When Harvey Pekar died, two years ago today, at the age of 70, he left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, his "American Splendor" remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics: autobiographical slices of life in which Pekar wrestles with his job as a VA file clerk, with his mania for collecting, with the city of Cleveland -- where he was born and where he died -- and perhaps most significantly, with himself.
This is not to say "American Splendor" is self-absorbed, except it is -- in the best and most interesting of ways. When Pekar's on his game, he's like a street corner Samuel Beckett, pondering the absurdity of existence while embracing, in his own curmudgeonly fashion, all the struggles it entails.
I've written before about "Hypothetical Quandary," in which, over the course of three brief pages, he frames a Sunday morning trip to the bakery as an existential meditation, moving from the futility of his own striving and obsession to the sustaining, if fleeting, aroma of fresh bread. As with many of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved.
For all that, Pekar spent the last few years of his career focusing on a different sort of story: piece work ranging from graphic histories of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society to a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working." I can't say I blame him; he was always short of money, and after a lifetime as a cult hero, the 2003 film adaptation of "American Splendor" opened up a lot of opportunities. At the same time, there's something flat about such efforts, as if Pekar were going through the motions.
Both of these conflicting impulses -- that of the engaged autobiographer and of the freelancer fulfilling an assignment -- emerge in Pekar's final graphic memoir, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me." It's an interesting book, if a bit schizophrenic, melding Pekar's lifelong internal debate about his Jewishness and more specifically the state of Israel, with a capsule history of the Jews.