Friday, November 20, 2015

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Harvey Pekar was a pioneering colossus of autobiographical comics, and this was among his last books, a graphic history about the place that shaped him and his place in it. As a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar's Cleveland is not so much a novel as it is an epic tone poem that puts forth the personality of a city and a man. This is a pretty tough task to pull off, though I think that it does so with elan and economy.

I found this book very satisfying in terms of its methodical, informative text and illustrations. I sure learned a lot about Cleveland  in terms of its history, politicians, professional sports teams, notable figures, and architecture. Just check out the passage below. What can be seen as mundane or boring is elevated through the art to being more a celebration and elegy.
Elegies are about the dead, and although Cleveland is a hard luck sort of town with an inferiority complex, there seems to be a ray of hope for it here. Or maybe that is the personality projected on it by one of its more famous denizens, Pekar. He inserts his own story into that of the city, mingling his views of the its social and economic history with his own. What could have been a cold, academic look at an urban place then becomes an exploration of a personal relationship, in terms of economics, ethnicity, and race relations. And a place marked by failures occasionally has the opportunity to surprise and shine, like the 1948 Indians. Or as in the excerpt that follows, in enjoyng a little bit of heaven in the form of a chocolate malt:
The specific references and beats that this graphic novel hits give it a lot of heart and fodder for thought. Part of the reason for its success is the tone and tenor of the author, but much of it also lies at the feet of the artist Joseph Remnant. His artwork reminds me of Little Orphan Annie's Harold Gray crossed with the etchings of Albrecht Dürer. The artwork is realistic to a point, with a few cartoonish exaggerations, but the cross hatching and shadows cast the illustrations as little pieces of history or pageantry. I love how it makes some really ordinary scenes seem monumental or lends a sense of drama with a strategically rendered glance or furrowed brow.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a must-have volume." Kim Deitch referred to it as "a fabulous kaleidoscope of people, places and things, but never loses sight of its primary objective: to tell about and make a case for that much maligned city, Cleveland, Ohio."

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland was published by Top Shelf, and they have a preview and more information available here.

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