The Unrepentant Marxist Comic Book

In 2009, I worked with Harvey Pekar to write a comic book memoir titled “The Unrepentant Marxist”. I wrote the dialog based on his guidelines (keep ‘em laughing) and Summer McClinton (one of his best artist collaborators) did the drawings. He had a deal with Random House to have it published but it got dropped after his death from lymphoma in 2010.

I’ve decided to begin serializing it in seven installments this week on my blog. Additionally, you can download it yourself. This was a draft copy that Harvey’s editor never got a chance to work on, so you will notice typos here and there.

My old friend Paul Buhle hooked us up in 2009. Paul had worked with Harvey on some great comic books based on the left, including one about SDS, but maybe did not consider the possibility that Harvey would propose working on my memoir. It just turned out that we had a natural affinity based on being the sons of Jewish shopkeepers, jazz fans, leftist politics and an identification with the beat generation.

Paul volunteered to write a preface to the memoir that captures the two of us quite well. Posted below, it will put the project into context. Following it will be the chapter that covers my birth and growing up in the Borscht Belt. Although I was no radical by any stretch of the imagination, my village was filled with 1930s radicals that gave Woodridge the nickname “Utopia in the Catskills” in a 1947 PM newspaper article. PM was a daily that reflected the POV of Communists but was broad enough not to be mistaken for The Daily Worker.

The World of Pekar and Proyect

By Paul Buhle

The passage of time may have taken some of the luster from Harvey Pekar’s reputation in the world of comic art. We could forget that Helen Mirren quipped, at the San Diego Comicon a year following his death, that Harvey had allowed readers all over the world to look at comic art in a new way.  That he scripted a comic art biography of Lou Proyect, drawn by Summer McClinton, might be described, in a number of dimensions, as the perfect project. Some part of Harvey was Studs Terkel, the famously loquacious oral historian. Another part of Harvey was Lou Proyect, hard-bitten master of arguments and avowed revolutionary

A file clerk at a VA hospital and a life-long resident of blue collar Cleveland, Pekar made his own persona the expression of a philosophy, a way of life, of the American Jewish intellectual-radical-critic. He was already known to the followers of jazz reviews in magazines before he launched his own home-made comic series, sold at little comicons and local bookstores, slowing gaining national attention over the course of the 1980s. A young and troubled Robert Crumb, almost literally saved by the friendship of Pekar, devoted some of his most intimate and touching pages to Harvey’s self-described life.

By the later 1990s, Pekar had been on the Letterman Show repeatedly, complaining aloud about the control exerted from the heights of the military-industrial complex aka General Electric, a Letterman sponsor. Harvey was made to seem clownish, in effect the representative of a failed, post-industrial city. He  refused the role, and achieved his vindication in American Splendor (2002), an awarded biopic, the first and perhaps the only film to include the real live protagonist, the actor playing him, and an animated version of the original.

Pekar happened upon Proyect by a curious incident, or perhaps one more story in the quiet comradeship of aging American leftists. As an occasional visitor to New York while giving history talks or attending events for the non-fictional comics that I was bringing out from 2005 onward, I hung out with Lou and spend the nights on a futon in his condo unit. Harvey Pekar came in from out of town for a shared event, an exhibit at CUNY Graduate Center for the release of a comic, and asked Lou if he could put up Harvey instead of me. Done Deal.

A friendship followed and the project that they worked on together. Harvey was a master of biography, and relished writing about a personality so much like his own, avowedly leftwing and irascible, unyielding. In the end, and working with one of the most talented comic artists on hand, a creation emerged. Every reader will have a unique response, based on generation, personal experiences and narrative tastes. There is something here for all. But what I wish to emphasize is the meeting of spirits or souls. The intimacy of the telling holds the charm to this book.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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