They looked at the world from an oblique angle
By Paul Buhle
July 28, 2010
Harvey Pekar and Tuli Kupferberg died on the same day, July 12, and
shared much, including peacenik politics, a strong sense of humor,
and a passion to carve art out of the fragments of popular culture.
But they were almost an American Jewish generation apart, a detail
that now seems difficult to grasp entirely, but is still crucial.
Kupferberg, born in 1923, was a real bohemian of the pre-beatnik era,
a hipster whose leap off a New York bridge in an attempted suicide
famously appeared, without his name, in Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem
"Howl." He once told me that he had become an anarchist in the
mini-boom of postwar anti-bomb, anti-government sentiment among
intellectuals and artists on both coasts.
He recalled being a young man bitterly opposed, from the left, to
Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate of 1948. Meanwhile,
Pekar, then 9, was following his mother's lead, passing out Wallace
leaflets in his Cleveland Jewish neighborhood. He shared his
Bialystok-raised parents' joy at the birth of Israel.
The two future artists were both shaped by the Depression and by
Franklin Roosevelt, two key influences upon practically any American
Jew of those years. But Kupferberg had briefly become a Trotskyist
even before Roosevelt died, while Harvey remained, till the end of
his life, at one with his family memory that the great leader had
saved them all personally, as well as the country, from disaster.
Kupferberg and Pekar were both college dropouts -- but with a
difference. Bright and focused, born on Manhattan's Lower East Side,
Kupferberg graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1944
(psychology and English), and hit the wall only as he began working
on an advanced degree in sociology, at The New School. After that, as
he recalled, he faced with equanimity a long and productive life as a
luftmensch, a person who makes his living, as it were, "from the air."
By contrast, in one of Pekar's several autobiographical comic art
books, "The Quitter," he bitterly regrets dropping out of college
after only two semesters in his native Cleveland. He couldn't get his
head around schoolwork, and slipped into bohemianism almost by
accident. The two were evidently major jokesters as schoolchildren,
which may have marked them out as a particular Jewish type, prepared
to look at the world from an oblique angle when offered the
possibility of getting friendly laughs.
Despite these differences, Kupferberg and Pekar were deeply
interested intellectually, and even more deeply involved personally,
in urbanism, the decay and sometime revival of the neighborhood for
good or ill. Through his life's work there, Kupferberg made himself
into an iconic figure of the Lower East Side, latterly fighting
gentrification, just as Pekar was forever in Cleveland, actually
moving to one neighborhood from another across several decades, ahead
of the bulldozers and the urban renewal that never renewed much of anything.
Their work -- in Kupferberg's case, words, drawings and music -- was
full of neighborhood people, all types, storefronts, crowds, friends
(in Harvey's case, his own first two wives, who were often not so
friendly) and a sensibility all their own.
They hit upon art forms whose uniqueness will remain, long after
their deaths, the signature of a time and place, hinting always, but
in highly curious ways, at something larger.
Kupferberg began writing poetry early and, if he had agreed to the
definition, would be rightly classified as a Beat Poet in what might
be called the Ferlinghetti or City Lights school: humane, free form,
and uncensored, above all raging against the madness of the Cold War
arms race. In 1958, with his future wife, Sylvia Topp, he brought out
Birth, a literary magazine that would publish the likes of LeRoi
Jones and Diane di Prima, among others. Living off B Street, selling
1001 Ways To Live Without Working, a beatnik humor book of his own,
on the street, he ran into another poet, Ed Sanders.
The two of them opened the Peace Eye Bookstore in 1964, and were the
most famous of The Fugs, one of the delightfully outrageous rock
groups of the coming era. The Fugs performed endlessly at peace
demonstrations and other venues. Paul McCartney foiled autograph
hounds by signing himself "Tuli Kupferberg." The Fugs wore themselves
out by 1970, but Kupferberg went on and on, performing in many ways,
often as inauspiciously as sending out packets of his photocopied
cartoons to friends (I was one of them). Peace and resistance never
failed as themes.
Pekar famously met cartoonist R. Crumb in the early 1960s, and
gradually came to the conclusion that anything, even the Russian
novels he loved so much, could be done in comic form. His
long-running series of comics, "American Splendor," was launched in
1976 (he, too, began as a self-publisher) and continued on almost
until his death, in one format or another.
Pekar went through dozens of artists, giving them dialogue and
precise directions (in the form of comic panels with stick figures).
He couldn't pay them much: Making his own living never ceased to be a
struggle. But the award-winning, 2003 film American Splendor rendered
him a public personality, especially on campus, where lecture fees
and book sales finally gave him a modicum of financial security. It
was long overdue.
One of Kupferberg's own favorite strips (I received it several times)
showed a grandmother with Kupferberg as a child. In one panel he is
whistling; in the next, Granny warns, "Yidishe kinder fayfn nit!"
["Jewish children don't whistle!"] It was obviously a fond, oddball
memory of another time. Pekar also had his connection to the culture
of the mameloshn, or mother tongue.
In the months before his death, Pekar was working (with me and a
handful of artists) on "Yiddishland," a book that begins with him and
his Yiddish-speaking grandfather in Cleveland around 1944. He still
wanted to tell his vanished relatives that he had become a Yidishe
shrayber, a continuator of Yiddishkeit, and he had, in his own way,
reached that goal before the end came. Neither of these deeply Jewish
artists is likely to be forgotten soon.
[Cultural historian Paul Buhle is professor emeritus at Brown
University. He edited several comics in collaboration with Harvey
Pekar, including The Beats. They collaborated on Yiddishland, to be
published next Spring by Abrams ComicArts. Contact Paul Buhle at
firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was also published in the Jewish