Arts The long road down

Harvey Pekar picks up where American Splendor begins

What we might have missed had Prozac been around back then ...

If you’re a fan of the perennial comic or the award-winning film American Splendor, then you know Harvey Pekar. Now Pekar’s small legion of fans has reason to rejoice: The Quitter, the story of Harvey before he became the poor schlub who for years has written (while others, such as well-known artist R. Crumb, drew) about his non-adventures as file clerk and father, is here. For fans of the burgeoning graphic-novel genre, this is about as close to the holy grail of comic art as you’re going to get.

The Quitter ends where American Splendor the comic-book series began, and swiftly summarizes Pekar’s childhood in the post-War 1940s as the son of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Young Harvey was a quiet kid, the son of a shopkeeper father unschooled in the ways of his adopted country and an insecure mother who forced her son to pass communist leaflets around their lower-middle-class Cleveland neighborhood. Little Harvey would take his lumps from the neighborhood kids, none of whom would speak to him otherwise. When the family moved to a new neighborhood, he started to find it easier to make friends. His grades went up. He even became good at sports.

Yet as Harvey’s talents grew, so did his insecurities. His mother thought his high grades weren’t high enough. His father found sports to be a waste of time. A football coach didn’t like Harvey’s attitude and benched him, though he was the best player on the team. He couldn’t hit a baseball as far as his other teammates. So he quit.

“I got discouraged about stuff so fast and would walk away from a challenge rather than confront it,” he writes. With his hands drawn over his ears and eyes closed tight, trying to shut out the world, he thinks: I’ll be a basket case once I get out of high school.

Then he finds a pastime at which he is unrivaled: street fighting. It gets him respect—“Wow, I’m like a hero,” he thinks after beating up a kid whose father has mob connections—and the other kids on his block look up to him. But ultimately, even that doesn’t satisfy him.

In the meantime, Harvey begins to drop out of high-school classes when his grades falter, and becomes obsessively interested in boxing and jazz music. After he finishes high school, he even becomes a regular (unpaid) writer for major jazz magazines about musicians that nobody else has heard of.

But Harvey has become a psychological nightmare. He cracks up and quits the Navy. He gets a bad grade and drops out of college. He goofs around and gets fired from job after lousy job. The end is no surprise to anyone who has read Pekar’s comics: Harvey needs to hold on to the government job he finally does land, because it’s pretty much all he has going for him.

The Quitter

By Harvey Pekar
Art by Dean Haspiel
Vertigo Comics
$19.99, 104 pages
ISBN: 140120399X

Dean Haspiel’s art is beautifully drawn, though I wondered throughout if the illustration was even necessary. One exception, however: Midway through The Quitter, the young Harvey has sustained a couple of cuts in a fight, and he couldn’t look prouder. It’s a face full of hope and happiness.

The facing page shows the unmistakably same Harvey today, but the hope has been replaced with anxiety and experience. The elder Harvey, even now, is unsure about his future. The pictures say so much more than words ever could.

Pekar could never have had this (or any) story published without the steady hand of a comic artist. The story is too short, too mundane, but that’s also what makes Pekar’s work so enticing. What The Quitter lacks in verbosity it makes up for in its confessional power.

Pekar’s story is dark, and heavy; any other rendition probably would not have done it justice. But make no mistake, no matter how boring Harvey’s life may seem on its surface, this is graphic storytelling at its best.

By Joel Magalnick


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