But all three are visually very different, the creations of three very different Pekar Cartoonists. Yiddishkeit, co-edited with Paul Buhle, is part memoir, part social history, and part textbook. It's an anthology that includes Pekar's history of Yiddish literature and profiles of Yiddish writers; comics on related subjects by other authors; and illustrated excerpts from Yiddish stories, plays, and songs — in both prose and comics form. There's also Pekar's extended comics rant on Isaac Bashevis Singer ("He's so overrated he makes me sick!" he complains to his wife, Joyce).
Pekar grew up speaking Yiddish, especially with his old-world grandfather, and he tells that story in both Yiddishkeit and Cleveland, his personal and social history of the city where he was born, lived, and died. The first 42 pages of the latter book are a chronology of the city, from its founding in 1795 all the way up to its glory days as an industrial metropolis and its later decline. From there, though, Pekar takes over. He's trudging through his city's streets, reminiscing. You can practically hear his squeaky rasp as he narrates, wandering through the physical and mental spaces he's inhabited throughout his life — his old neighborhood, his beloved libraries and bookstores, the VA hospital where he worked as a file clerk, the street corners where he hung out on summer nights. We visit every one of his old apartments.
Throughout, artist Joseph Remnant renders Pekar's script in a simple comics grid: his panels are uniformly rectangular, usually six of them to a page, and he portrays the city from the point of view of a pedestrian, using neither crane shots nor close-ups. His art style recalls Pekar's old friend R. Crumb in his less frenetic moods. Everything is crosshatched, in the middle distance, and horizontal.
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me similarly follows Pekar and his collaborator, JT Waldman, as they traipse across the Cleveland landscape, stopping in at some of the same bookstores and libraries visited in Cleveland. And like the other two books, this one has its roots in the Yiddish-speaking household where Pekar grew up. As Pekar and Waldman travel around Cleveland looking for books on Israel, Pekar holds forth, interspersing personal history — his fervent Zionist parents and his childhood conception of Israel as a land of heroes; his aborted attempt to immigrate there as a teenager — with a history of the Holy Land from biblical to modern times. As with all of Pekar's histories, it's meticulously researched and told with a kind of intellectual joy bordering on know-it-all fervor. The effect is that of being trapped on a long car trip with someone who has an obsession — and an axe to grind.
Because it's an anthology, and because I'm in it, I don't feel qualified to comment on Yiddishkeit except to say that if you're interested in the subject, it's worth checking out. But I'm not going to pull punches: I don't think Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is entirely successful. Waldman chose to illustrate it in a kaleidoscope of changing styles: crosshatch-and-inkwash gives way to quasi-Babylonian charcoals, faux medieval manuscripts, a passage that I think is supposed to be based on Roman mosaics, another influenced by Chagall stained glass, even a series of WWII propaganda posters. I'm not sure how much this adds to the narrative. The book is about Pekar's increasing disillusionment with the myth of Israel and Jews as the chosen people ("Chosen for what??"), but the art only serves to further stylize and distance Israel's history.
HARVEY PEKAR'S CLEVELAND You can practically hear Pekar's squeaky rasp as he narrates, wandering through the physical and mental spaces he's inhabited throughout his life.
I prefer Remnant's flatfooted, prosaic approach. He draws settlers and Native Americans from Cleveland's past in the same careful pen strokes with which he portrays homeless men and race riots and Pekar himself. Because the style is constant throughout the book, time collapses; you experience Cleveland the way Pekar does, a city so well known and familiar that the past and present exist almost simultaneously, memory and history and the current moment all elbowing one another other to be seen as Pekar wanders the streets.