A Book Called Malice

Feb 17 2015 | 02:21 AM

    For the past 30 years, Harvey Pekar has lived his life on the comics page. From the infinite, seemingly inane moments spent in line at supermarkets and filing papers at work, to his battle with lymphoma, there's little about the 66-year-old Cleveland resident that hasn't appeared in the crosshatched panels of his longtime title, American Splendor. In 2003, Pekar's comic book life became a comic book movie, winning accolades by the boatful and subsequent lauds for the writer's work-naturally, the experience became fodder for another autobiographical trade paper back, 2004's Our Movie Year.

    That book also features a brief detour-the story of Michael Malice, a man in New York-attempting to keep his tropical fish alive during the 2003 blackout. "I met him, because he wanted to meet me," Pekar explains through his scratchy, faint voice that his origin was so painfully unfolded in the American Splendor film. "It turned out that we had this mutual acquaintance, Gary Lieb, who was a member of Rubber Rodeo-the band that Michael Malice was writing about-and also had done animated work for the American Splendor movie."

    When Pekar began work on a new graphic novel, part of a four-book deal with Random House, Malice's name popped up again. "We kept in touch, and I found out that he had a very vindictive side to him. He also did a lot of bragging, and I think that's been noted by other people. I decided that I'd like to write a book about him, and try to figure out where he was coming from, because he was such an unusual character to me." Ego & Hubris is, quite simply, the story of Michael Malice, the hotheaded, 30-year-old, Ayn Rand-obsessed Russian immigrant who moved to the United States at a year-and-half old.

    The book is a first-person narrative told through the eyes of Malice, oft devoted to his justifications for his sometimes- questionable actions, burgeoning libertarian/ anarchist belief system and constant proclamations that he is destined for greatness. Pekar insists that, despite the generally unlikable nature of his protagonist, his second plunge into non-autobiographical territory (after 2003's largely ignored Vietnam tale, Unsung Hero) has been universally well received. "That's the surprising thing. I've got nothing but good reviews. In some of these reviews, they've been real nasty to Michael, calling him a jerk or a sociopath, but they like the book! I've got some praise that I didn't expect, like 'Who else but Harvey Pekar could make an entertaining book out of a guy like this?'"

    Like all of Pekar's best work, Ego & Hubris's strength lies in both the unflinching truth with which he tells his story at the risk of bringing out the worst in his characters, and his insistence on never shying away from the mundane details of life. It's these aspects of the author's storytelling that helped breathe life into the medium's super hero-dominated landscape, when he first popped up in the '70s along with the sea of counter-culture cartoonists. "When I was a little kid, and I was reading these comics in the '40s," says Pekar. "I kind of got sick of them because after a while, they were just formulaic. I figured there was some kind of a flaw that keeps them from getting better than they are, and then when I saw Robert Crumb's work in the early '60s, when he moved from Philadelphia to Cleveland, and he moved around the corner from me, I thought 'Man, comics are where it's at.'"

    Three decades later, the man has stuck firmly with the medium, reaching new levels of success after years of being the curmudgeonly poster boy for the underground, drawing crowds across the country for signing appearances, and garnering positive reviews from the literary elite. "It startled me," he says with nary a laugh. "I thought no power on earth could sell my stuff." At the moment, Pekar has a four-book American Splendor with DC/Vertigo waiting in the wings and a slew of non-autobiographical pieces in the pipes dealing with topics like the history of Macedonia, the Beat generation and the SDS. "I've got a good opportunity to write about different things. I've got a lot of companies that are interested in my work, so I'm going to try to do a lot of stuff that has little or no precedent in comics. I'm interested in widening the range of stories that comic book artists deal with. It's all inline with my thinking that comics are a first-rate art form, but haven't been used anywhere near what there potential is. You can do the same kind of thing in comics that you can in a novel, or film."

    Despite his recent theatrical success, Pekar has no plans to shy away from the medium with which he made his name. "There are so many things you can do in comics that haven't been done before, and I want to get in on this. I write prose articles and music reviews, but I'm going to stick with comics for the foreseeable future, for my main means of expression."