I don’t know if this is linguistically correct, but I’m going with it: my recent discovery of indie comic-book legend Harvey Pekar is posthumous – that is, Pekar passed away two years ago (although I’m still kicking), and I’m just reading his work for the first time (I know many of you are rolling your eyes, thinking, ‘what took you so long?’). While Pekar might have gone to the other side, new graphic works with his name continue to hit shelves; according to a 2010 New York Times article aptly titled, “The Unfinished Tale of an Unlikely Hero,” at least four titles, including this one, are scheduled to debut or have recently debuted from beyond the grave.
Best known for his long-running autobiographical series American Splendor (which became a film starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in 2003), Pekar was just finishing Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with artist collaborator JT Waldman when he died in July 2010. The pair was “working on a book about the history of Israel,” into which Pekar wove in his own experiences of “why my attitude about the state of Israel changed.”
The child of Jewish immigrants who settled in Cleveland, Ohio (which, coincidentally, was also home to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose parents, too, were Jewish immigrants), both Pekar’s parents were staunch Zionists. “I’d like to share how I lost faith in Israel after I … moved away from my immigrant Jewish parents,” Pekar explains on the book’s the second page. “I hope this book will help change some minds, but I dunno. How can you change the minds of people who think they’ve made a deal with God that goes back thousands of years?”
Still, Pekar is willing to try. His historical overview begins with Abraham, and arrives centuries later with, “The Arabs have a legitimate beef. [Israel's founder David] Ben-Gurion admitted it. [Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan admitted it.” With Waldman by his side, Pekar’s personal tour moves from “maybe the biggest used bookstore in the world,” to an Italian deli (when Waldman nixes Pekar’s first suggestion of a cheap deal at Burger King for something more local, assuring Pekar that their editor will pick up the tab), then to the Lee Road branch of the Cleveland Public Library system. From history to personal story, Pekar explains, rants, guides, insists, directs … until he’s sitting alone with his undecipherable thoughts on the final page. Whether his decades-long trajectory proves convincing is, of course, up to each reader.
While the book poignantly ends in what seems to be mid-thought, Pekar’s wife (who co-authored Our Cancer Year with Pekar and Frank Stack) adds a bittersweet epilogue that concludes with Pekar’s funeral, which “was, as he was, proudly Jewish, but not nationalist.” Waldman’s art – which is further enhanced by not following a traditional panel-by-panel layout; the car journey, for example, cleverly meanders like a windy road – is certainly a stunning tribute to the late Pekar. While Pekar might be talking story in an afterlife universe with Abraham, his widow and collaborators continue to spread his word in this: “celebrating the work Harvey did: comics about real life.”