Probably the only thing Harvey Pekar and I have in common is the city of Cleveland.
It’s supposedly the hipster thing to do nowadays to declare Pekar a genius while admitting you’ve never read his work. Fine, guilty. But at least I’m not one of those folks who came to his work as a direct result of watching the American Splendor biopic (still haven’t seen it, but soon). Anyway, my previous experiences of Pekar were his appearances on David Letterman in the 80s. (As a kid, it seemed for years that the only guests Letterman had were Pekar, Fran Lebowitz, and Howard Stern. More likely, these were the only guests that were memorable, having held my interest and attention.) The fact that he was from Cleveland and talked about Cleveland didn’t mean that much to me at the time.
It’s to my everlasting regret that I never came to underground comics at an earlier age. I just couldn’t brave the densely-drawn comics in “that section” of the comics store where American Splendor, Heavy Metal, and others were shelved, near the porn comics. But better late than never, and I’m glad my first real taste was from Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland.
The fact that the book gives a good-enough history of the City of Cleveland over the years is almost beside the point. It, like most of Pekar’s work in American Splendor is really about Pekar alone and his observations. It just so happens that there are years where his observations on Cleveland and mine coincide.
When he talks about the things that happened in the late 80s/early 90s–Toby Radloff’s 5 minutes of fame, the decline of Cleveland schools to the point where the State of Ohio took them over, the hospitals taking over the local economy, etc.–he’s talking about a time when Cleveland was my home, during years when there was every chance that we might’ve bumped shoulders walking down Coventry, or up the steps of the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Some of the times that were his own, like the experience of running up the stairs of Cleveland’s (Old) Arcade, I independently experienced (as did a lot of Clevelanders) 40-some years later. To me, Pekar isn’t to be praised just for speaking general truth, but for speaking some truths that I can verify.
So, I have to give Cleveland a very biased 5* out of 5.