Splendor, Mundanity and Strenuous Briefness

Harvey Pekar died this weekend. Fans of graphic novels knew him as the “master of the mundane,” creator of the long-running series American Splendor, whose emphasis on the less-than spectacular events of an ordinary life became an inspirational treatise on how to extract the profound from the mundane.

Harvey was here at UCLA Live just a few months ago, appearing with Alison Bechdel, a truly stunning graphic novelist and generally brilliant woman who spoke frankly of the ways in which Pekar inspired her over the years. She even shared a short strip she had drawn based on a stick-figure outline Pekar handed her one day. “Here,” he said. “You should draw this.” Her multimedia presentation on the Royce Hall stage  flashed on a yellow, lined piece of paper with a few scribblings Harvey had made, simple scribblings that somehow inspired a story.

Pekar himself talked about his somewhat incongruous rise to fame in the graphic novel world…after all, he can’t draw at all, but one of his early and most prolific collaborators/supporters was R. Crumb who is pretty much a legend in the genre.  Harvey was, in person, much as like his character is in the  American Splendor strip—just a guy. A guy like the rest of us. For me, the most endearing part of his appearance here was seeing him interact with Bechdel, and seeing first-hand the impact his work and vision had on fellow artists. His latest work is The Pekar Project, an online strip for Smith Magazine for which he worked with a variety of talented up-and-coming artists.

Harvey’s life and death calls to mind a lot of questions. What is art? What is profound? What is mundane, and where do these ideas converge?

It makes me think of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours and be changed or, have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.”

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Don’t we all lay down our heads at night sometimes and wonder what it would be like to wake to a different world?  But we never really do. We wake to our own lives every day. We go about our routines. We do our jobs. We think our thoughts. We live. We live the only way we can because that’s all we can do.

Our actual lives are largely defined by our most mundane habits and necessary behaviors. But those things don’t necessarily define the self. Harvey Pekar knew that.  It’s in the mind,  and through art and literature that we can perhaps, if we are lucky and inspired enough… extract the beauty and profundity from those simple and often mundane behaviors and tasks. There’s beauty in the breakdown.

Life is brief, more brief than we would like…strenuously so. We have our moments of pleasure and pain, of joy and bitterness and then we go. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we leave a little inspiration behind.

Rest in Peace, Harvey Pekar.

Here’s a little something from another inspirational chap to see you off.

…e.e. cummings

into the strenuous briefness
handorgans and April
darkness, friends

i charge laughing.
Into the hair-thin tints
of yellow dawn,
into the women-coloured twilight

i smilingly glide. I
into the big vermilion departure
swim, sayingly;

(Do you think?) the
i do, world
is probably made
of roses & hello:

(of solongs and, ashes)

Leave a Reply