Harvey Pekar, Underground Comix, and Graphic Autobiographies

Joyce and artist renderings of Pekar

The following is a script from a seminar presentation created for coursework on graphic life narratives.  This is an older presentation (2013), with information that may be of interest to people who would like to know more about the underground comix movement.

I will begin by giving a bit of a background to the 1960’s underground comix movement and then discuss how Harvey Pekar fits into this movement. Then I will explore how the collaborative process of Pekar’s American Splendor challenges ideas and conventions of autobiographical comics.

Underground Comix

In the 1950’s the comics code was created in response to criticism about graphic violence in comics, fear about comics corrupting the minds of America’s youth, and acts of legislation attempting to ban comics, in order for the industry to be able to continue to exist. The underground artists did not submit their comics to this code, so they were able to contain very adult subject matters, violate taboos, and set themselves up to oppose dominant culture in the 1960’s and 70’s. The underground cartoonists were baby boomers who grew up in the cold war climate, with the undercurrent fear and fascination of the atomic bomb. Rosenkranz describes the underground as a generation “weaned on television, comic books, and rock music, politicized by an Asian war and a generation gap five miles wide, and psychedelicized by lysergic acid” (15). LSD was widely available in the US around the 1960’s— doctors could legally prescribe it and patients could request it; there were also the notorious LSD experiments by CIA in espionage (Rozenkranz 45). Comix became popular in headshops, record stores, and were also often sold next to psychedelic paraphernalia.

Many creative counterculture movements blossomed from the underground movement, for example Harvery Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine, and the student press of 1950’s. Kurtzman’s Help! consisted of many artists untrained in traditional mainstream comics. 3 main media of the movement included: the student press, underground press, and the comix (Gabilliet 63).

Perhaps the biggest difference between comix with an x from mainstream comics is that underground comix offered artists complete creative freedom to write about their lives and critique mainstream society and popular ideologies, such as the “nuclear family”, capitalism, and The American Dream. While mainstream comics were genre-driven with a focus on characters, underground were creator-driven, able to focus on themselves as characters, to reflect on their place in society, to critique American culture, and to rebel against censorship by being as subversive as possible. Gabilliet writes that for underground cartoonists comics were not a job—they were a chosen medium for self-expression (67). Artists insisted on ownership of their work and a share in profits (paid on royalty rather than flat-rate),  unlike mainstream comics publishers.

Example of early comix artists and their work:

  • 1962 “The Adventures of Jesus” by Frank Stack who later became known as Foolbert Sturgeon (university of Texas-Austin), depicted Jesus in parodies of biblical settings and in America.
  • February 1968, Zap Comix 1 was released and sold in the street by Robert Crumb (creator), his pregnant wife Dana, and Don Donahue (Gabilliet 65); this was in the heart of San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, after the “Summer of Love”, a 9-month celebration of hippie culture in 1967. Crumb opened the second issue to other artists, notably S. Clay Wilson, with short stories featuring scatology (dealing with the obscene), violence, and sexual perversions.

Alternative comics today are still influenced by the underground comix; they tend to lean less heavily on shocking readers through graphic mimicry of social taboos. Underground comix were very much male-dominated, however many women cartoonists also created autobiographical and experimental works in dialogue with this movement, but I will not delve into that here; however, I think it is important to note that women’s comics in the life narrative genre are not simply rooted in the male-dominated 1960’s underground comix movement, but extend much farther back into women’s diary writing, scrapbooking, and self-publication of zines—arguably, even in the suffragette’s own publishing press. Autobiographical comix often contain grotesque depictions of both male artists and women artists. In 1972 the Wimmen’s Comix Collective was established, arguably as a response to the “macho” environment of the movement.

The comix movement lost pace by 1973, with the Supreme court’s decisions on local standards for pornography and the closing of head shops. Several underground publishers from the movement were still active into the 1980’s including Last Gasp which featured many pornographic comix such as Barney Steel’s Armageddon.

Some alternative comix used fantasy and taboo to defamilarize readers from everyday life and make them question popular ideologies.

How does Harvey Pekar, a real life disgruntled file clerk at the veteran’s administration hospital in Cleveland and self-described intellectual fit into the aesthetics of the underground comix movement?

Crumb notes in his introduction to the American Splendor anthology, Pekar was “totally isolated from any comic publishing scene, “constantly brow-beating artists to illustrate his stories”. He self-published American Splendor in 1976 (began writing in 75) and only in 1986/7 did Doubleday publish the 2 collections.

Similar to the underground cartoonists, he was not in it for the money; Crumb writes, “I’m fairly certain that the sales of his comic books have never covered the printing costs” (intro). Underground comix were about voicing an opinion, telling a story, no matter how subversive or shocking, and Pekar is almost as subversive as the underground cartoonists by choosing to write about arguably mundane, self-satisfying, and poignant “every day” narratives. He subverts mainstream comics by refusing to write about superheroes outside of the realm of everyday life. His “heroes” are everyday people. As Crumb writes in his intro, “Pekar has proven once and for all that even the most seemingly dreary and monotonous of lives is filled with poignancy and heroic struggle” (1985).

While reading the anthology, I began to view Pekar as a resurrection of the 20th century Modernist hero, an inspired genius ill-treated by society, who knows some essential truth— or at least I initially thought that might be how Pekar viewed himself. But Pekar is aware of his flaws, and constantly questions himself. American Splendor is also fragmented, alluding to the messiness of Pekar’s identity and subjectivity of experience— which arguably exemplifies elements of post-modernism. Pekar is aware the cartoon is only a fragment of himself, and he is aware of his flaws and ideologies. At the end of “Violence” he writes, “Sometimes people ask me, “How can you make yourself so unattractive in your stories? Well for some reason I never minded picturing myself as cheap or vulgar or uncouth, but this has been a painful story for me to write”. The story itself, he admits, was a sort of a catharsis to purge himself of “that dumb “machismo” that caused him to be so hard on himself when he was not able to prevent several guys from robbing him and Joyce at gunpoint.

Like other underground cartoonists, Pekar confesses his anxieties, and confronts racism and other societal problems attributed to flawed social and political structures. Pekar explains in Conversations, “it occurred to me you could do more than the alternative comic artists were doing”, “you could do real grim, mundane kind of things, you know, stories about everyday life” (Feldman 92).

The critique of mainstream society, capitalism, and contemporary values as expressed through his personal experiences might allow readers to connect with Pekar. Daniel Worden writes, “in resisting a separation between the artist and the audience through an embrace of everyday life, the artist and the reader form a counterpublic explicitly interested in cultivating a unique aesthetic and lifestyle (894). Pekar’s aesthetic world is one where he is able to be heard, and the people listening to him might share his doubts and critiques of society; people might find comfort or amusement in listening to someone rant about topics they worry about too or that also cause them anxiety, so they no longer feel as isolated or alone. As Daniel Worden writes “on the other side of isolation and loserdom is intimate belonging (12). Robert Crumb, along with his brothers, also used comics as a way to escape or cope with a difficult situation, in their case an unsatisfying hostile school and home life.

Daniel Worden talks about the trend in alternative comics where men experience failure to live up to normal heterosexual relations; he points out that in these comics “men are impotent, powerless, yet full of deep feeling, while women are aggressive, critical, and unloving” (901). He writes that this inversion of conventional gender roles is best understood through gender melancholy, a state that underwrites comic shame. Perhaps this is because comics are almost like diaries (permissible social diaries), in the ways they seem to disregard self-censorship and provoke these bursts of shame and “in the moment” flawed revelations. Contemporary autobiographical comics are extremely diverse, and although autobiographers express shame, I believe they also expose systems of oppression that cause shame, rather than gender melancholy, through biting social critique as well as intersectional perspectives.

This has all led me to think more about the subversive possibilities of comics; underground and alternative comics can be seen as the precursor to comics as queer spaces; they sparked a supportive community where hegemonic ideologies could be exposed and dissected. Crumb notoriously depicts himself as a small weak caricature of a man, hugging the leg of a giant hairy grotesque woman, demanding piggyback rides— but along with other more sinister taboo and problematic sexist and racist narratives. Pekar often writes about his female troubles, such as intelligent women rejecting him; he explains in his story “An Argument at Work” that he believes they believe he “too eccentric and low class”, that “they prefer doctors and college professors”.

So, this is the question I am struggling with regarding American Splendor: Is this narrative less intimate and “honest” than underground comix or other graphic autobiographies illustrated and created solely by the narrator? Does his inability to illustrate himself and his experiences result in a fragmentation of his voice and vision of the world?

I was a bit disappointed that I could not imagine Pekar as the artist hunched over the drawing table, interacting physically and painstakingly with the page, rendering the illustrations. I tend to romanticize other cartoonists whose style and aesthetic vision I believe reveals so much about them and appeals to me in some kind of spiritual or visceral and mysterious way. But Pekar is not an illustrator, he is a different kind of storyteller, maybe closer to a stage performer, and I can picture him painstakingly laboring over stick figures and dialogue. Maybe there is also power in Pekar’s liminal ambiguity; different drawing and writing styles provoke different emotions, sympathies, and reactions from the reader, so Pekar can use the artists to his advantage in this way, appealing to diverse audiences.

If we refuse to credit Pekar’s work as autobiography, with drawing as a type of language that Pekar is “illiterate” to, then we begin to discredit other “collaborative” autobiographies as well and the genre becomes almost elitist. Historically, slave narrations and stories from the Holocaust were made by necessity through collaborative effort in order for illiterate or marginalized subjects’ voices to be heard and so that diverse stories and experiences could be documented. The additional layer of another person’s voice and experiences (belonging to the collaborator) can be problematic, but we want to believe the narrator’s voice still comes filtered through intact, in order to credit the narrator, try to understand their experiences, and empower the subject as an autonomous figure.

Bredehoft (required reading) suggests that by privileging the author over the artist and thus privileging language over the image, American Splendor is “in conflict of essential nature of the medium” (98); however, I think this encourages a romanticized vision of the graphic autobiography’s illustrations as expressing the subject’s essential self, a non-fictitious essential truth. In writing about oneself or illustrating oneself, authors or artists might just as easily share self-delusions, drawing themselves as they hope they are seen or fear they are seen— and then there is that blurry space that divides fiction, memories, and truth. Pekar is perhaps aware of the paradoxical “truth” of experience, and the instability of autobiographical genre; autobiographers must pick and choose fragments of themselves, deleting and adding characteristics and simplifying a narrative in order to shape it into a coherent story that in real life would not be so simple or poignant.

Interview: “So Harvey Pekar in these comic books is a character? You could say it’s not exactly the same as Harvey Pekar in real life? Pekar: Nah, it cant be. You have to select, but you know, there’s certain people out there that I don’t want to rub the wrong way (Conversations 93).

Pekar acknowledges that the cartoon version of him is not him, but the cartoon is able to say the things Pekar wants him to say and Pekar’s life narrative comes filtered through the artist’s version of him to reach an otherwise unreachable audience.

Bredehoft provokes an interesting question: When Pekar’s voice is absent from the panel, and only an artists’ voice, for example Crumb’s distinct visual narrative, remains on the page (such as the image of him on the second last panel of “Standing behind Old Jewish Ladies in Line”), is it just Crumb’s voice we are left with? Is it then only Crumb’s vision of Pekar that remains? Bredehoft emphasizes the “double dose of author’s voice” (image and word) that American Splendor lacks. But I think those invisible stick figures, the skeletons beneath the different versions of Pekar, are always present in the reader’s imagination and contribute to the authenticity of the narrative. Pekar cannot illustrate his experiences, and likely without the collaboration of a well-established cartoonists like Crumb and others his voice would not be heard. If he could draw his stories, he wouldn’t be Harvey Pekar. Bredehoft comments on the importance of self-portraits to graphic autobiography, but self-portraits can mislead or distance the reader from who the subject really is; similar to other portraits, in some sense they reveal something about how the subject views themselves or the world (or refuses to view themselves or the world), but the readers might not be able to decipher that view. Perhaps collaborative artists can also contribute a truthful perspective that the narrator is unwilling to reveal.

In many stories featured in American Splendor the illustrators add something useful to assist Pekar’s narrative, giving the narrative more depth. For example, in “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Line”, Crumb makes Pekar endearing to the reader by ridiculing him through caricature. If Pekar was too realistic, macho, or visually without his flaws then the reader might not like him as much, or trust him. The raving lunatic Crumb draws him as is much more likeable because he becomes as ridiculous as those people he complains about. In this particular story, Crumb’s identity also becomes visible through the narrative in the supermarket logo on the top right corner of the second page that says “Let’s Be Palsy-Walsies”; Crumb is having some fun and not hiding behind Pekar’s voice. Crumb perhaps also makes fun of Pekar’s character by showing him almost kiss the can of beef a roni and whistling (2nd panel on 2nd page). Pekar goes on a self-righteous rant, but Crumb draws him as though he were a caveman, sweat protruding from his brow. And he draws Pekar in a spotlight (1st, 2nd, and last page), suggesting that more anything what Pekar craves is an audience to perform in front of.

In the story “Violence” Val Mayerik’s drawing style adds to the narrative by reflecting the macho ideology in the story Pekar attempts to overcome; his shame is not being able to prevent being robbed, failing to meet the gender ideology of men who are supposed to be tough and respond to violence with violence, “just like they did in cowboy movies” Pekar explains in the first panel, describing this mindset that he was exposed to at an early age. Mayerik’s background is in mainstream superhero comics and consequently or maybe intentionally she draws Harvey as more handsome and strong than the other artists choose to, morphing him into the very ideology he tries to overcome in the story. However, Harvey has the autonomy to choose in what way his character should be seen in different stories, and this is easy to forget. In the next story called “history repeats itself”, drawn a year earlier by Sean Carroll, Pekar is slumped, dejected, and has a much weaker jaw line.

Crumb’s illustrations in “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” strengthen the narrative because Pekar in this story is very ambiguous, standing against a plain wall, like on a stage, eyes cast in shadow; he could be anyone, maybe a salesman or a lawyer, and he changes slightly from panel to panel, a notable shift in posture and height. When he is “John Smith”, his face seems to change as well. The reader is forced to focus primarily on the dialogue, getting to know the voice of Pekar before being confronted with his many cartoon selves.

And Pekar wants the artists to contribute some creativity to the narration and add something; in Conversations he explains, “I divide a piece of paper into panels, and I put in stick figures and balloons and dialogue and captions and stuff like that, and directions to the artist. And then after I send them to them, I speak to them about them and tell them what I want. But I’m not really too heavy on them because they come up with a lot of great ideas themselves, and also they get mad if you tell them what to do in too much detail. Discretion, you know, is the better part of valor”(Conversations 94-5).


  • Armegeddon (and racism; Barney Steel)/ influence on Charles Burns (Todd Hignite) Last Gasp (1972-76), erotic tale set in fantasy galaxy, an “anti-racist” fable; encouraging a drop out of society, returning to an economy based on gold and bartering. RIDICULOUS DIALOGUE. Although published by Last Gasp, one of the main comix publishers, Steel’s Armageddon comics were widely regarded (within underground cartoonist circles) as bizarrely right wing.

Works Cited and Consulted

Chute, Hillary L. “Decoding Comics.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 1014-1027. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul, Bart Beaty, and Nick Nguyen. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural

History of American Comic Books. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Hignite, Todd. In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

Pekar, Harvey. Harvey Pekar: Conversations. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008. Print.

Rosenkranz, Patrick. Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2008. Print.

Shannon, Edward. “Shameful, Impure Art: Robert Crumb’s Autobiographical Comics

and the Confessional Poets.” Biography 35.4 (2012): 627–649. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Worden, Daniel. “The Shameful Art: McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Comics, and the Politics of Affect.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 891–917. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Mini Counter Culture and Comics Guide

The idea of the insider vs. outsider within the graphic life narrative is widely touched upon in current academic literature. This discussion relates to topics connected to religion and culture that speak to the “insider” experience of being part of a community. As I have tried to illustrate, the genre itself is non-discriminatory anti-elitist, allowing for the possibility of a variety of different experiences to be told and shared. This theme stems from graphic autobiographies’ origins in underground comix, counter culture movements, and independent publishing.

Link to Zap Comix electronic archive (1967-2005)

Link to electronic resource for All Girl Thrills

Link to electronic archive for Wimmen’s Comix

Link to Meef Comix electronic resource

Link to Cocaine Comix electronic resource

Link to Dope Comix electronic resource

All book titles below are available in the University of Toronto Library Catalogue:


The Weirdo Years by R. Crumb by Robert Crumb; Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Introduction by)

ISBN: 9780867197907

Publication Date: 2013-11-01

“All of Robert Crumb’s work from his very influential Weirdo magazine. Widely considered to be some of his best work ever. Weirdo was a magazine-sized comics anthology created by Robert Crumb in 1981, which ran for 28 issues.It served as a “low art” counterpoint to its contemporary highbrow Raw. Early issues of Weirdo reflect Crumb’s interests at the time: outsider art, fumetti, Church of the SubGenius-type anti-propaganda and assorted “weirdness.” The incredibly varied stories include TV Blues, Life of Boswell, People Make me Nervous, The Old Songs are the Best Songs,Uncle Bob’s Mid-Life Crisis, Kraft Ebbing’s’ Psycopathia Sexualis, Goldilocks, The Life of Philip K Dick, and many more.Also within are several photo strip stories featuring Crumb himself and various of his trademark well-built women including his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb in tales such as Get in Shape and Unfaithful Husband.”


Zap by Mike Dean (Editor); Gary Groth (Editor); Bob Levin (Introduction by); Michael Dean (Editor); Patrick Rosenkranz

ISBN: 9781606997888

Publication Date: 2015-01-04

“Designed as a companion piece to the exhaustive The Complete Zap Comix box set (Fantagraphics, 2014, also available from Turnaround). Featuring supreme underground comix artist Robert Crumb on how acid unleashed a flood of Zap characters from his unconscious; Marxist brawler Spain Rodriguez on how he made the transition from the Road Vultures biker gang to the exclusive Zap inner circle; Yale alumnus Victor Moscoso and Christian surfer Rick Griffin on how their poster art formed the backdrop to the 1960s San Francisco music scene – and much, much more.”


The Complete Wimmen’s Comix by Trina Robbins

ISBN: 9781606998984

Publication Date: 2016-03-07

“In 1972, ten women cartoonists got together in San Francisco to rectify the situation and produce the first and longest-lasting all-woman comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix. Within two years the Wimmen’s Comix Collective had introduced cartoonists like Roberta Gregory and Melinda Gebbie to the comics-reading public, and would go on to publish some of the most talented women cartoonists in America. Most issues of Wimmen’s Comix have been long out of print, so it’s about time these pioneering cartoonists’ work received their due.”


Comix by Dez Skinn; Denis Kitchen (Foreword by)

ISBN: 9781560255727

Publication Date: 2004-05-20

“While mainstream comics have graced newsstands since the 1930s, there has long been an underground comics scene brewing deep beneath the surface. Underground comic books (which took the name “comix,” using the “x” to signify their adult nature) erupted in the 1960s as a reaction to ultraconservative and patriotic comics produced by the large corporations that featured characters like Captain America and Superman. Bored with moralistic tales, artists such as Robert Crumb, creator of Zap Comix and Fritz the Cat; and Gilbert Shelton, creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, produced a new and revolutionary style, freely attacking politicians, the war in Vietnam, and corporate America. Comix is an homage to both the motivation and the talent of the artists working then and now in the genre. Beautifully illustrated throughout with original artworks from the likes of R. Crumb, Denis Kitchen, and Gilbert Shelton, the book graphically expresses a range of attitudes on topics ranging from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to politics, big business, and women’s liberation. This is the first book to explore the artwork and countercultural legacy of comix, key events in the history of this medium, and biographies of its most influential artists and writers.”


Underground Classics by Denis Kitchen; Chazen Museum of Art Staff (Contribution by); James Danky

ISBN: 9780810905986

Publication Date: 2009-05-01

“The impact of American underground comix is profound: They galvanized artists both domestically and abroad; they forever changed the economics of comic book publishing; and they influenced generations of cartoonists, including their predecessors. While the works of Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman are well-known via the New Yorker, Maus, and retrospective collections, the art of their contemporaries such as Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins, Justin Green, Kim Deitch, S. Clay Wilson, and many other seminal cartoonists who came of age in the 1960s is considerably less known. Underground Classics provides the first serious survey of underground comix as art, turning the spotlight on these influential and largely underappreciated artists. Essays from curators James Danky and Denis Kitchen, alongside essays by Paul Buhle, Patrick Rosenkranz, Jay Lynch, and Trina Robbins, offer a thorough reflection and appraisal of the underground movement. Over 125 original drawings, paintings, sculptures, and artifacts are featured, loaned from private collections and the artists themselves, making Underground Classics indispensible for the seriousminded comics fan and for the casual reader alike.”


Harvey Kurtzman by Fantagraphics Books Staff (Created by); Greg Sadowski

ISBN: 9781560977551

Publication Date: 2006-12-17

“The seventh volume in this distinguished series focuses entirely on one of comics’ most esteemed and influential creators: artist, writer and editor Harvey Kurtzman, whose complete Comics Journal interviews are collected in this oversized, lavishly illustrated full-colour edition. What makes this volume particularly noteworthy is the obscurities unearthed from Kurtzman’s solo freelance career – from Children’s Digest, Pageant, US Crime, Varsity and Why – most of which haven’t been seen since their original publication.”


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