How We’re Living Now: Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland and the “Clevelander”

How We’re Living Now: Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland and the “Clevelander”

Harvey Pekar | Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland | Z2 Comics (Reprint) | August 8, 2017 | 128 Pages | Art by Joseph Remnant


Cleveland is no ghost world to me, but sometimes coming up with a cultural legacy reaching beyond the Cuyahoga county limits is difficult. But, thinking of “Cleveland literary figures,” as I, the Cleveland-born and raised literature student, sometimes do, Harvey Pekar comes to mind. With ink and pencils by (among others) R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray, Val Mayerik, and Frank Stack, Pekar (hereafter “Harvey”) used mid-twentieth century Cleveland not only as a backdrop for narratives part and parcel of the Cleveland arts and literature scene, but also as a document of the mid-century development of the graphic novel (alongside comix movements of the 1970s and 80s.) Essential to Cleveland’s Splendor is Harvey’s focalized “protagonist,” a depiction of himself as star of several biographical, if not semi-biographical, stories. Besides the illustrated Harveys appearing across some three decades, other “characters” appearing during Splendor’s run (1976-2008) are Harvey’s co-workers at the Veteran’s Administration, Mr. Boats and Toby Radloff, a young R. Crumb, Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner (“Joyce”), David Letterman, Wallace Shawn, and a mix of locals and nonlocals.  

Splendor takes place in Greater Cleveland, namely Coventry, Cleveland Heights, and Shaker Heights. In these settings Splendor engages with Harvey’s “working-class intellectual” persona, as well as that persona’s philosophic interactions with an expansive pool of Clevelanders and non-Clevelanders. But, looking at Harvey’s Cleveland ties, particularly interesting stories where Splendor and Cleveland intersect include “Broken Window” (art by Stack), “Sveet Like ‘Oney” (Stack), “Alterations” (Mayerik), “Pre-Dawn Ride” (Dumm, with Laura Darnell Dumm), “Squirrel” (Dumm and Joe Zabel), “The Young Crumb Story” (Crumb), “How I Quit Collecting Records And Put Out A Comic Book With The Money I Saved” (Crumb), “The Day Before the Be-In” (Dumm and Greg Budgett), “July ’74-On the Corner” (Dumm and Budgett), “I’ll Be Forty-three on Friday (How I’m Living Now)” (Shamray), and, co-written with Joyce, “A Marriage Album” (Mayerik). Additionally, in Splendor’s spirit is the Harvey/Joyce collab Our Cancer Year covering Harvey’s lymphatic cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, along with Joyce’s dogged international activist work in 1993-94, and a host of other work available online at The Pekar Project.

That’s a brief survey of Splendor for you, of which there are many to plumb. But, for this essay, I’d like to think of Harvey’s work, and about comics in general, as “conversations.” Harvey’s “I’ll be Forth-three on Friday,” is just that, a conversation between a meandering Harvey and the reader, former mulling notions of friendship, mortality, and literature. Talking things out, examining the relationships between people, between figures, between illustrations and coloring. As seen in that story, too, every conversation starts with setting some parameters. So, as Harvey asked in the existential phonebook trip that is “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” (illustrated by Crumb), who is Harvey Pekar? What does he have to do with a city that, in his lifetime, underwent significant socioeconomic changes? What about this book, the posthumous graphic history/memoir called Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland?

Harvey’s born October 8, 1939. Son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish and ran a grocery store on Kinsman Avenue. Lived around the Shaker Heights area just outside of downtown on Kinsman Avenue, merging with a Cleveland that in the 1940s and 50s was undergoing significant white flight into both western and eastern suburbs. A kid who gets into a number of fights with any number of ethnic groups, but, growing up, is interested in comic books, pop music, jazz, literature, and after dropping out of Case Western Reserve University, anxiously seeks stable employment, eventually ending up at the Veterans Administration. At one point, Harvey meets R. Crumb (in “The Young Crumb Story”) at a record sale and gathering up steam to begin writing Splendor (along with jazz and social criticism) in 1972. As the 70s, 80s, and 90s come and go, Harvey becomes a Cleveland legend, a figure within American comic books, appears on numerous David Letterman episodes in the 80s, becomes something resembling a minor celebrity (as much as one can be when living in Cleveland Heights). In an outside-comics lore treat for some of us, Harvey’s featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Cleveland episode in 2007, where he and Toby accompany Bourdain to a dinner at Sokolowski’s University Inn (even though, apparently, Harvey never went there) in an episode where Harvey admits that Cleveland’s City Council (itself currently subject to its own controversies and disputes) disliked Harvey’s depictions of Cleveland and its residents. Before this, perhaps more notably, Harvey’s life is made filmic in 2003’s American Splendor and his level of engagement with the comic community is such that his line-up of artists came to include work with Chester Brown, Jim Woodring, and Alison Bechdel, going beyond Splendor to include other work about the Beats, the Students for a Democratic Society, and a Yiddish encyclopedia. Harvey passes away at 70 on July 12, 2010.

In 1994, Crumb, speaking to The Plain Dealer, says Harvey is “the soul of Cleveland…He’s passionate and articulate. He's grim. He's Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness.” In a 2010 Plain Dealer obituary, Joanna Connors links Harvey to Superman through the “From off the Streets of Cleveland” tag. But unlike Clark Kent, Connors says, “[Harvey] never stepped into a phone booth to change, but underneath his persona of aggravated, disaffected file clerk, he was an erudite book and jazz critic, and a writer of short stories that many observers compared to Chekhov, despite their comic-book form.” Further, “Unlike the superheroes who ordinarily inhabit the pages of comic books, Pekar could neither leap tall buildings in a single bound, nor move faster than a speeding bullet. Yet his comics suggested a different sort of heroism: The working-class, everyman heroics of simply making it through another day, with soul—if not dignity—intact.” Harvey Pekar scholar Jimi Izrael says in Harvey Pekars Cleveland’s afterword (“A Pal’s Goodbye”) much of the same of that earnest spirit when he calls Harvey one of “American’s finest writers.” To any dissenters, Izrael writes, “This truth, though, is the same as with any great artist and his work: either you get Harvey, or you don’t.”

Let’s talk Cleveland now, especially in considering Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Especially when Izrael, using personified geographic connective tissue, says, “Cleveland’s a tough, slightly bowed, achy, gray, crotchety charitable town with moments of brilliance and unexpected, often ironic laugher. Like Harvey.” This picture, now six years old, of Cleveland is something you’d hear from that No Reservations episode, from a review of Major League, a TNT broadcast when Lebron brought the Cavs their Finals Quartet. Not to necessarily disagree with Izrael, but one could heft this picture onto any formerly “Prosperous Rust Belt City.” With the documentary Searching For Sugar Man and the Comedy Central show Detroiters, one has such a Detroit. With The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, one has such a Pittsburgh. A limited sample size, but you get the idea.

Let’s do a diagnosis of the Cleveland I, Matt Morgenstern, come from:

Lakewood born and bred, just downtown for Indians and Cavs games, and, in the early 2000s, to Coventry and Little Italy, where the author’s father played bocci with friends at the Mayfield courts. It wasn’t until last year when I worked as a gallery guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art there were regular city visits to downtown, the “East Side,” Hough, Glenville, Midtown, the Little Italy and Coventry of his youth, Coventry a street I’d never driven to alone until a year beforehand, or University Circle. I’m, like Harvey, also male, white, Jewish, the son of a Polish immigrant (his mother). Unlike Harvey, I had no nearly “inner-city” Yiddish-speaking upbringing, my grocery store was a Rocky River Heinen’s, and going to movies and shopping were mainly trips to the suburban wonderlands of Crocker Park and Westgate, all while Lakewood was itself, more and more, becoming its own “city.” I wasn’t excluded from neighborhood events because of my religion or skin color. In fact, my childhood was a fairly progressive middle- to upper-class, “diverse” affair. Additionally, my grandmother, born in Lorain and then for most of her life an Encino expat outside of Los Angeles, moved back to the area (Avon Lake) around 10 years ago, and so my family also witnessed, over the last 15 years or so, the suburban expansions of Westlake, Bay Village, Avon, and Avon Lake, places closer to Lorain County than downtown. My parents have had varying degrees of involvement in this expansion and in the past of the city—his mother works at the Cleveland Clinic’s relatively new Richard E. Jacobs Hospital in Avon Lake and his father works for Lorain County Community College. My father was, like Harvey, a Case student, and lived on Coventry while doing graduate work in American Social Policy. My mother has worked in different positions for the Cleveland Clinic and is at their downtown campus fairly often as the Director of Pharmacy at Avon Lake.

This may be irrelevant, but this is a primarily white, westside, middle- to-upperclass, secular, and moderately progressive Cleveland. This is my Cleveland, a privileged Cleveland, one where Lakewood and its “west of W. 117th” comforts fixed my notion of the city as being on a course for a romantic, post-Recession upswing (which it is, and isn’t, in certain respects). But that Cleveland isn’t Harvey Pekar’s. It’s not the Cleveland for many. It’s a Greater Cleveland mythos. The mythos of the “Clevelander.”          

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was co-published in 2012 by Zip Comics and Top Shelf, with wonderful black-and-white art by Joseph Remnant. In his introduction, graphic novelist/comic book writer Alan Moore lauds Harvey’s oeuvre in its attention to the extraordinary nature of simplicity. “Whether the musicality of a co-worker’s chance remark or lyric quality to some mundane transaction, Harvey notices it and then writes it down so everyone can share his fugitive perceptions,” writes Moore. “Every panel celebrates the worth of being who we are, and when we are, and where we are; the value of our individual lives and times, and of the shabby, legendary places where we live.” Moore also brings in Cleveland as connective tissue like Izrael, with the former saying a “person or place cannot be fully understood unless each is considered in the context of the other.” Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and Harvey beyond that, engages with the city’s “emergent properties of landscape…as extensions of ourselves.”

Moore makes an interesting statement in the introduction’s conclusion that lets the Cleveland associations drift. “Lucidly weaving his hometown’s revealingly average geopolitical history with that of his immigrant family and background, characteristically non-judgmental, Harvey gives us what will almost certainly come to be seen as an essential American document.” What exactly does Moore mean that Cleveland’s “geopolitical history” is “average”? Is it transcendent, or subsuming, for Harvey’s work to be seen in not just a Cleveland context, but in a wider “American” context? To some these rhetorical questions may appear vapid, trying, and to deny Harvey as a Cleveland “product” and his circumstances is too pretentious, too deconstructionist, and beyond this essay. But let’s get back to all this later.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland first half is a history of Cleveland dating back to pre- and post-colonial periods when Ohio was to be part of the Western Reserve territory, ready for development by the Connecticut Land Company. Harvey then guides us to Ohio’s post-Revolution establishment to the city’s pre-Civil War period, to the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, all the while charting the demographic growth of Polish, Irish, Jewish, and African American populations within (and moving outside of) an edifying “Cleveland.” These demographics of keen interest to him, by 1910, Harvey tell us Cleveland had become one of the most segregated cities in America, and though the early twentieth-century saw the construction of the Terminal Tower, the organization of the Cleveland Metroparks, as well as increased Slavic and Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe for municipal population growth, the Great Depression arrived and devastated Cleveland irredeemably. As Harvey points out, some additional good stuff happens in the immediate post-Depression and post-war periods: Cleveland’s ties to the military industrial complex during the Second World War help the economy, an organized metropolitan transportation system connects the city and its burgeoning suburban populations, and the completion of Cleveland Municipal Stadium sees a renewed interest in the Indians and Browns. But, and here we approach Harvey’s entrance, Cleveland’s mid-twentieth century also saw increases in public housing, “ghetto” areas, massive white flight to the suburbs, accelerating population loss, the 1966 and 1968 Hough and Glenville riots, and general economic decline, recessions, and post-recessions. Coming to the “present” of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland (2011-12), Harvey tells the reader, “Yes, there were things that some would consider bright spots. New sports venues were built, as was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But again the lot of the average Clevelander, maybe even Cleveland-area residents, had not improved.”  To what extent though, for some “Clevelanders,” these socioeconomic conditions persist is outside our scope.

Focusing our insight, what’s interesting in reading the “second” part of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is the creation of a Cleveland, that still, to some extent, superficially exists on the city’s East side. Harvey meanders through familiar Splendor scenes as a young Jewish boy gradually morphing into a distressed Crumb-like figure (as rendered by Remnant) in a self-created diverse intellectual and cultural environment. As Harvey’s autobiography spools out in black-and-white hatching and crosshatching, one sees Splendor leitmotifs. Books, fighting with neighborhood kids, jazz and pop music, record and book collecting, working at the VA, Harvey’s encounters with coworkers, the people he meets living in Cleveland Heights, the people he meets as jazz critic/graphic novelist/comic book writer, the pleasure of bookstores like Kay’s and Zubal Books, his complicated romances, meeting, marrying, and living, with Joyce, friends, gardening, writing, and kvetching about local and national governmental ineptitude. Regardless, near the book’s end, Harvey says being in Cleveland’s a good place for him, because “everyone’s depressed, not just yours’ truly!” Harvey believes the election of President Obama could’ve helped (and it may have) the city. Above all, Harvey has writing, reading, life.

That generalizing “everyone’s depressed” comment is reflective of Izrael and Moore, but that third question from earlier. “And what about Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland?” Do you remember that? Yes, you do. What about it? Do you notice the possessive, inserting Harvey Pekar into the title as subject, positioning Harvey as a character in his rendition of Cleveland’s history? As witness to that history, Harvey at one point says, hands in pockets, “As one who has lived in Cleveland for events years, I think the main problem has been race relations.” And then, that possessive, when switched with, let’s say, “Matt Morgenstern,” becomes Matt Morgenstern’s Cleveland, a Cleveland you may remember from the “authorial context” paragraph, not a Cleveland marked by issues with “race relations” (though done-up in their own way in Lakewood). That possessive does a lot of work, letting Cleveland be the object of either Harvey Pekar, or Matt Morgenstern, or Alan Moore, or Jimi Izrael, or LeBron James. This may seem like a silly point. Yes, I’m from Lakewood, critiquing a clearly suburban perspective, relying on quaint background to collapse a notion of “Cleveland.”

What guides our thinking in thinking otherwise? We’ve seen “Cleveland” is, essentially, a perception of the individual. In Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, it’s a literary commodity. Any city is a compendium of individual experiences, right? Some more than others. But to bring in semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure here, Cleveland is only signified, and the “city” and its constituent “Clevelander” notions are only signifiers of an arbitrary, visually referential experience (just as Bechdel’s Fun Home conjures up her rural upbringing in a fancifully designed household in the 1970s and 80s, just as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis focuses on a specific time, place, and experience, of the Iranian Islamic Revolution). This isn’t to deny that any experience, subjected to semiotics, didn’t happen, that those “legendary” and sometimes oppressive conditions in those places, as Moore would say, don’t materially exist.

But Harvey’s stroll through the city’s history (illustrated by Remnant) gestures towards a “Cleveland,” not some arbitrary perception that ends, for some, at Playhouse Square, at Midtown’s and Hough’s beginnings, or at Barrio, or at West 117th, at the Huron Bridge or gunning it on the Shoreway. One may argue that time changes things, Cleveland is Cleveland, to be a Clevelander, whether you live in Cleveland Heights or Westlake, in the Flats or Tremont, Little Italy or Lakewood, is to be a Clevelander, if you believe in it. The Greater Cleveland mythos is a benign group mythos, isn’t it? It is one I cling to as a currently resident of Cincinnati, as someone writing this already from a secondary perspective.

In the No Reservations episode, the episode begins with Bourdain, lovingly taking his friend, writer and chef Michael Ruhlman, to Skyline Chili, knowing Ruhlman’s distaste for Ohio’s premier fast food chain. Before this episode I’d only thought of Skyline existing south of Columbus, especially focused in the Greater Cincinnati area, and only went to a Skyline in my southwestern college town twice before swearing its wonders off forever. To set the scene: Their car pulls in. Winter Cleveland, worse for some than for others. There is the Skyline insignia. And there’s Bourdain and Ruhlman, eating the chili malformations Skyline prides itself on, clumps of cheese and beans and microwave spaghetti in tow. Skyline, is, apparently, yes, in Cleveland. For some reason, Bourdain insists on eating there, some sort of “Ohio” landmark. A decade after the episode’s airing, a quick Google investigation shows there are not one, but two Skyline locations in the Greater Cleveland area—Brooklyn and Lyndhurst. Which is to say there are “Clevelanders” eating the soup-sauce-chili malformation sat the time of this essay’s writing, “Clevelanders” who may regularly eat at these locations. I’m not trying to insult these “Clevelanders” and their culinary tastings. But, at least at that point in time, Bourdain’s perception of Cleveland was one subsumed to a broader Ohio one, his figuring of “Cleveland” was a “Cleveland” where Skyline was a twenty-minute drive from Progressive Field, an even closer one to the Sokolowski’s Harvey Pekar had admitted to never visiting.

This municipally deconstructive power of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland rests on the function of the graphic novel and comic book mediums. That’s what so interesting about pictures, words. The Cleveland of Harvey Pekar (in Splendor and its eponymous film as well) is full of post-industrial, Rust Belt streets, thoroughfares in Cleveland Heights, Coventry, downtown, and that Cleveland, one of Harvey Pekar’s creation and experience, is a signifier of a particular signified Cleveland. The pictures, the words, they’re what make Cleveland. That noun, Cleveland, as a basic semiotic sign, an arbitrary name for a tract of land bordering a water formation. It helps the brain to specify things, to say Lake Erie instead of wet thingie. But, if Cleveland is arbitrary, and the signifiers for my Cleveland, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and Anthony Bourdain’s Cleveland aren’t universal, by definition, can’t we say to that be a Clevelander is to be nothing, and to be nothing is to be a Clevelander? That our socioeconomic, geopolitical, and cultural experiences argue against the predominant, perceptively selective perspective of the “Clevelander”? The panels of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland are just as real as the city is in that they make the city real. Those panels are, specifically, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, which is not to discredit Harvey’s experience as a resident of the city. There is no hierarchy of experience(s) here that solidify and perpetuate a late-capitalist Cleveland sundered from the problems all American cities (like income inequality, housing, de facto segregation, etc.).

But, to me, Harvey’s perspective as writer is a depressed, anxious, Jewish, intellectual, mid-twentieth century, cisgender heterosexual male’s Cleveland (sometimes, as “historian,” not even his Cleveland), all (adding another graphic wrinkle) drawn by another with ink and pencils. Harvey’s panels (sometimes snowy, sometimes warm, sometimes indistinctly humid) show that being a “Clevelander” is as much about solipsistic and environmental awareness as it is sheltered individual socioeconomic and sociopolitical circumstances. Cultural and sociopolitical circumstances that formulate the individual’s selfhood, social positioning, actions, ideologies, and relationship, to where they live. And this can be good, depending on the setting. Once can grow in an ostensibly progressive neighborhood and consider themselves on the right side of history, in at the tip of the arc of justice. A “taste” of Cleveland may consist of Barrio, spots on East Fourth, select restaurants in the suburbs, even Lakewood’s Root Cafe for those more “cultured types.” But Cleveland is also Galluci’s in Midtown, that Brooklyn’s Skyline Chili, the Donatos at the corner of West Clifton and Detroit, the McDonald’s on Euclid, the old Max and Erma’s at the Promenade, Slyman’s on St. Clair. What a variable Cleveland that is, and can be, and can’t be, panels notwithstanding.

Harvey affects this variability with a Cleveland “landmark,” taking three panels to recall the first time he saw Terminal Tower. In the first we see a young, awestruck Harvey looking up from what must be Public Square, the tower looming, facing away. In the second, inside the tower, we see a homeless man at a nearly empty RTA stop, over which Harvey says he read that, for a bit in the 1930s, the tower was the tallest building on Earth. Underneath this juxtaposition is a single block with an older Harvey, the “present” Harvey, a hand stretched out forlornly, a changed cityscape before him and the reader. Harvey writes, “Today, there are a couple of buildings in downtown Cleveland that are taller than the Terminal Tower, which no longer seems so tall to me.” The older Harvey also faces the tower, but from a different vantage point farther away. Within Harvey’s life his Cleveland has changed, pictorially, demographically, and economically, as well as any number of other adverbs. Harvey’s illustrators point to this grounded multiplicity too—there is no one Harvey Pekar, only a line-up of constantly changing apparitions. This is my experience the first time I really sat down with an American Splendor—a loose grip on time, perspective, and place, as the comics turned with the pages.

So there is no constant “Cleveland,” no constant “Clevelander,” only that, for Harvey, shown by Joseph Remnant’s black-and-white, stark, and blurry moments of a man walking across a Cleveland continuum, this unstable cityscape whose reproduction is reliant on individually diffuse memories, perspectives, and experiences. There is always a turning to the city, always changes and variations outside an individual’s self-awareness and self-perceptions, and to say otherwise is silly. It’s important to consider, really, what Moore’s “emergent properties” are and how they construct us accordingly. Maybe we don’t really know what it means to be “Clevelander,” what those properties actually are—we forget that, in all of our cities, there is value in stepping outside and seeing what makes a place a place, especially as places continue to look more and more like each other in the name of “revitalization.”

In “to jim lowel’s goldfish,”  the Cleveland-based Beat poet d.a. levy writes, “there is little or nothing/of the minds network/so there is pretending and amusement.” There is value in approaching a text like Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland in that we see, going around Cleveland, that it’s all pretending and amusement. The brain needs its referential structures, and identities (more local or global) need their adjectives. An approach to geopolitical and sociopolitical identity based in something moving towards a societal justice, fairness, equality, and mutually accessible prosperity is the goal when some of us go to vote. I’d say Pekar is a Clevelander in that he is some things, as any Clevelander is, but he also did his best to get to that “minds network” that casts itself beyond the city limits, beyond a city’s “thingness” that limits perceptions and possibilities alike.

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