice’s telling, he is repeatedly “friend zoned”, which makes me curious to hear the woman’s side of the story).
As an adult in the world, Malice picks fights with security guards (he takes great pains as always to point out how he was in the right in the end), makes life difficult for his unfortunate co-workers and drifts from job to job. But near the end of the book he reflects back on all that he has already done and the interesting new opportunities opening up for him in TV. Pekar also, in true Pekar fashion, writes himself into the book and tells of how they met. They had an instant connection, and Malice writes him a very sweet note saying how much meeting Pekar has brought inspiration and happiness to him.
Pekar was always a great observer, and in giving over an entire story to someone else, he comes close to stepping completely out of one of his own stories, a true rarity. The fact that he chose to write about Michael Malice of all people seems like a cautionary tale. We can only speculate and interpret, since Pekar left things so ambivalent. It does appear, however, that in exploring this strange life Pekar is showing us another path to the summit at which he found himself in his later years. Harvey held down his job and tried not to rock the boat too much, so he’s amazed to learn that Malice doesn’t really have a regular position, just consultancy from time to time. I also think Pekar is teaching an important lesson here about Emotional Intelligence vs other forms of Intelligence. Both he and Malice had great natural intellect, and both had serious social development problems. But Harvey worked through his, made them work for him, and kept a large circle of friends going for a long time. Perhaps what he saw in Michael Malice was a path he could have taken all too easily.
Ego and Hubris is a tough, but illuminating read. Sometimes I stop myself from writing pieces here on Sequart because I realize that people would rather hear someone talk about what they love, rather than what they hate. Michael Malice, filling the pages here, via Harvey Pekar, with lists of things he hates and things that irritate him, demonstrates that principle. But something about Pekar’s strong sense of episodic narrative (broken down structurally, the book is a masterwork of storytelling pacing) and Gary Dumm’s simple, engaging art make it a fascinating experience that will leave you thinking about your choices and your path.