Review: Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland

One of indie comics legend Harvey Pekar’s final works, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is an uneven but loving tribute to the city that made him famous.

No less a comics legend than Alan Moore describes Harvey Pekar as “one of the very finest writers ever to grace the comic medium” in the introduction to Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and Moore’s statement isn’t an exaggeration.  Pekar’s death in 2010 was a body-blow to a city too wrapped  up in the ridiculous drama of Lebron James’ Decision to realize that it had lost one of the greatest writers the city had ever known.  Cleveland is a city well known for its comics legacy – Siegel and Schuster created Superman while living in Cleveland, while modern day comic stars like Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, and Brian Azzarello all come from the city as well – and Pekar may be first among equals.  So it is fitting that one of his final works, published after his death, was a history of the city Pekar lived in all his life.

Cleveland is a city that’s had its fair share of problems, and curmudgeonly Harvey Pekar is a man well-acquainted with writing about problematic topics.  But while the book is sometimes a bit bitter – and bittersweet – about Cleveland’s history and prospects, Pekar nevertheless puts a hopeful spin on things.  At times baffled by the city’s reputation (and at times all too understanding of it, such as when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire), Pekar’s Cleveland manages to highlight a lot of the city’s strongest qualities and darkest moments side by side, and the book gives them all a personal spin that makes it work.  Anyone looking for a strictly objective history of Cleveland should look elsewhere; this book is just as much about Harvey’s relationship to the city as it is about the city itself.

I really can’t say enough good things about Joseph Remnant, who handled the art for Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland.  His style is reminiscent of longtime Pekar supporter/artist R. Crumb, and he does a good job capturing both the city of Cleveland and the physical personality of the characters that pop in and out of the book.  The book feels like classic American Splendor despite its flaws, and I think a lot of that comes from Remnant.  Pekar has  had a lot of gifted artists contributing material to his work through the years, and Remnant is among the strongest of the lot.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is by no means a comprehensive or incredibly thorough history of the city, though it is a solid primer. Though Harvey acknowledges the massive problems Cleveland has faced in the last hundred years, the somewhat rambling nature of the book sometimes makes it seem as if he’s glossing over some of the biggest issues, such as the two full-blown riots the city saw during the late 60s.  Similarly, though expertly illustrated by Remnant and quickly told by Pekar, the twenty-some pages city’s earliest days in the late 1700s/early 1800s are incredibly dry, the brevity of Pekar’s script actually eliminating some potentially interesting stories.

Pekar was always strongest in short-form stories.  That’s probably why the digressions, tangents, and personal history loops here – Harvey reminiscing about what the Cleveland Indians meant to him as a child, say, or talking about his favorite bookstores in the city – are so much more entertaining than the more dryly historical sections.  There’s a reason the book is called Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, after all, and not just Cleveland.  Pekar has an incredibly keen eye for the inherently fascinating stories of him and his fellow people, and grounding all the classic American Splendor stories we know and love in the city’s unique rhythms and history offers a fresh perspective on old material.

But while Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is not without its problems, it is ultimately a fitting tribute to a once-great city from one of its most fascinating creative talents.  There are brief appearances from American Splendor favorites like Toby and Mr. Boats, and it ends on a brief hopeful note for the city of Cleveland with the opening of a Medical Mart that is supposed to bring a lot of jobs to the city.  But ultimately – though at least one more posthumous book of his has been published since Cleveland, titled Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me – this is a farewell to Harvey.  It doesn’t live up to the best of Harvey’s work on American Splendor, but very few things in this world do.


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