Harvey Pekar writes autobiographical comic books for grown-ups, and he is rather prone to grumpiness. At 66, these are the things for which the retired Veteran’s Administration hospital file clerk and Cleveland icon is best known. Through his seminal American Splendor series of graphic novels, Pekar has been toiling in his own little backwater of literature for over 30 years, assiduously chronicling his real-life, common-man confrontations with self, art, and contemporary urban American life with surgical precision, unblinking honesty and a tragic poet’s soul.
While the observant might have noted a subtle tone shift in Pekar over his last couple of books — the previously alien hues of familial contentment and professional satisfaction quite notably color Our Movie Year, his literary response to the life-changing success of the American Splendor biopic — none but the unhinged might have predicted the changes unleashed in the author’s new Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story.
For the first time, Pekar is not his own subject. In Malice, a small, slight, boyish young man born in 1976, Pekar has found a fascinating and difficult alter ego whose life in many ways parallels his own, two generations later. A similarly alienated, isolated, intellectually gifted child born of emotionally dysfunctional Eastern European Jewish immigrants (Pekar Polish, Malice Russian), Pekar perhaps sees in the suggestively named Mike Malice an idealized version of himself: smarter, even more idealistic and rigidly principled, blissfully self-assured, crankier. But while Pekar’s vindication didn’t come until he was in his sixties — and he has still not lost his knack for finding the cloud within the silver lining in his own life’s stories — he surrenders himself entirely to the happy ending of Malice’s narrative, which arrives in time for the hero’s 30th birthday and closes the book with unabashedly cloudless “sunshine and lollipops.”
The enthusiasm, insight and empathy Pekar brings to the tale, combined with his gift for bracing, comic storytelling and artist Gary Dumm’s evocative, cinematic illustrations, yield the most broadly satisfying, artistically accomplished work of the author’s long career.
Though the writer and his subject share a number of biographical and personality characteristics, Pekar is well known as an unreconstructed, labor-loving, redistributionist leftist who is all about the nobility of the little man and fairness of result, while through this book we watch Malice drift away on the diametrically opposite pole: first as a fiercely individualist boy, then leading the Young Republicans at WASPy Bucknell University; next as a Fountainhead-thumping fervent Randian, a libertarian CATO Institute intern; and ultimately, following his anti-authoritarian principles to their logical intellectual conclusion, as a fully anti-government anarchist.
Pekar conveys this progression, in the form of Malice’s first-person chronological narrative, without a hint of irony, judgment or condescension, further confirming his own artistic integrity, and demonstrating an ability to get outside of himself hitherto unhinted at in his succession of autobiographical work.
Who is Michael Malice and why is Harvey Pekar his graphic-novel biographer? After graduating with honors from the exclusive Stuyvesant magnet high school in his native New York City and from Bucknell with a degree in business, Malice decided to spin the career “roulette wheel” and sample a series of increasingly lucrative temp jobs in NYC, eventually ending up in business software training. Meanwhile, he had a brief but reasonably successful career as a standup comedian and wrote an unpublished novel retelling a portion of the Bible, for which he did two years exhaustive research to gain what he felt was a sufficient grounding in world religion. When that went nowhere, Malice became entranced with a photo of the ’80s band Rubber Rodeo and decided to interview its members in preparation for another novel, which eventually turned into a screenplay.
One of the former band members was working as an animator on the film version of American Splendor and the connection to the graphic novelist was made. Pekar loved Malice’s improbable stories and introduced him to readers in a chapter of Our Movie Year.
Now Malice stars in his own Pekar book – and what of that happy ending? You don’t want me to spoil it.