Graphic Novel and Comic Book Series Analysis

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar

Comic book series and graphic novels looked at from an editor's perspective on the craft of writing a story that works.

last edited on 01. Sep 2019

published on 01. Sep 2019 by Melanie Naumann

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Copyright of used images (photos takem from the book): The Quitter by Harvey Pekar

The Quitter - Analysis of a comic book memoir

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar - The Quitter - Analysis of a comic book memoir

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar is a memoir. A story about status & the striving for validation & success. A remarkable masterwork about failures and about one man who quits so many things, but who does not give up.


"I still need recognition from others regarding my accomplishments. I can't be satisfied with only me having a good opinion of myself." (penultimate page)

 

What is the story of 'The Quitter' about?

Synopsis from Amazon:

Harvey Pekar — whose American Book Award-winning series American Splendor was the basis for the celebrated film of the same name — tells the story of his troubled teen years for the first time, when he would beat up any kid who looked at him wrong just to win the praise of his peers. And when he failed to impress, whether on the football team, in math class, in the Navy or on the job, he simply gave up.

A true tour-de-force, THE QUITTER is the universal tale of a young man's search for himself through the frustrations, redemptions and complexities of ordinary life.With gritty, atmospheric artwork by indie-comics luminary Dean Haspiel (American Splendor, Opposable Thumbs), THE QUITTER is both Pekar's funniest and most heart-wrenching work yet, an unforgettable graphic novel for all those, like Pekar, who have tried, failed and lived to quit another day.

 

1. What is the genre?

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar is a memoir.

Yes, even if you want to tell your own autobiographical story, the guidelines of writing fiction still apply. That means you still have to decide what's your external and internal genre and deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of that genre. 

"A memoir isn’t an autobiography. Your memoir will be autobiographical, but it won’t be the whole story of your life.

Readers choose autobiographies to read about the famous, accomplished, or notorious author. They choose memoirs to learn something from the memoirist’s relatable, human experience. What you’re aiming for in memoir is a story that builds from carefully curated anecdotes (scenes) from your life to a global controlling idea (theme) which creates a takeaway for the reader."  (Rachelle Ramirez on Secrets of Writing Memoir - read the article on the official Story Grid website: https://storygrid.com/secrets-of-writing-memoir/)

 

So what content genres belong to The Quitter?

It's a performance story.

Characters in a performance story WANT validation from others because they NEED esteem and self-respect. They want the success of their performance to be a direct reflection of who they are. And this is so true for everything Harvey Pekar tells us about him growing up. Failing is no option because that would always mean he failed personally. So he quits so many things in his life to find something else to be good at. The title of the book mirrors the story's theme perfectly.

 

And it's Status Sentimental for the internal content genre.

Remember, the status sentimental story starts low and ends high for the protagonist.

The protagonist is weak or subjugated. He tries to rise or maintain his status and succeeds against all odds. Characters who follow a Status Sentimental internal genre often get what they want and what they need at the end of the story, but with some level of personal sacrifice.

Status Sentimental: When a sympathetic protagonist with a steadfast will but naive worldview, encounters a challenge or opportunity and has a supportive mentor of high moral character, he can rise in social standing.

Status stories are driven by the need for esteem. The core value is from Selling Out (negation of the negation) to Failure to Compromise to Success.

More so, status is all about one's behavior, attitude, will and self-esteem. And we find a lot of those values in Harvey Pekar as he struggles for success. He wants to be the best in one particular thing. Not the second best. The best. As soon as he thinks he will never be as good/talented/strong/clever as XXX he will give up. There'S hardly any compromise. He just considers himself a failure, which shows how low is self-esteem is.

You can't impress everybody and sometimes, maybe through no fault of your own you can't impress important people who could have a very positive effect on your life. But even today I can't be cool about it. And there are lots of people like me. (Harvey Pekar, The Quitter)

That quote is in the book The Quitter. It's at the beginning of the story and you see the older version of Harvey Pekar saying it. Just reading those lines shows how much Pekar learned about his own life and about himself. There was a worldview maturation internal genre at play because he came to understand that particular part about himself. He knows he is looking for validation from others, but he has come to accept that he can't get praise from every one, no matter how well he works for it.

 

2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of the global genre?

Status and performance stories are a great combination of an external and internal content genre. While the protagonist seeks validation from others through becoming successful, he is unconsciously looking for recognition to not feel worthless anymore. The self-esteem can be so low as with Harvey Pekar that the internal content genre of Status becomes the primary genre of the story, making the performance the secondary one.

Yes, this story turns around the aspect of the performance story but it's not about Pekar training for a particular event through which he hopes to gain respect or be honored. He is moving through lots of fields or interests where he becomes quite good at (street fights, football, jazz, ...) but the overarching global genre is still focusing on him striving for some form of validation. He wants to have success to be able to build up his confidence. He does not think he's worth anything if others do not recognize him for what he's truly good in.

 

So here are the obligatory scenes for the internal content genre of STATUS (which are adaptations of the principal stages of the Hero’s Journey).

  • An inciting incident challenges the protagonist’s status quo: In the 1930s to mid-1940s Pekar's neighborhood changed so that he was the only remaining white kid on his street and he had to fight his way through the black kids.
  • The protagonist leaves home to seek their fortune–or, alternatively, stays home but follows their dream in secret: Pekar leaves with his parents his old neighborhood and they move to a wealthier suburb within the city limits.
  • Forced to adapt to a new environment, the protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates themselves. Pekar doesn't make new friends all summer long so he turns to street fighting again. He wins those one-on-one fights, but he's not making friends through it. It's interesting to note, that Pekar's mom wanted him to apologize. She looked for the compromise, while Pekar kept thinking he was right and the other's were wrong. Compromise is the step from failure to success. But for Pekar, it was always all or nothing. Black or white. Win or lose. Be the best or don't do it at all. He never learned to make compromises, just at the end of the book he came to that understanding which was basically why success was finally possible. Ironic, right?
  • The protagonist learns what the antagonist’s object of desire is and sets out to achieve it for themselves. To understand what Harvey Pekar wants to achieve for himself, we have to know who the antagonist of his story is. I'd say it's society. It's the people around Pekar who try to do their best as he does. They are his competition. Be it at basketball, jazz, fighting or just his comrades who cleaned their shirts while he just couldn't get it as perfectly clean as he wanted to. Pekat wants to be the best of one particular field, and his antagonists are everyone who is in that field too.

"This was the key to my ego. I knew I could fight now, and I didn't take shit from anyone. I became rather fanatical about fighting and sports, because so much of my self-image depended on them. 

If I didn't think I could get praise from participating in a sport, I'd refuse to play. [...] I was an okay ballplayer, but when I figured I wasn't going to be a star, I obsessed about it, from being a neighborhood nobody, I went to being a neighborhood star. Only thinking of myself in this way made me feel calm."

  • The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails. Pekar finally makes it to become an 'outright legend' in beingone of the toughest guys in schools. But he still felt very insecure about himself. He expected that with all this recognition, his self-image would change. But he still hears the voice of his mom in his head: "Prepare for the worst, so if it happens, you won't be surprised." She threatens his status from below because she never found any form of success, but she influences her son. I think it was just the caring of a mom, but she basically told him that no matter what he does there will always be a downside. And he wanted to get away from that downside. Just be the best and enjoy his success without worrying.

"I felt there was a force working aganist me that wasn't allowing coaches to give me a starting position no matter how badly I mauled my competitors."

  • During an all-is-lost moment, the protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their principles. Until joining the Navy, Pekar thought of himself as tough. But in basic training, he fell apart. He couldn't go on pretending to be the tough fighter anymore because he wasn't.
    I love the following picture that shows so perfectly well, what an all-is-lost moment for a person must feel like:

 

The Quitter - Harvey Pekar - All Is Lost Moment

  • But what's really interesting: This scene was not the all-is-lost moment for Pekar. It definitely felt like it because it was visually portrayed so strongly. After quitting the Navy, Pekar did what he always did. First, he tried to find a job, then he quit his job as a mailman because one tiny worry freaked him out and he decided to go to college which made his mom happy. But as soon as he got a C+ in geography - the last thing he thought he was good at - he quit college altogether because he couldn't quit the geography class. Returning home, he gets so mad that he breaks a chair. His father is enraged and wants to throw him out. There's a big fight and in the end, Pekar has not only lost all his faith in himself but lost his family and the last resort he could always turn to when he was beat.

    If you look at the book, there was never used one page for one single frame, one single image. BUT the moment Pekar hit his cousin Mort, that's one frame on one single-page. That moment is highlighted because it was the turning point for Pekar's life.

 

The Quitter - Harvey Pekar All is lost moment

 

  • The Core Event: The protagonist chooses either to do what’s necessary to attain higher status, or to reject the world they strived to join. Pekar compromises at first. He has to get a job, has to find a place to live, so he does what's necessary to survive. 
  • The protagonist saves or loses themselves based on their actions in the Core Event. Even though Pekar is still very unsure about himself, he gets his life in order all by himself. He even finds a girl and starts working as a jazz critique again. He even dives into comics and finds success with his comic book series of American Splendor.

 

The Quitter - Harvey Pekar

 

Conventions:

  • A strong Mentor figure who teaches the protagonist how to gain success or avoid failure. Harvey Pekar's mom is the voice in his head. Even though it's because of her warnings that Pekar can't feel trouble-free, it's been her all along who tried to spare him from true failure. 'Til now, Pekar is expecting the worst. A worry, he can't let go off. But it's through that worry that he always got back on his feet and tried to get his life back together whenever he quit something to avoid failure.

"It's something I'll maybe always worry about, even if the books I'm slated to do for current publishers sell really well. I've always dreamed of being able to relaxand feel trouble-free for long stretches of time. I'm 65 now. Will it ever happen?"

  • Large social problems as the subtext of the story. In the beginning, we have racism as a social problem. Black vs. White. But I guess the biggest social problem is the question a lot of people ask themselves: How do I fit in? And what we learn through this story is that we can't force it to fit in. We have to stay true to ourselves and follow our heart, do what we enjoy in order to make the best of our lives. And that's one Pekar learns in the end, right? His passion is jazz and comics. So that's what he's making a living off now. Even though it's hard, but it's the one thing he follows to this day because it's a part of him he can't let go off. He can't quit it.
  • A Herald or Threshold Guardian, usually another status striver, but one who has sold out and who provides a cautionary tale for the protagonist. As much as Harvey Pekar respected and loved his parents for all the hard work they did to keep the family going, they had sold out. They had let go of who they were in order to take care of their family. Their lives were all about work. But the biggest influence on Harvey Pekar was his cousin Mort. He was like a role model to Pekar. But as he was back living with Harvey's mom and dad, his only hero had failed, too. Did he sell out? We do not find out about it because it seemed like they never talked about what was going on for Mort, but Harvey might have sensed that his hero was beat.
    The following moment happened right before the all-is-lost-moment:

 

The Quitter - Harvey Pekar

  • A clear point of no return for the protagonist where they see the truth and realize they can never go back to the way things were. Pekar gets into a physical fight with his dad and Mort. Now Pekar had overstepped. He is thrown out of his family's home. 
  • An ironic or bittersweet ending. The protagonist wins but loses, or loses but wins. Pekar compromises to make a living. He finds a job to earn some money. But through that compromise, he is able to get his life in order, finds a wife and still gets some success through the recognition for his comic books.

 

The story is also a cautionary tale because it tells us that we should not quit the things in life we enjoy.

Even though we might not be the best in it, but if we like baseball, geography, arts, writing, music, etc. we should keep them in our lives and not quit on them. Because those things define who we are. It's the things that show where our interests lie. And we can never rise to our full potential if we renounce everything because we are not the best in it, or not getting the form of validation for it, we seek for.

All those things we do and like sum up and build the path we follow in our lives. If we start new each time we fail because we didn't live up to what we expected of ourselves, where will we ever end up if we can't follow a path and just see where it leads to? Because there are, for sure, new crossroads and opportunities to come. We just have to keep going!

 

3. What are the objects of desire?

The external object of desire (WANT): Pekar wants success to get honor and respect. He wants validation from others to feel better about himself. (Performance)

The internal object of desire (NEED): Pekar needs esteem and self-respect because his self-image is so fragile and low that he cannot trust in his abilities. (Status)

 

The Quitter - Harvey Pekar Controlling Idea of the story4. What is the controlling idea/theme?

In general, the controlling idea for a Status sentimental story goes like this:

  • Prescription (positive ending): Success results when a person is true to their values, whether or not they obtain a higher social status.
  • Cautionary tale (negative ending): Failure results when a person sells out their values to gain a higher social status.

 

Now, the general version with the positive ending comes close to what we as the reader take away from this story.

Here's the controlling idea I came up with for The Quitter by Harvey Pekar:

You can avoid failure if you keep putting the best effort into the things you have to do in life and in the things you enjoy as long as you stay true to yourself and do not define your success by what others might think of you but by looking at yourself and see what you have accomplished over the years. Be proud of yourself.

OR

You are allowed to quit on things, but never should you give up on yourself.

 

5. What is the point of view (POV) and the narrative device?

Point of View and Narrator

The point of view character and the protagonist is Harvey Pekar. It's first-person POV because Pekar himself is taking the reader along his past and tells him about every fight he'd taken on, about every worry and failure, as well about the hardships of his life. And we know his thoughts. Pekar is the narrator of his own story and occasionally we see the older version of him commenting on past incidents.

Narrative Distance

The narrative distance to Pekar, our protagonist, is very close because we are in the heads of his younger and his older self. We experience his world and his struggles. Through that, we build up an understanding of his reactions and we reflect on them with the older version of Pekar. He is not making an excuse for his actions. He is just letting us peek into his life and see for ourselves how he was shaped by the world and what kind of unique person he is. A person, like you and me, with our own troubles and struggles we have to go through in life.

Narrative Drive

It's interesting to look at the narrative drive. The reader knows it's a story about Pekar growing up. So we already know that Pekar made it to a comic book writer. The older version of himself in the book, the narrator, reflects back in his own life while the young Pekar, the one we follow through his life, does not know where he will end up. Because we have the advantage to know more about the story than the young Pekar (the protagonist) does, the story is driven by dramatic irony (the reader knows more than one or more characters).

 

6. What are the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff?

Beginning Hook (BH): When a young boy moves into a new neighborhood with all his hopes up of making new friends and realizes he only gains recognition by beating other boys up, he has to decide if he wants to be a bully to gain his respect or if he should concentrate on school and sports to make something of himself. The young boy turns to street fighting and becomes one of the toughest boys in school

Middle Build (MB): When the young man is thrown out of the navy and goes to college instead where he receives a C+ in geography, he has to decide if he should stay in college or if he should quit. He quits college and is so enraged about his failures that he gets into a physical fight with his family and is thrown out of the house.

Ending Payoff (EP): When the man gets a girl and is laid off at several jobs, he has to decide if he could do something with his love for underground comics that he was following along or if he should just keep working for the federal government and do nothing for himself. He writes American Splendor and is praised as a writer, but still feeling insecure about himself.

 

My thoughts about Harvey Pekar's The Quitter

I enjoyed reading this memoir.

At first, I felt sorry for Pekar because he seemed so lonely and didn't have any friends. As he went on quitting so many things he was good at and turned to street fighting, I was asking myself: Why are you doing this? I guess, time's been different back then because I had expected more consequences for Pekar. Like criminal charges against him, etc. But he got away with what he did.

I can understand Pekar's worry about still being unsure about himself. He is still searching for that moment of peace and happiness. No troubles. But he was raised to believe that he can never enjoy what he has achieved because he has to prepare for bad things to come. I feel some relief for this man because at least he has his name on a successful comic book series, he has a family and he has gained an understanding of who he is and he understands his troubles. So he can react, when before he was only acting out.

I think that's very important if we understand ourselves, because the better we do, the better we can take on the struggles of life.

The Quitter - Analysis of a comic book memoir


Now that you have made it all the way to the end of my blog post, it'd be really great if you could spend two more minutes and let me know your thoughts.

Did the story work for you? What did you like the most about The Quitter by Harvey Pekar? What didn't you like?

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Melanie Naumann - I help comic book writers craft authentic stories in every kind of setting. Melanie Naumann - I help comic book writers craft authentic stories in every kind of setting.
Editing Comics

Story Consultant

Melanie is a developmental editor and action/thriller writer from Germany. She specializes in applying the Story Grid methodology to the art of writing graphic novels. She is currently working on a case study to show how the principles of story structure can be applied for telling stories that work through the art of captivating pictures, captions, and dialogue.

Melanie has traveled the world and lived in New Zealand, Australia, and Spain before settling down in her home village in Saxony, Germany.

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