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Portrait of the Artist as a Street-Fighting Man

 

The Quitter

Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel

Vertigo, 2005

Rating: 3.6

 

Posted: November 27, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Nobody who's even casually familiar with American Splendor comics (or has even just seen the movie they spawned) needs to be told that Harvey Pekar can often be his own worst enemy. At least as portrayed in his comics, Pekar comes across as a man often helpless in the grip of obsessive-compulsive tendencies, worrying himself sick over the most mundane things, and just as often likely to beat himself up for small failures or perceived inadequacies.

But, as Pekar himself might say, that ain't the half of it. In The Quitter, a memoir of sorts published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, Pekar (aided by artist Dean Haspiel) sketches a portrait of himself as a directionless, socially awkward youth whose insecurities often cause him to give up -- on academics, on sports, on the Navy -- when the going gets tough. Quick to anger and quicker to perceive himself as a victim, the young Pekar seeks acceptance via the only thing he considers himself good at -- roughneck street brawls, in which he lashes out at a world that doesn't seem to be going out of its way to make a place for him.

In his time-honored warts-and-all fashion, Pekar doesn't hold back in presenting himself as a man adrift, one who walks away from anything that doesn't seem to be going his way, and as a result ends up drifting through a series of unexciting jobs -- jobs he's desperate to hold onto but can't help sabotaging through buffoonery. It's a daring move, even for a man who's made his literary bones by trading in part on his moody, cantankerous, obsessive nature. Pekar doesn't attempt to explain away his actions as a quick-tempered bruiser, relying on whatever stored-up empathy the reader may have for Pekar the (presumably) older, wiser narrator to fill in the sympathy gaps. Lucky for him, then, that this approach seems to work.

But if Pekar doesn't make any excuses for his past behavior, he also stops short of drawing any meaning or lessons from it. Implicit in The Quitter is the idea that this peek into his past helps the reader to understand the mindset of the older Pekar we've come to know in American Splendor. And it's true that we get a deeper sense of the origins of the drastic mood swings and sometimes crippling fear and self-doubt that Pekar has often turned into compelling reading.

But the writer doesn't take this golden opportunity to critically examine his behaviors, either the early, discarded ones or those that continue into the present. He presents them as historical fact, and perhaps expresses a touch of remorse or regret here and there, but that's it -- it's just the way things are (or were). Given his predilection for being so self-critical, it's surprising that Pekar, now in his sixties, doesn't go deeper in an attempt to make sense of these behaviors, or to establish a commonality between them and those of other people. He's perfectly content to own up to them, but not to attempt to lay them bare in such a way that we see something of ourselves in their reflection.

Such a technique might have helped to leaven the rambling, uneven feel of The Quitter, which serves as a compelling slice of autobiography but suffers from a lack of strong narrative structure (perhaps Pekar should have broken it up into more easily digestible chapters). Beginning with his parents' immigration to the U.S. and ending with a post-movie-fame Pekar struggling to turn his notoriety into more freelance writing gigs, The Quitter fills in a lot that readers don't know about the writer's life. But it ultimately feels incomplete (despite Haspiel's sketchbook renderings and Lee Loughridge's well-placed gray tones, which masterfully evoke the sensation of looking back to an earlier era). In the end, it leaves us wishing that Pekar hadn't quit before he could show us (and himself) a little more of his fascinating inner life.

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