As even he would have admitted, Harvey Pekar was a nebbish, in the precise Oxford dictionary meaning of the term. He was innocuous, ineffectual, a nobody in his own eyes and everyone else’s.
In middle age he was a file clerk with no future. Casting about for some way to better himself, he came up with an outlandish idea. He would make the dumb emptiness of his life in dreary Cleveland into a story, a comic-book narrative that people would want to read.
Pekar certainly didn’t know it, even when his comics began appearing in 1976, but he was part of a cultural change that has since developed over two generations. Call it The Rise of the Nebbish.
In 1941, Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, defined the Yiddish word “nebbish” with careless disdain: “Not exactly an incompetent, a dope or a weakling. He is simply…
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