Growing up, I always looked forward to September because it meant one thing: back to school (I
was am a nerd). And besides seeing my friends and picking out supplies, I loved going back to school because with the new year I got a new reading list for English class (even bigger nerd).
As soon as I’d get home with those books in my hands, I’d read through them as quickly as possible even though most of the assigned reading wouldn’t be covered for months. Nothing could relax me after a day of school as well as it could.
Somewhere along the line, though, I stopped making as much time to read and without this escape my stress levels went up. Because I could use some relaxation in my life right now, I’ve decided to start a new project on my blog.
Cleveland has many interesting authors that call this city home and in an attempt to not just destress but also learn more about their work, I’m going to be reading and then blogging about a different Cleveland book each month.
When Scott first gifted me a few weeks ago with this month’s book, I immediately knew it had to be the “CLE Read” I started things off with. Written by one of my favorite Clevelanders and one of comics’ finest writers, it had been on my to-read lists for months.
A couple years back on July 12, 2010, the world of comics and Cleveland lost one of its greatest. Since 1976 when he published the first issue of American Splendor, Harvey Pekar became a pioneer of autobiographical comics.
He wrote about everyday life in the Midwest as a working-class man. It may have often been disgruntled and curmudgeonly, but it was always honest.
And in 1994, he co-authored Our Cancer Year with his wife Joyce Brabner, which chronicled his struggle to overcome cancer and won the Harvey Award for best original graphic novel.
Pekar was also a lifelong resident of Cleveland – a city that seemed to have been perfectly made for him (or was it the other way around?). Go watch Bourdain’s Cleveland episode and you’ll see “Our Man” (I also recommend reading Bourdain’s The Original tribute).
This April, two years after his death, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was published. One of the works he was busy with before his death, this uncompromising graphic novel is a look at the city’s history – starting with its settlement in the late 18th century through the 1960s.
Not one to shy away from the city’s ugly side, Pekar covers things like the city’s race riots, economic downfall and even the reluctance at its founding for people to settle here (an interesting echo of residents’ flight from the city proper over a century later).
However, mixed within this are retellings of some of the city’s accomplishments and bright moments. As he writes at one point in response to people who avoid Cleveland: “This is a shame, as Cleveland has more things to recommend it than most cities its size: an outstanding art museum, a world-class orchestra, top notch hospitals, attractive parks, major league sports.”
In the vein of his other autobiographical works for which he’s so critically acclaimed, Cleveland intertwines stories of Harvey Pekar’s life within his history of the city. And just like Cleveland, Pekar’s life was marked by ups, downs and the mundane. From memories of living in Coventry to his two divorces before marrying Brabner, I love the eloquent matter-of-factness found in both the good and the bad.
My favorite part about the book though is that it offers a glimpse into Pekar’s life at the end. His sudden death came as a surprise and reading about each day’s routine of gardening, listening to the Diane Rehm show and working on a few of the writing projects he had going on helps say goodbye. He also dedicates a beautifully-drawn full page to the Cleveland Public Library where he spends his day and which he pointedly observes was “built in an era when Cleveland businessmen had plenty of money and were willing to spend it on the public.”
Cleveland ends with Pekar ruminating on what’s going to happen next with the city. He references the Medical Mart which at the time of his death had still not broken ground. And even though it’s tinged with skepticism, his last words hold an air of optimism and hope.
At 120 pages, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a short read but one you can go back to everytime you find yourself missing Pekar or wanting a straightforward perspective about our city. It’s also bookended by an introduction from Alan Moore, the legendary writer of Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a tribute by Jimi Izrael, a legend in his own right as the Harvey Pekar scholar.
While Pekar’s most well-known for collaborating with artists like Robert Crumb, Gerry Shamray, and Joe Zabel, he selected Joseph Remnant to illustrate Cleveland. Remnant had illustrated stories for SMITH Magazine’s PEKAR PROJECT and although he’s from LA, was clearly thorough in his research for his illustrations. He captures Pekar and historic figures pretty dead-on and the final 3-panel page of Tower City in a snowstorm sums up how I’d like to remember Cleveland if I had to move away.
“Yeah, had plenty of good days…” – opening words of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland
Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was co-published by Zip Comics and Top Shelf. Scott picked up my copy at Comics Are Go, though you could probably find or order it from many of the area’s local comic shops and bookstores like Visible Voice or Mac’s Backs-Books (which even has its own cameo in the book). You can also order it online from Top Shelf.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ll be back each month with another CLE Read. October’s read will be the recently released mystery novel Whiskey Island by Les Roberts.
If you’ve read or are interested in reading one of these books, leave a comment or send me an email at clueintocleveland (at) gmail (dot) com. Same goes if you have a suggestion for a Cleveland book I should clue into.