Harvey Pekar, Graphic Art and Israeli State Policy

A review of:
By Harvey Pekar and J.T. Waldman
With an epilogue by Joyce Brabner
Hill and Wang, 2012
$24.95. $14.67 on Amazon

Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010, was a major player in the elevation of comics into a respectable medium for telling human stories. His famous American Splendor comic featured Pekar as an existential everyman/curmudgeon finding stories in chance meetings in the grocery line, in his mundane, day-to-day life as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA office or in his celebrated appearances on the David Letterman show. His image has been drawn by dozens of cartoonists in a range of styles, most notably by the famous R. Crumb. A feature film was made about Pekar’s life and work called American Splendor. The hybrid narrative/documentary film won an Oscar for its screenplay.

The Israel book, the real Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb's versionThe Israel book, the real Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb's version

Pekar has a strong following and is still publishing graphic narratives from beyond the grave. The new comic titled Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is an example of his post-mortem work. (A second graphic tale written by Pekar — Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland — has also been published this year. It was illustrated by Joseph Remnant.)

The 172-page graphic narrative on Israel was conceived and written by Pekar and later illustrated by Philadelphia artist J.T. Waldman, whose other work includes a highly regarded graphic narrative of the Biblical Esther story called Megillat Esther. Bruce Farrar on Amazon’s website writes of this book: “A daring and imaginative interpretation of scripture in a graphic novel is JT Waldman’s version of the Scroll of Esther, the story behind the Purim festival. …This is a cup that runs over its brim with delights, wonders, and mysteries.”

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is comprised of three interwoven narrative lines. First, there’s Pekar’s story raised in Cleveland by a father who owned and operated a small grocery store and a mother who was a devoted Marxist; both parents were strong Zionists. Second, there’s Pekar’s telling of Jewish history from Abraham to the Crusades to the British Mandate to the founding of Israel. The third narrative thread is based on the time Waldman met Pekar and drove him around Cleveland before Pekar died.

Much of the narrative is framed by the conversation between the two men (one old, one young) during the drive through Cleveland,. Fittingly, the drive begins at a huge used book store and ends at a public library. This is an apt frame because Pekar was a notorious bibliophile who haunted used book stores and libraries during his lifetime and amassed a vast library of his own in his home, which he shared with his wife and professional collaborator, Joyce Brabner.

The Pekar grocery store, left, and artist J.T. Waldman driving Pekar around ClevelandThe Pekar grocery store, left, and artist J.T. Waldman driving Pekar around Cleveland

I met Pekar once about 15 years ago when he visited Philadelphia for an interview. My wife, Lou Ann Merkle, is from Cleveland and knew both Harvey and Joyce. Back in the 1980s, Lou Ann co-produced with Brabner a comic book called Real War Stories that told a handful of tales about anti-war veterans.

One of the things that impressed me then about Harvey — beyond his eccentric, sometimes grumbling manner — was his formidable range of reading. The man was a sponge for ideas and information. At the time, I had been collecting and reading Latin American literature. Once Harvey heard that, without skipping a beat, he ticked off the famous Latin American Boom writers he was familiar with. But then he went on to cite the works — such as Epitaph of a Small Winner — that he had read of the 19th-century Brazilian novelist Machado De Assis. Few Americans are aware of De Assis, let alone read his works. Pekar was also a devoted jazz aficionado who reviewed jazz for a number of publications.

In the narrative, when it comes to the Israel Pekar’s parents “promised him,” the scales fall from his eyes following the Six Day War. Immediately after the June 1967 war, after Israel takes the Golan Heights, the West Bank and most of the Sinai Peninsula in an amazing military action, Pekar is still four-square behind Israel. “I gotta say I was proud of Israel then. They’d taken on huge odds and beat them.”

Then, as he’s shown pushing his VA file clerk cart around the VA warehouse, he says, “But I couldn’t stop thinking about the valid points my leftist friends had.” By the 1970s, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he becomes aware it is Israeli policy to move Jewish settlers into the occupied territories. This is where the questions begin to arise around the notions of protection versus territorial expansion.

Waldman draws Pekar, here, barefoot in a wife-beater t-shirt sitting in a chair reading a newspaper; there’s a cup of coffee on the table next to him, a cat and a box of records on the floor, a phonograph player on top of a small cabinet.

“This is really a stupid thing to do!” he thinks in a thought bubble concerning the settlement issue. “It’s sabotaging their best chances for lasting peace.”

The swirl of ideas assaulting Pekar after the Six Day WarThe swirl of ideas assaulting Pekar after the Six Day War

This juncture is exactly where I first questioned the wisdom of our ally Israel. In June of 1967, I was serving in Vietnam as a radio-direction finder in the area west of Pleiku. I vividly recall standing in the middle of my company’s headquarters in the Fourth Infantry Division base camp west of Pleiku discussing (or arguing) with a Jewish friend about the notion of Jews owning and settling the occupied territories. In his view, it was the spoils of war, and it was all somehow reinforced by the Bible. I uttered a lot of statements that began with: “Yes, but …” or “OK, sure, but don’t you think…” The momentum of the tanks and aerial bombardments was on his side.

In Vietnam, I was not particularly attuned to an antiwar message. I didn’t appreciate the nuances and complexities of imperial arrogance. But I clearly recall feeling something was terribly wrong about the notion of Israeli Jews settling the areas they had just taken. So Harvey Pekar’s feelings at that juncture make great sense to me, as they made great sense to a lot of people at the time. The trouble was — and is — these very human questions and feelings were seen as “leftist” and, thus, dismissed in favor of the tanks and the strategic bombers of the right.

Later, the militaristic excesses got worse, as in Lebanon in 1982; new information reveals how Israeli leaders bamboozled and bullied US diplomats into doing nothing to prevent the massacre of over 800 Palestinian refugees, mostly women, children and old men. As many recall, this episode ended with 241 dead US Marines and the US leaving with “its tail between its legs.”

The beauty of Pekar and Waldman’s collaborative book is that the ideas, the history and the questions are posed without shrill rhetoric or demands for action. While I’m a WASP and not terribly well versed in the history of Jewish ideas, it seems to me there is a long history and tradition of secular Jewish narrative and scholarship that emphasizes human suffering and the foibles of power politics — in favor of the ordinary, everyday schmuck or schlemiel lost in the swirling vortex of history and experience. It seems to me one might argue that the State of Israel is in fact a response to this moral and aesthetic vein of humility — as in, “Nevermore will we be taken as morally sensitive, bumbling fools and losers!” This raises the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the baby being a highly moral sense of shared humanism.

J.T. Waldman, speaking at left, and Joyce Brabner at the Gershman YJ.T. Waldman, speaking at left, and Joyce Brabner at the Gershman Y

Many of my intensely pro-Israel Jewish friends would tell me I’m way over my head, here. One such friend is a very progressive, anti-war Democrat when it comes to anything other than Israel. Last week, when I sent him a notice of an exhibit of Waldman’s drawings from the Pekar book at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia, his response was typically harsh and accusative of me.

“If he [Pekar & Waldman] had written a book criticizing Muslims it could cost the lives of an American ambassador, members of his staff, destruction and riots and reveal the fanatical hatred of our country. Picking on Jews is the only fair game. Of course you won’t post my comments to your distribution.”

The point is, here’s a quite liberal man who has such a closed mind when it comes to things Israel he condemns a nuanced and complex book he has apparently not even seen. He even compares it to the amateurish, bigoted video slandering Mohammed as a child-molester, a homosexual and a womanizer.

I don’t mean to pick on my pro-Israel Jewish friend, but it raises the question now on the front burner how is war going to be avoided in the Middle East if American Jews think like this — or more accurately, don’t allow themselves to think out of the Likud box.

I would recommend the Pekar/Waldman book to anyone, Jew or Gentile, who has questions about the current severe lock-down of right-wing policy ideas vis-a-vis the State of Israel. I’d also recommend it to those who don’t understand such questions — and should. Even if we may be approaching a point where it’s tragically too late to avoid a major conflagration, it’s never too late to wise up and open our minds.

Today, in the middle of a US presidential election campaign, the US-educated Likud prime minister of Israel went on US media speaking to US viewers about the horror of letting Iran get “into the red zone,” which he described as “within the 20 yard line.” He continued his absurd football imagery, saying, “We can’t let them make a touchdown.” He suggested if the US president would not do his bidding and declare a “red line,” Israel would have to make a military strike on Iran on its own — assuming, of course, that the US would support it militarily after the fact.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is the tail wagging the dog. His readiness to so blatantly weigh into a US election is reminiscent of Israeli leaders bullying the US in 1982. The fact back in 1976 the prime minister worked with Mitt Romney in a financial concern called The Boston Consulting Group should not pass the smell test.

It may be late in this insane game, but an intelligent, compassionate, nuanced and adult meander through Harvey Pekar’s rich and edgy mind can’t hurt.

NOTE: J.T. Waldman’s drawings will be on display in the Borowsky Gallery at the Gershman Y at 401 South Broad Street (at Pine Street) in Philadelphia through November 18th. Admission is free. Gallery information: (215) 446-3001.