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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/20/2008

The Riff: From Harvey Pekar, the Power of Honest Comics

By Michael Cavna

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner tell their tale in the film "American Splendor." (John Clifford/Courtesy of HBO/Fine Line)

Comics are often tagged as pure escapism, but that limiting a label does some of them a disservice. Emotionally true comics not only can remove you from your reality -- they can hold lessons in how to plug into it, to better understand it. As a child, for instance, comics helped me figure out adolescence. And now, they are helping me deal with the news of a loved one's cancer.

The news came late Friday. Staggered by the cosmic sucker-punch, I swung by The Post mailroom on my way out the door -- something I never do. There, waiting for me -- delivered as promptly as promised by comics scholar and "comicsDC" blogger Mike Rhode -- was the new book he edited, "Harvey Pekar Conversations." I stashed the softcover in my satchel and dashed to the Metro.

As the Red Line rattled along, I pulled out the book and cracked the cover randomly to Page 79. Immediately staring back at me, remarkably, were Pekar's words: "I guess I wanted to show people, among other things, that you don't have to be a hero to get through cancer. You can be a craven coward and get through. You have to stay on your medication and take your treatments, that's all."

The chapter was from a 1997 Hogan's Alley interview. Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, were discussing -- among other things -- their acclaimed and moving graphic novel, "Our Cancer Year," about the period in the early '90s when Pekar recovered from lymphatic cancer. (This period was famously depicted, of course, in the 2003 film "American Splendor," in which Paul Giamatti portrayed Pekar.)

Somehow soothed by Pekar's words, I made a point of picking up a copy of "Our Cancer Year." I'd looked at it some years ago, but it had not had enough personal relevance then. Now, the comic book's scenes of painful honesty, the disorienting and mood-shifting artwork (by Frank Stack), the dialogue rife with support and anger and anguish, all spoke to me.

Elsewhere in the interview, Harvey says: "I write about my life, choosing incidents that I think will be, for one reason or another, significant to people. Often because they may have experienced the same things. ... I hope that in reading them people can identify with the character and in some cases take comfort from what I write or know that maybe they're not the only person in the world that's had this experience."

The most moving comics -- by Pekar, by Brabner, by countless others -- do exactly that. Thanks, Harvey, for once again putting it so perfectly into words.

By Michael Cavna  | August 20, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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I love Pekar's work, and "Our Cancer Year" is easily his strongest, not to mention one of the most moving and powerful graphic novels out there.

Posted by: Josh M | August 20, 2008 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Michael, I'm glad you're finding something in Harvey's story beyond just the comics he's done. After all, the comics were only just a medium for him - the story is the thing. Harvey's licked cancer twice. I wish your loved one the best of luck.

Posted by: Mike Rhode | August 20, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Great post Michael.

Posted by: Jesse | August 20, 2008 2:10 PM | Report abuse

On another topic....

There's a strip that's part of my on-line reading called "Ballard Street". I think I keep it just because I'm too lazy to change my script and drop it. It's generally the type of strip you back slowly away from so as not to startle it in case it gets violent.

Today was peculiar AND funny:

Posted by: f2 | August 20, 2008 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Pekar's real-life-ain't-easy stories make going to the sore and buying a loaf of bread sound like a heroic struggle, and then he tackles a **real** heroic struggle like his bout with cancer as just another part of life. You have to admire someone who is so rooted as that. I agree that there are lessons for us all in his work.

Posted by: seismic-2 | August 21, 2008 1:06 PM | Report abuse

PLEASE HELP! The comic section has for two weeks shown up as "Undefined"! No comic section. Would someone please be gracious enough to explain WHY I can no longer see the comic section on-line? Several emails to the Washington Post have failed to provide other than one generic response "If it doesn't work, email us in one week1"

I sincerely doubt this will be posted. But since you do read each post, PLEASE will someone tell me what has happened to the comic section? I would greatly appreciate your support in resolving this unknown. Thank you so much!

Anna Knight
Rowlett, TX 75088

(formerly - Alexandria, VA)

Posted by: Anna Knight | August 24, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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