Meta-Harvey and His Neo-Realist Art

Looking for freedom, trying to escape any kind of censorship, the American “underground comix” movement in the late sixties and early-to-mid seventies wanted to bring a new way of telling stories. Tired and disillusioned of the society around them, the writers and artists of that period looked for new ways of expression that were often iconoclastic. Harvey Pekar was one of the “New Wave” comic writers who approached the sequential art as a means to tell real stories, about real people, without embellishing anything. Pekar took the autobiography form to the extreme, writing about almost everything that happened to him in his daily life, as it happened. His approach to the comics was very much like an exorcism, writing being for him a way to cope with the misery and anguish of existence. The story “A Fantasy” (published for the first time in American Splendor 1, 1976, written by Pekar and illustrated by Robert Crumb) is a wonderful example of meta-fiction (especially its second page, presented below). It is a two-page story about two people wanting to write a two-page story. It is a commentary about the “new neo-realist” art (Pekar & Crumb, page 2, second tier, second panel), at the same time being an example of this kind of art.

a fantasy - 2

The drawings here are very simple, being however very expressive. Their simplicity is counterbalanced by the poignancy of the words. There is a rawness to be found in both the drawings and the sentences, and one could say that the drawings are a visual representation, expression, or materialization of the words. The style is caricatural, the representation of humans being almost grotesque. Despite the roughness of the words, the story is written in a humorous way, telling us not to take it too seriously. Unlike the “serious” art, this is done tongue-in-cheek, satirizing the mainstream art.

In this story, Pekar is trying to get Crumb to draw some of his work. However, instead of trying to convince Crumb nicely, Pekar reprimands him, trying to make Crumb think that he’s nothing, that he’s “a has-been” (Pekar & Crumb, 2, first tier, second panel), and the only way to be current again is by working with Pekar, thus bullying him into working with Harvey. One can see here the defining trait of Pekar, the “I-need-you-but-I’m-not going-to-beg”-kind of attitude, hiding an artist’s turmoil beneath a vulgar exterior. Taken by surprise, Crumb backs down, agreeing to everything Pekar says.

The first page shows us how Harvey plans to get Crumb to do his bidding. Pekar is eating his dinner, moping (“Looks like another miserable night…”, first tier, first panel), when Robert Crumb visits him with some friends. Pekar then gets the idea to make Crumb agree to illustrate his comic script. And he knows exactly how to do it: “I know his weak spots… I’ll play on his guilt an’ then give ‘im th’ hard sell!” (second tier, second panel).

The second page is where the “meta” aspect of the story really comes into place. In the entire page, Pekar is depicted towering over Crumb, intimidating him, almost crushing him with his presence. R. Crumb can be considered to be here a representative of the common man, one of us, who experiences firsthand the “vulgar” nature of the new art. Harvey Pekar looks like an ogre, a raw force of nature that is hitting you in the face with real-life words, without holding anything back.

The first tier has Harvey telling Crumb that he has planned a new book, and demanding Crumb to be his illustrator. It starts with Pekar being relatively calm in the first panel, and then losing it in the second. His words (“yer a has-been! Yer over th’ hill!”) are more or less addressed to us, the readers. The old ways of telling stories are obsolete, these are the new ways, and you’d better get used to it.

In the second tier, Pekar continues to spit out arguments in favor of his art. He’s offering Crumb (and us) a chance “t’ hitch [his] wagon to a star… ME!”. The second panel expresses what many underground comic artists thought at that time, that this “new neo-realist style is the wave o’ the future… cats dig it…”

“…people are getting’ tired o’ yer stuff… They wanna see sump’n different!” says Harvey (Pekar & Crumb, 2, third tier, first panel) while scratching his chest. Crumb sits in the background, immobile, looking frail and frightened, while Pekar is looking as strong as ever. The new art is stronger than the old one. The second panel shows Crumb giving in, agreeing to work with Harvey, but somewhat reluctantly. The suit-wearing man is giving in to the power of the simple, honest man, who tells it like it is.

The third tier has Pekar and Crumb agreeing to work together.

Pekar tricks Crumb into doing what he wants him to do. He tricks the reader, too – underneath the funny and/or vulgar exterior, deep truths are being told. The “meta” quality of the story is quite evident throughout the page, comments about the nature of the new art being made, while the art was actually being produced. The new art wins simply by being more real, more raw, more powerful than the old one.

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