written by Harvey Pekar, art by Summer McClinton
introduction by Anthony Bourdain
Villard Books (Random House), 2011, 159 pp.
Huntington, West Virginia ?On the Fly? is a little gem of a comic left behind when Harvey Pekar died in July 2010. It is an unpretentious comic about distinctively unpretentious folks, including the new friends that Pekar met while on a literary tour several years after the award-winning biopic American Splendor introduced the comics writer and public personality to a wider audience.
It should be emphasized that, like poets (except when they get teaching gigs), Pekar and most alternative comics people tour because they need the money. Their books, with the rarest exceptions, are not best-sellers, and they never get six- or even high four-figure advances. The idea is to be paid a few thousand dollars beyond expenses by some festival committee or to stop on the campus lecture circuit. Harvey did as much of this as his health allowed, and everywhere he took the time to treat his hosts (mainly the hands-on functionaries) graciously but also to engage with them, at length, about their lives, just as he did his acquaintances in Cleveland.
This predilection gave Pekar more than a little in common with Studs Terkel (whose Working he transformed, in part, into a script for a comic, under my editorship) but also with C.L.R. James, who wanted to know especially about jobs, how his new friends did them, and how they felt about them. The subject, in other words, that most acquaintances politely ignore.
Pekar begins Huntington with a figure who was only a legend to me: ?Broadway Bob,? the owner of a small-scale Cleveland limo fleet, a former small-time criminal who segued into being a bodyguard, then driver, and then a business owner. The telling is or appears to be flat, that is, matter-of-fact, accurate to the subject?s version of his own history with its ups and downs. No melodrama, even in the criminal phase of failed bank jobs and prison terms, but many details, drawn with precision by one of Pekar?s favorite artists, Summer McClinton.
Several of the other stories flow from his life in Cleveland, meeting would-be artists, erstwhile hippies, and left-wing types. The city is one more spot for the ever-mobile American population to move through highly personal journeys. A whole lot is tragic, but in an everyday sense. There?s one story of a kid who grew up with a schizophrenic parent who embraced 1960s and 70s alternative culture, free schools and communes, while the kid was trying to get a grip on her own identity. Boyfriends, marriage, and important political work now almost forgotten?support of the Salvadorean people against the murderous military armed, trained and supplied by Reagan?s CIA. All that ends badly in defeat and discouragement, and life goes onward again. Campus jobs peak at the cataloguing of graphic novels, a huge task still barely undertaken–so many graphic works come from small publishers, and they emerged at a moment when libraries were cutting back staff and resources.
The next story is about her second husband, a guy who worked at Wal-Mart for seven years (a bit under a quarter of Harvey?s time at the VA hospital in Cleveland) and all the time wanted to be an artist. He?s a comics fan. Then there?s a businessman who achieved his long-term dream of owning a retro diner and is stuck with the big downsides. And finally we get to Huntington, where a comic book store owner is trying to keep the place open through hard times.
Most of these people have something important in common with Pekar?s own immigrant parents, who struggled to keep going in a little grocery store, working long hours, never getting much ahead, and always facing collapse. He saw their agonized efforts and, perhaps for that reason, chose a low-profile government job that paid poorly but had good benefits for the workers who could stick it out for decades.
Anthony Bourdain says, in the several-page tribute that he calls ?The Original (Goodbye Splendor),? that Harvey?s life and work offer a reference point for late twentieth and early twenty-first century American life. It?s a good, useful thought, even if those who seem in Bourdain?s mind to compare to Pekar in their own times (Twain, Whitman, Dos Passos, Kerouac, and Kesey) are distinctly different literary characters. Or are they? Bourdain goes on to say that the ?place whose great buildings and bridges and factories had once exemplified twentieth-century optimism needed its Harvey Pekar.? Experts wrote Cleveland off, the faded and hopeless postindustrial mess. Harvey saw it as humanly alive despite everything.