Harvey Pekar’s Anti-epiphanic Everyday

Tony Venezia analyses Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb’s short story from American Splendor, “Hypothetical Quandary”, to discuss how the work “resists the lure of the epiphany”. Starting with comments on Pekar’s work from Crumb and Tim Kreider, Venezia draws on E.L. Doctorow’s assessment of the contemporary American short story as episodic rather than epiphanic to show how the piece is an example of the beautiful yet complicated poetics of the everyday in comics.

Pekar, H. Crumb, R. (1996) "Hypothetical Quandary", American Splendor presents Bob and Harv's Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, p. 79)
Pekar, H. Crumb, R. (1996) "Hypothetical Quandary", American Splendor presents Bob and Harv's Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, p. 79)

Hardly anything actually happens… mostly it’s just people talking, or Harvey by himself, panel after panel, haranguing the hapless reader.  There’s not much in the way of heroic struggle, the triumph of good over evil, resolution of conflict, people overcoming great odds, stuff like that.  It’s kinda sorta more like real life…real in late twentieth century Cleveland as it lurches along from one day to the next.

R. Crumb (1996) “A Mercifully Short Preface”, 1996.

Many of Pekar’s stories are not true stories, but the sort of anecdotes, observations and snippets of dialogue that a writer might jot down in his notebook for later use in a finished work.

Tim Kreider (2005) “Throwing the Book at Comics Artists”, 191.

Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical everyday micronarratives are predicated on their very quotidian-ness.  Describing them one runs out of adjectives to describe the comics’ narrative world: mundane, ordinary, banal, normal, familiar etc.  Pekar’s canon of work with numerous collaborators grasps this sense of the everyday as “the landscape closest to us, the world most immediately met.”  (Highmore, 2002, 1).  The run-of-the-mill events, occurences and ruminations were also often developed to further encompass the story of their own story-making process as Pekar sometimes worked to incorporate and transform self-reflexive commentary into the raw material of narrative.  But as the competing prefatory quotations from comics artists Crumb and Kreider indicate, this defining quotidian quality can be criticised as much as celebrated.

Indeed, the very ordinariness of Pekar’s work in American Splendor and beyond is precisely what readers seem to respond to.  Leaving aside the thorny subject of what exactly constitutes a “true story”,  Kreider is absolutely correct to point out that Pekar’s work comprises of “anecdotes, observations and snippets of dialogue”, or as Crumb puts it “[h]ardly anything happens.”  What Pekar strived for was a poetics of the everyday, captured fleetingly as part of a constant and evolving process.  To examine and illustrate this, we can look closely at one of Pekar’s most celebrated collaborations with Crumb, “Hypothetical Quandary.”

The strands of image and text are ingeniously entwined in this micronarrative, showing us Pekar as narrator as he leaves his house to go and buy a loaf of bread.  The text is monological, represented via thought balloons that reveal the character’s internal dilemma, his hypothetical quandary, reflecting on how his life would have been different if a major publisher had taken him on allowing him to write full-time (effectively removing him from everyday life and its prosaic problems and thus also his subject matter).  The thought balloon is a device that allows the revelation of the interiority of a character while simultaneously locating that character within a contiguous social environment, in this case a clearly recognisable Cleveland – Pekar’s hometown, and the setting for much of his work.

The story is told economically over three pages, the last of which is reproduced here.  The verbal and visual threads, while distinctive, are complementary.  There is a steady, rhythmic visual pulse maintained by Crumb’s regular subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene transitions (see McCloud: 1994, 70-73) and enhanced by the verbal monologue.  The visual style is late Crumb, more realist than the caricatures of his comix heyday.  The rhythm of the language itself is based in the vernacular, the language of everyday demotic speech, a linguistic flow that captures a sense of consciousness akin to the flux of jazz tempos or stand-up comedy.  The last two panels conclude with an affirmation of the sensual pleasures associated with freshly baked bread.

And that is it.  The story starts and ends (the last panel even shows a classic “the end” sign).  But there is of course so much more that can  be said about this short piece.   As this extract shows,  Pekar has contributed to what Greice Schneider, in an unconscious echo of Kreider, has identified in comics as a “certain kind of work that privileges unexceptional everyday situations; stories that challenge any accurate plot description, often deprived of any special events and inhabited by characters doing nothing more than living out their own routines.’  (Schneider: 2010, 37).

The observations that Kreider (himself a talented political cartoonist) dismisses are returned to again and again.  “The end” is never really the end – the diverse fragments that make up American Splendor comprise a vast archive of the everyday.  Pekar sometimes went back to revisit events and incidents he had previously narrativised, working with different artists, altering emphasis, engaging in a dialogue with prior narrations.[1. This approach of retelling the same event in different ways emphasises both the subjectivity of memory and the processual construction and re-construction of the past as it impinges on the present.  See Rocco Versaci’s comparative analysis of the (re)telling of an incident from Pekar’s school days in “Austere Youth” (1992, illustrated by Frank Stack) with an episode from The Quitter (2005, illustrated by Dean Haspiel); 67-70]

But if Kreider’s criticism is misplaced, it is perhaps still possible to locate Pekar’s work within a wider discourse on literary short fiction.  Pekar’s writing resists the lure of the epiphany, that flash of what E.L. Doctorow calls “compressive illumination” associated with the modernist short story.  The term has acquired a secular meaning thanks in no small part to James Joyce, who applied the religious term for the manifestation of God to “the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”  (Joyce: 1944, 41).  Writing in 2000, Doctorow notes that “the writers of today are drifting away from the classic model of the modern short story.  They seem more disposed to the episodic than the epiphanic.”  (xv)

Pekar’s stories are middles without beginnings or ends – they resist Aristotelian dramaturgy (a fact that annoys Kreider) by sidestepping either anagnorosis or catharsis.  “Hypothetical Quandary” sets up a potential conflict, and then avoids any possible resolution or revelation.  What is privileged is Bergsonian flux over the Joycean fragment.[2. A more sustained reading would of course reveal how the binary of flux and fragment fractures under closer scrutiny.  American Splendor is after all a collection of discrete if interconnected pieces that form a whole – for instructive comparison see short story cycles such as Joyce’s Dubliners (1914),  Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and, of course, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978).  More recent examples include Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1984) and Tom Humberstone’s work in progress, Ellipsis.  These texts work to problematise easy distinctions between short stories and the novel.  The archetypal model for enacting and exploring the dialectic between flux and fragment remains Benjamin’s monumental Arcades Project (2002).  Thanks to Henderson Downing and Ernesto Priego for clarifying these thoughts at the recent panel discussion on short forms at the Flash Symposium!  Shorts on Shorts at Birkbeck, University of London, May 24th 2011.]  They capture that sense of the contemporary everyday in late twentieth century urban environments when, as Perec put it; “nothing passes except time, people, cars and clouds.”  [3. Cited in Schneider, 21] This is precisely what characterises Pekar’s episodic everdayness, where life lurches along one day to the next.


Crumb, R. (1996)  “A Mercifully Short Preface”, American Splendor presents Bob and Harv’s Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows), no pagination.

Doctorow, E.L. (2000) “Introduction”, Best American Short Stories 2000, ed. E.L. Doctorow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.), xiii-xvi.

Highmore, B. (2002)  Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction (London: Routledge).

Joyce, J. (1944) Stephen Hero (New York: New Directions Press).

Kreider, T.  (2005) “Throwing the Book at Comic Artists”, The Education of a Comics Artist: Visual Narrative in Cartoons, Graphic Novels and Beyond, eds. M. Dooley and S. Heller (New York: Allworth Press), 189-192.

McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins).

Pekar, H. and R. Crumb (1996) “Hypothetical Quandary”, American Splendor presents Bob and Harv’s Comics (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows), 78-81.

Schneider, G. (2010) “Comics and Everyday Life: From Ennui to Contemplation”, European Comic Studies (3.1), 97-109.

Versaci, R. (2007) This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature (New York: Continuum).

About the author

Tony Venezia has contributed 7 articles.

Tony Venezia is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London London allegedly working on a thesis on historical representations in the work of Alan Moore. He is lead organiser for the forthcoming Transitions 2 symposium on comics at Birkbeck this autumn. Tony is also co-convenor of the Contemporary Fiction Seminar and a founding member and co-editor of The Comics Grid.

Author: Tony Venezia

Tony Venezia is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London London allegedly working on a thesis on historical representations in the work of Alan Moore. He is lead organiser for the forthcoming Transitions 2 symposium on comics at Birkbeck this autumn. Tony is also co-convenor of the Contemporary Fiction Seminar and a founding member and co-editor of The Comics Grid.

3 thoughts on “Harvey Pekar’s Anti-epiphanic Everyday”

  1. That’s a very good piece Tony, impressively researched and argued. I just want to add a wicked idea about the final two panels, the ones that you describe end with “…an affirmation of the sensual pleasures associated with freshly baked bread.” My idea is that the Pekar character has, at this time, a revelation, minor though it may be and quotidian though it may be, he experiences a kind of epiphanic-quotidian moment. He is a pessimistic character and is invariably whinging about something but perhaps here, after the disappointment of being ignored by the publisher, when he “sniffs” the bread he gets a rise, not only an aroma but an affirmation of life that lifts his spirits. It distracts him from the publisher monologue for a moment, although I am sure that monologue would return if there was another page to the story, probably in the very next panel of that next(non-existent) page, and he would be complaining again. But that smell of fresh bread, that daily discovery, lifts him above his plight, for a beat.

    1. Mmm…not sure about that. Part of the problem is perhaps that “epiphany” is on the one hand so apparently intuitive but also pretty nebulous at the same time. This is, I think, in no small part due to being a religious term rearticulated as a secular one. I don’t feel that sensuality (in the somatic sense of affective pleasure) is the same as the epiphanic (in the sense that Doctorow, via Joyce, locates in “compressive illumination”). That isn’t to say that I’m not prepared to be convinced otherwise!

      1. Perhaps Pekar’s finding a release from his dour musings and finding enjoyment in the simple pleasure of smelling fresh-baked bread counts as a minor epiphany — that we do need to find ways to balance life’s tensions with pleasures. Sure it’s mundane and hardly original, but I’d wager most people need daily reminders. Pekar, as a comix character as much as a genuine person, could be a crank and a worrywart, but he could also lose himself in simple pleasures. While I enjoy traditional narrative comics with “real” stories, I also enjoy Pekar’s slices of “real life” with Crumb and his many other collaborators.

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