Portrait of a comic book author's disillusionment
After the death of his co-author Harvey Pekar, illustrator JT Waldman was left on his own to finish the controversial graphic novel, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me."
The late American comic book writer Harvey Pekar, author of "American Splendor," is sitting in his car, talking with illustrator JT Waldman, his co-author of the book they are writing. “So Harvey, what are we going to do with the middle of the story? We got your childhood and the deep history of Israel covered in the beginning. And the end of the book will lead us to today. So what’s at the heart of this thing? What’s the core?”
Together they drive through the streets of Cleveland.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pekar answers. “I’m just tired of people saying I’m a self-hating Jew because I’m critical of Israel or make fun of old Jewish ladies. I do not hate myself. And Jews who criticize Israel aren’t necessarily mentally ill.”
Pekar tells Waldman to stay in the right lane, and continues.
“Israel’s creation was politically amazing and caused by a number of unusual events. And I understand. For centuries, Jews endured horrible suffering and like other people deserve the right to self-determination, but the way Israel is going now frightens me. Jews make awkward colonial overlords.”
This dialogue is from the pages of Pekar's final work, published in the United States this month two years after his death. It's a glimpse into his psyche, showing the transformations that pushed him from a devoted, enthusiastic Zionist and Israel supporter into a critical observer watching, with newfound awareness, the Zionist entity in the Middle East.
Like "American Splendor," the work that made him a darling of the American comics scene, this work is also autobiographical.
"Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me" takes place over the course of a single day, during which Pekar and Waldman roam the streets of Cleveland. They go from one library to another, meet various characters and stop for a bite to eat. Mostly, though, they talk.
Pekar, a local Cleveland boy-made-good, ruminates about his relationship with Israel and how it has changed over the years. In a bit of meta-fiction, the two men discuss their plans to write a book on the topic, and debate its structure and how to learn the land's complicated history. They decide to conduct a historical survey, one that attempts to encapsulate the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel through time.
Pekar's parents, the reader learns, were devoted Zionists. Love of Israel was as much as part of the dinner table as their daily bread.
“I’ve never even been there, but it’s been a part of my life since childhood,” he says. He recalls that his relationship to the State of Israel began to change in the 1960s, when he became friendly with leftists and Marxists and was exposed to their world view.
At that time, Pekar says, he was unemployed and so despondent about his life and his chances of finding work that he decided to look into moving to Israel. He knew that every Jew who came to Israel received automatic citizenship, and along with the new passport came the hope of ever-elusive salvation. But in one brief meeting, the clerk at the Israeli consulate in Chicago succeeded in dashing his hopes.
The clerk, irritated by the desperate man staring at him across the counter, told Pekar that moving to Israel would be a massive mistake and that he had no chance of finding work if and when he arrived.
In an instant, Pekar's lifetime illusions of life in Israel were popped like a sorry balloon. Without tact or empathy, the clerk cut him down.
“What the guy was saying was that I was a loser and Israel had no time to rehabilitate schmucks,” Pekar recalls. Even a kibbutz, the clerk tells him, won't have him. “I knew I was no prize. Also, I didn’t go through the Holocaust. Israel probably had enough trouble with neurotic American Jews.”
That real-life exchange, recounted in graphite in the pages of this illustrated novel, was the beginning of the end for Pekar's allegiance to Israel.
Pekar spent the end of his days collaborating with Waldman on this project. After his sudden death, Waldman completed the work on his own, and Joyce Brabner, Pekar's widow and a comic-book artist in her own right, wrote an epilogue.
The book, like the story itself, ends with Pekar's death.
Winning the lottery
Waldman, 35, lives in Philadelphia. He says that as a child, he was a voracious reader of comic books, with a particular affinity for ones about superheroes.
Some boys dream of being firemen or police officers. Waldman dreamed of one day creating his beloved comics.
His parents tried to steer him toward a different path, but Waldman was stubborn.
He studied art and humanities at the University of Michigan and digital design at the Vancouver Film School. He lived for a time in Spain, where he continued his art studies, and spent two years in Jerusalem, where he studied in a yeshiva.
It was in Israel that Waldman created his first graphic novel, "Megillat Esther." The book, published in 2006, was a fresh visual twist on the old biblical story, equally inspired by archaeological sources, rabbinic texts and pop culture.
Waldman first met Pekar in 2007, he says during a phone interview. Pekar had written a short introduction for a graphic novel on the role of Jews in the history of American comic books, and he asked Waldman to do the illustration.
“A few months later, he was asked to do an entire book on the history of the Middle East, and he called me up and said, ‘You’re the person I want to do this book with.’ I felt like I’d won the lottery," Waldman says. "I never would have expected in a million years, when I was a child and said, ‘I want to make comic books,’ that I would work with Harvey Pekar one day. It was never in my world view. I never thought of it happening.”
Pekar's fame was for many years confined to the underground comic book scene in the United States. Tapping into his own life for inspiration, Pekar's began his first series of books, "American Splendor," in 1976. The stories described his life as a file clerk in Cleveland, shuffling papers on the shores of Lake Erie and facing oblivion in the rust belt's heart.
He stayed at his day job, toiling away by day and scribbling by night. In the mid-1990s, after he published and distributed "American Splendor" independently, major publishing hours began to pick up on his talent. His big break came in 2003, when "American Splendor" was made into a film of the same name starring everyone's favorite schlub, Paul Giamatti.
The film received excellent reviews and was an international success. Publishing companies were now banging on his door, begging him to write for them He was asked to write a graphic novel about the history of the Beat Generation, invited to be a guest editor for The Best American Comics 2006 and to edit a graphic novel about Yiddish culture ("Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land," with Paul Buhle).
The project was long and it certainly wasn’t easy.
“When we started the project, it was in 2008, and it went through lots of changes," says Waldman. "At first it was the history of the Middle East, and it was very big. I think it was fueled with his frustration with the Bush era and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sense that things that were happening in history, knowledge and actions in the Middle East were affecting things in America, and no one really knew why. He wanted to try to demystify the actions of today with his perspective.”
But with half of the book under his belt, Waldman says, Pekar couldn’t shift the focus away from Israel. He finally decided that the Jewish State would be the book's theme.
Waldman had lived in Israel for a year and a half and was well-versed in the culture of the Jewish nonprofit world, but Pekar had never visited there.
Inserting Waldman into the book was a calculated move on the part of both Pekar and his editor, who thought Waldman's character would offer some balance.
Now the book was a dialogue rather than a monologue, with perspectives from two different generations (Waldman is in his mid-30s while Pekar was 70).
Because the book’s subject matter seemed so frightening, Waldman says, he and
Pekar tried to make the dialogue more personal, emphasizing the intimacy between them so that readers would feel as though they were with the two characters during their conversation.
Pekar wrote the script by hand, as he usually did, and gave it to the publishing company for typesetting. The printed version was sent to Waldman, who decided how to break the script down into frames, how many frames would be on each page and how many pages would make up each section of the story.
The excellent illustrations and the way they are spread out over the pages do justice to the fine content. While the conversational portions of the book are drawn realistically, Waldman chose to illustrate the sections dedicated to the historical surveys in the style appropriate to the period that he describes.
Although the historical surveys give some helpful background, they say nothing new. In fact, they are overshadowed by the autobiographical situations, which are far more interesting. Even though these scenes deal with heavy, serious subjects, Pekar, who has always excelled at describing these sorts of personal, day-to-day slices of life, succeeds in doing that here as well.
“I saw him as a writer who was a very good observer,” Waldman says. “If you read "American Splendor" and you look at his work, he had an amazing ability to see details, to look at the things that everyone else walked by," he says.
Holes in the story
Waldman was at work on the book when he heard about Pekar's death.
"It was heavy, and it was difficult, because I found out through the Internet," he says. "He died just after the fourth of July. I hadn’t spoken to him in about four or five days because of the holiday. His health had been failing for a couple of months, so I was aware that his health was not too well. But he wouldn’t tell me. I had to find out through other channels. He was very intent on me not treating him differently. There was no coddling. He acted like everything was normal. And then when he died, out of the blue, so quickly, we had gotten far enough that we knew where things were going.”
Although the book was far along in the process, says Waldman, there were still holes in the story. For example, he had no information on how Pekar felt about Israel at the beginning of the 1980s. No longer able to simply call Pekar and ask him to explain or write a few more sentences, Waldman had to solve the problem himself. He spoke with Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, who told him that at the end of the 1970s, Pekar published an article about Israel in a newspaper. Waldman went to the library to search for them, and eventually found the three articles that Pekar had written in 1978. Waldman used excerpts of those articles as some of Pekar’s speech in the book.
“That was the biggest missing piece of the puzzle. Everything else from that point I was able to take from a video that Harvey and I made. When I went out to visit Harvey in January 2010, I made a video of Harvey and I talking about the book. It was about 25 minutes of video. Probably, in the last 20 pages of the book that we have, most of the dialogue of Harvey and I talking back and forth comes from that video.”
The last illustration in the book (before Brabner’s epilogue) shows Pekar sitting in the library from the point of view of someone at the top of a staircase. The reader, at this moment, is looking at the world through Waldman's eyes.
“That was how I left him, literally,” Waldman said. “The last day I saw him, I dropped him off at the library and I went to the airport.”
As one might expect of a work with such a title and content, Pekar’s book drew complaints from members of the American Jewish community. But Waldman says that the book’s title is nothing more than a softened version of the name that Pekar first chose for it.
You've gotta have faith?
“The original title was 'An Untitled History of the Middle East,' and then it became 'How I Lost Faith in Israel.' Harvey told me he wanted it to be that, and I said, ‘Harvey, I don’t like that title, I don’t agree with that title, I don’t want to put my name next to that title.’ And then he said, ‘OK, then, we’ll come up with something else.’ And then, when he passed away, it was actually Joyce who came up with the title. I thought it was such a great title because of the whole idea of the Promised Land, and the idea that every generation makes a different promise, and that the promises have changed for generations. It’s still sensational, as people see the title and go ‘Oooh,’ but it’s not as negative, so to speak. And I have not lost faith in Israel, so I couldn’t put my name next to it.”
Waldman hopes that, just as he and Pekar fill the book's pages with their dialogue, readers will be spurred to debate by the book.
"It’s hard to have dialogue today, and I think it’s not just in the Jewish community," he says. "So the hope is that this book could be one step of a bridge. It’s not meant to divide."
And the book's departed author, Waldman reminds us, was telling a very personal story.
“The book is not prescriptive. It’s not saying: This is how you can change things to make it better. It’s subjective," he says. "This is the history of Harvey’s point of view."