Harvey Pekar's two Chronicle covers have been a rare, and deserved, exception to our 22-year focus on local news, culture, and events.
We are and always have been Austin-centric, to the point where that's not only a regular, but also a legitimate criticism. Our focus starts and often ends in town, not just with music, but with books, film, food, theatre, art, and politics, as well (though under News/Politics Editor Michael King's leadership, in response to the times we've greatly expanded our state coverage). When we started, a handful of other weeklies covered their local scenes, though almost all reviewed the new Springsteen. Now concentrating on local music is the norm.
Ironically, while we looked at our navel, the world came to us. Austin artists and Austin City Limits first attracted attention, but then there was SXSW, followed by all the other film and music festivals. Lately there's been as much national interest in our film community as in the music scene, with so many other creative communities attracting attention as well.
Twenty-two years ago, I didn't think I was going to stay much more than a year, and it's still surprising to contemplate just how long we've been at it. Over that time, most of our covers have had Austin-related subjects. I remember that David Byrne, Frank Zappa, and Duke Ellington each graced our cover once, while, ironically, our first -- and still worst -- cover featured The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien, but those proved to be exceptions.
Which brings us to Harvey Pekar. I think it was Steve Fore who turned us on to Pekar's American Splendor so long ago. Brilliant celebrations of the ordinary, Pekar's tales of his life as a clerk at a V.A. hospital in Cleveland as well as a fanatical record collector, by detail, emotion, and narrative sense, take on a resonance greater than most Hollywood releases. In Pekar's life, triumphs are few and defeats are commoner, but not debilitating; rather, it's the rhythm of the day-to-day that almost overwhelms. When we first read them, these comics were startling. By offering less melodrama and action than most popular culture narratives (comic books, TV programs, movies) they told so much more. Proudly, the Chronicle has long published Pekar's work, comic pages as well as jazz and literary criticism. Having spent time with Harvey and Joyce Brabner, his wife (also involved in unique, though far more politically controversial, comics) by phone and during visits to Austin, we can testify that the comics, though brilliantly imaginative, are more documentary than fiction.
Many can't believe Pekar is just a clerk or that the books, because of their extensive media coverage, haven't made him rich. David Letterman made this explicit when Pekar was a guest. As a guest, Pekar was at his most contentiously idiosyncratic, making all who came before -- even mavericks such as Brother Theodore, who built a career on near-insane eccentricity -- look like mainstream show business. Dave bought the very myth his show mocks, that celebrity elevates and enriches life. "It seems to me you have a very successful career here, Harvey. This is being published by a major publisher: Doubleday. Why do you maintain the day job?" In a world of multimillion-dollar contracts, Letterman didn't get it. Pekar wasn't getting rich authoring the most unique American comics. They probably lost money, with the book deal modest at best. He couldn't afford to give up his clerk job; he needed the money and the pension.
Now Harvey is getting more media coverage than ever as American Splendor -- a new film combining narrative, comic-book replications, and actual footage of Harvey, Joyce, and friends -- is being released to rave reviews. It won an award at Sundance and another at Cannes. (France, Harvey noted, was better than expected, the highlight being when the hotel helped get a stain out of his daughter's dress.) One of the most innovative, exciting independent American films in a while, American Splendor tries and succeeds at a whole new sense of cinematic mosaic (though I do like to think our friend Ron Mann's Comic Book Confidential was an influence).
At Sundance, as the film received a deservedly thunderous reception, Harvey was almost smiling. But some things never change. Chronicle Film Editor Marge Baumgarten and I walked up to pay our respects and offer congratulations. We talked to Joyce first. The second thing she said to us was, "You got any work for Harvey? He needs the work." When we went over to Harvey, of course he asked the same question. In this issue, Harvey writes of his experiences with American Splendor, the movie. I mean, how could we say no? Especially when I'm rarely prouder of the Chronicle than when it offers Pekar's work.
So how does the new Pekar piece break with Chronicle tradition? American Splendor doesn't open until next weekend. The Chronicle doesn't advance events; we cover those of the week. There are so many film-related premieres, festivals, and stories this fall, however, the Screens section is overloaded. This is especially true next week, which includes the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival; an Austin Film Society Documentary Tour screening of Hector Galán's new work, Visiones, at One World Theatre; and the release of Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Not meaning to short Joyce and Harvey (make that not daring to short ...), American Splendor coverage is offered this week.
Previous breaks with our tradition found the Chronicle featuring Harvey on the cover at least twice over the years. We could make some lame "he may not live here but is of here" comment, but the truth is Harvey's pure Cleveland. The reasons are our passion for his work and its stunning originality, which may not have made the Pekar family much money, but has now influenced at least two generations of comic creators. Thus Harvey Pekar has been on the Chronicle cover more than any non-Austinite -- more than Bob Dylan, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, Dave Letterman, Ann Coulter, Oprah Winfrey, and Jay Leno, not to mention both Bill and Hillary Clinton. After 22 years, if you can say nothing else about the Chronicle, that strikes me as enough.
Avoiding any celebration, we're gearing up for our 23rd year. Expect lots of new ideas, bells, and whistles, as well as all of the usual, done with a passion that belies our advancing age. As we move forward, I can't think of anyone I'd rather travel into the future with than this staff I so respect and these readers we are so proud to serve.
Remember, too, we now post letters online daily, so if the above strikes you as a bit too much, you can find out who can't stand us, and why, much more often.