I’ve been reading Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland this weekend, one of the last works we will see from the graphic storytelling genius who died in 2010. I met Harvey and his wife Joyce Brabner in 1995 when they came to Philadelphia on a book tour to promote the graphic novel, Our Cancer Year.
We became friends after the story/review below was published in the Main Line Welcomat, an alternative weekly published on the Main Line for which I wrote a column (it became the Philadelphia Weekly in 1996). I got him some jazz review gigs in the paper over the next year or so–Harvey was always looking for work and outlets for that work–and we’d have periodic phone conversations about those and other matters. A phone conversation with Harvey was often frustrating as he vented about this and that, fascinating as you grasped some of his insights on what topic currently had his attention and unforgettable because, well, it was Harvey.
Eventually all that sort of drifted away, although we stayed in touch sporadically and I later did a review of Real War Stories, Brabner’s two-comic series of true stories about the military which helped support the Philadelphia-based anti-draft group, The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. One of the writers involved was the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, etc.), who did the introduction for the Cleveland volume I am now reading.
Anyway, that long ago review seems worth reprinting and here it is:
OUR CANCER YEAR
by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, art by Frank Stack
Four Walls Eight Windows, $17.95
“It’s words and pictures. And you can do anything you want with words and pictures.”
-Harvey Pekar, on the David Letterman Show, 1986
by Jack Curtin
I’d never met Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, but I recognized them immediately as they approached me across the lobby of the Independence Mall Holiday Inn one morning last month. I’ve been following Harvey Pekar’s life for nearly 20 years now in the pages of American Splendor, the annual, self-published comic book that he’s been producing with a variety of artists since 1976. Joyce Brabner, his third wife, has been part of that ongoing illustrated saga since issue nine. These two were as familiar to me as my next door neighbors…except that I knew a lot more about them.
Pekar and Brabner were on tour promoting their extraordinary new book, Our Cancer Year, a trade paperback graphic novel illustrated by award-winning artist Frank Stack which recounts the events surrounding their discovery in 1990 that Harvey had cancer. Critics all seem to be comparing it in one fashion or another to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, a powerful and moving tale of the Holocaust and a son’s relationship with his father, told with what we used to call “funny animals” (the Jews as mice, the Nazis as rats), but I think that the relationship between the two is notable only because each uses the still controversial technique of the graphic novel to tell an important story. As powerful a work as Maus is, one can argue that it is the anthropomorphizing of both the villains and victims of this century’s most horrifying and inexplicable event that inspires its critical acclaim more than the story itself. Our Cancer Year, on the other hand, is more immediate, pertinent, real, and, I’d contend, sui generis.
Harvey Pekar is a file clerk at a V.A. hospital in Cleveland, a man with admittedly “(not) much in the way of salable skills” who has created a niche for himself in contemporary culture with not only his comic book (American Splendor won the American Book Award in 1987), but also jazz reviews, literary criticism and political columns in a variety of venues. He’s even more famous in some circles for a series of sometimes tense, always intriguing appearances on The David Letterman Show, where he and the host maintain a edgy, near-hostile relationship.
With American Splendor, he invented the autobiographical comic book, a form that has become increasingly popular among independent comics creators. While many of the practitioners of the art have succeeded because of a self-referential, ironic tone that allows readers to bond with the artist in joint recognition of all-too-human foibles, Pekar’s work has remained true to his personal vision: to reverse the escapism of comics and reveal, often without comment or explication, the mundane reality of everyday life. “I want to write literature that pushes people into their lives rather than helping them escape from them,” he is quoted as telling an interviewer in Joseph Witek’s Comic Books As History. As Michael Heaton wrote in the Sunday magazine of the Cleveland Plain Dealer a few weeks ago: “Pekar, not unlike comic Jerry Seinfeld, is greatly amused and aggravated by life’s little things. But where Seinfeld finds humor, Pekar finds horror.”
And, in 1990, that horror turned out to be lymphatic cancer. “There was never any doubt that I’d do a comic about this,” admits Harvey. “I’ve been doing a comic about every year of my life since 1976 and I was going to do one about whatever happened 1990.”
All of his comics work prior to this, with the exception of one story Brabner helped write (the story of how they met and eventually married), has been done solo, but Harvey found himself asking Joyce so many questions to fill in the gaps in his memory that, when she suggested that she co-write the story from her point of view, he quickly agreed. “There was a lot of the story to be filled in,” Brabner says, “things that I experienced that Harvey didn’t, things that I thought he was avoiding. At the same time, I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know had happened until he wrote them down. The only way we could tell the whole story was to tell it together.”
Indeed, one can argue that Brabner is in fact the central character in Our Cancer Year. It is a simple fact that the healthy partner in a relationship where the other is seriously ill is often a forgotten victim, and Brabner, afflicted with chronic health problems herself, was dealing with a man who is, by his own account, obsessive, compulsive and given to fits of depression under the best of circumstances. Further, she had a career of her own, as a comic book journalist dealing with issues of peace and justice, and was increasingly involved with a group of young people she met at a peace conference in Los Angeles.
Our Cancer Year starts off like a typical Pekar story. Harvey and Joyce are considering buying a house. It is a logical decision, financially sound and probably a necessary one given the threat that their current place will go condo. Joyce wants to do it and presses the issue. Harvey panics, worries about going into debt, is sure disaster is imminent. But buy it they finally do. And soon the Born Again sub-contractor they hire to fix the roof is trying to rip them off.
Meanwhile, the onslaught of Desert Storm appalls and angers them both. Before Harvey’s cancer is discovered, Joyce goes off to the Middle East to visit two youngsters she had met in California, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Iraq has just invaded Kuwait, and an anxious Harvey waits for her E-Mail communications and worried about rumors of Saddam Hussein possibly unleashing poison gas on the region. She leaves her small portable computer and modem in Israel when she comes home, providing a link between those waiting for the missiles to fall and the Cambodian-American teenagers, survivors of the “killing fields,” back in California who had been their hosts during the conference. Joyce has promised the entire group that “when all this is over, we will see each other again” and whether or not she can keep that promise while coping with Harvey’s illness is an integral part of this story.
The cancer, evidenced by a mysterious lump that Harvey has put off dealing with for all too long, changes everything. The prognosis is good, an 85 percent chance of remission and a better than two-thirds rate of non-recurrence among that group. Chemotherapy is prescribed and Harvey, being Harvey, chooses the most intense and ravaging treatment protocol. Further, even though he has more than nine months of sick leave saved up, he continues to try and work his regular shift while undergoing treatment, until Joyce finally convinces the doctor to give him “permission” to stay home.
He’s a terrible patient for the most part: argumentative, self-pitying, often ready to give up and die. The treatment protocol, erroneously described by the doctor as a “12-week program” even though no one has ever completed it in that time span because of its intensity, might better be described as a “12-treatment program,” a distinction that Joyce finally persuades the doctor to make to Harvey, who is racked by a sense of failure whenever he is sent home without radiation because he is too weak to handle it. The agony of the treatment and its complications are presented without equivocation. A single panel in which Harvey is seen supporting himself on his hands and knees, trying desperately to sleep but unable to allow his body to touch the bed because of raw sores and blisters from a painful case of shingles is probably the most striking image in the book.
The authors are unsparing in showing the truth about themselves as well. “You see all these books with this ‘I licked the Big C’ attitude,” Harvey says, “about people who are model patients and studies in bravery and all that, and I wanted to show you could be, like, a coward (nervous laugh) and still pull through if you just follow orders, take the medicine and have a doctor who knows what he or she is doing. I think a lot of people do it like that and you don’t hear their stories.”
“People keep acting as though this illness gave us some kind of halo,” says Brabner (who in one of the book’s most dramatic moments is shown tottering close to the edge, slapping a drugged-up Harvey who refuses to get out of bed, screaming “you’re doing this on purpose…get up! Why are you doing this to me?”), “that it was some wonderful learning experience that taught us some deep lesson. It’s not that at all. It’s just something that knocks your whole world sideways and out of kilter.” The two quarrel incessantly even as they are drawn closer together by their shared experience. When Joyce’s mother suggests that their time together should now consist of “gentle ‘blessed’ moments,” Joyce replies, “Yelling is what we do. If I didn’t-if I turned myself into some perfect, whispering little nurse-it would scare the hell out of him. He’d think I was getting ready to bury him.”
One of the lessons they offer readers-maybe the most important one anyone facing this sort of serious illness can learn, in my opinion-is that you cannot just blindly trust doctors and medical personnel, that you have to be involved in your own care. Joyce, for example, has the oncologist they finally select to handle the case read an entire run of American Splendor so that she will know her patient. “Some of these people become desensitized, some shouldn’t be doing this kind of work at all,” she says. “I had to be Harvey’s ally, someone to help him deal with them. Because there’s been a lot of illness in my family, I know how to fight with doctors, how to double and triple check what’s being done. And, because of Harvey’s job, he has no problem seeing them as ordinary people. To Harvey, doctors are usually just the idiots who lose the charts that he has to go and find for them.”
Stack, who was one of the great early underground cartoonists (his Further Adventures of Jesus, done under his pseudonym, Foolbert Sturgeon, is a ’60s classic), is currently an art professor at the University of Missouri. He took a sabbatical to work on Our Cancer Year and was selected for the task by Pekar because “first of all, he’s about as good an artist as anybody I work with-I think he’s in a class with Crumb (Robert Crumb, perhaps Pekar’s best known collaborator). There are some people who don’t seem to like what he’s done on this book, and I think that’s because his stuff is so subtle.” He flourishes a letter from another well-known alternative press artist, Jim Woodring, to bolster his point. Stack, Woodring writes, is “the most serious fine artist among cartoonists…he shows what seems to be an almost superhuman discipline in this job, an almost total lack of self-indulgence… perhaps the best transmission of an invisible message that I’ve experienced in a comics. It’s top-notch artistry in my opinion, a moment of great and real and, dare I say it, transcendent meaning.”
I’d say that’s dead on. Stack’s working is minimalist and stark, with heavy, dark linework and extensive cross-hatching, always focused on the essential elements of the story he is telling. The sometimes claustrophobic, always oppressive nature of the situation is perfectly conveyed. The artwork may pose some difficulties for those not familiar with contemporary graphic storytelling, but I thought he was the perfect choice for the assignment.
Obviously, Harvey went into remission. It’s been more than three years now and there’s no sign of the cancer returning. In the closing section of the book, after the CAT-Scan that shows him to be clean but while he is still recovering his strength, Joyce finally gets to fulfill her promise to her young friends. Against Harvey’s typical protests and worries, she invites all of them to come from California and the Middle East to visit their new house. Again typically, Harvey finds their youthful energy and example of triumphs over odds at least as great as his own both healing and inspirational. At the very end, while most of the teenagers off doing other things, Harvey takes the remaining young woman to visit a nearby waterfall, to the place where he first proposed marriage to Joyce. The final scene contains no dialogue at all, just a series of panels depicting all the activity and variety of life they find there.
The Cancer Year is over, and everyone made it through. Everyone survived. Pekar, Brabner and Stack show us that, in the end, that can be enough.