Ego & Hubris, by Harvey Pekar

Ego & Hubris

Subtitled The Michael Malice Story, Ego & Hubris is a nonfiction graphic novel (I’ve always thought of a “novel” as fictional by definition, but “nonfiction graphic novel” does seem to be the preferred term for a work of nonfiction written in comic book style) by celebrated Cleveland cartoonist Harvey Pekar.

Like Unsung Hero, which I wrote about recently, this is the central character’s story in his own words, written in the first person, with no interjected questions or other material from Pekar himself (in the body of the book, that is, other than a couple of panels showing how they met through a mutual acquaintance who worked on the American Splendor movie), so it’s more of an “as told to” book than a book by Pekar.

I did, for whatever reason, sense the presence of Pekar more in this book than in Unsung Hero, just in the way it’s edited, the way things are worded, making this feel a bit more like a Harvey Pekar book. I don’t know that I could really defend that perception of a difference though; it’s probably just a superficial subjective thing on my part.

Apparently Harvey thought Malice was an interesting enough guy—which is not to say an admirable enough guy—that his life story would be worth telling in book form. As he says on the cover, “Michael Malice is a piece of work!”

Malice is a New York Jew, the child of Russian immigrants. The way he describes his childhood and parents is chilling, though not in a blatantly physically or sexually abusive sense. Neither parent strikes me as having been particularly sensitive to the needs of a child. His father especially just sounds cold and controlling. One example Malice gives of the atmosphere in the household is that a child was considered to have no privacy; his father would casually go through the things in his room, his mail, whatever, never acknowledging that there was anything even questionable in this.

As he puts it, “I wouldn’t say that it was a horrible or abusive life, it was just a childhood not suited for a human being.”

Malice is a 30ish fellow but looks more like an adolescent, both because of his diminutive size and his baby face. Not surprisingly this has played a major role in how he has been treated his whole life, and no doubt in why he has developed the character traits he has. He is used to being looked down on, underestimated.

He is highly intelligent, and even more arrogant about it. The way he has dealt with the ill treatment he has received in life, both real and imagined, is to develop his mind as a weapon. He knows he’s not going to be able to best anyone physically, but he has become a very competitive nerd-type who delights in maneuvering intellectually to get the better of people.

He takes it to the point of cruelty. That’s not just an accusation on my part; it’s the word he himself uses. In relating with relish an anecdote about how he got a security guard fired for harassing him when he was trying to enter a building, he says, “When it comes to cruelty I am an artist. It’s too bad there’s no way for me to market this gift of hurtfulness.”

He loves telling of how he has humiliated those he for whatever reason regarded as his foes or rivals in a given situation with clever putdowns and such.

Whatever inclination one might have had to root for him as an underdog disappears as you realize just what a total ass he is. He’s like the guy who is bullied as a youth, goes on some massive bodybuilding kick, and ends up every bit as nasty and insufferable as anyone who ever bullied him as he pursues his revenge and announces to the world constantly what a tough guy he is and how nobody can any longer mess with him.

He works a series of tech-type jobs—quintessential nerd stuff—though by the end of the book he’s finally pursuing his dream to work more creatively in TV and film and such. Many of the stories he relates are about office politics and the frustrations of dealing with the culture of the typical corporation. (I’m mostly in agreement with his criticisms of that world.)

His IQ may be as sky high as he claims, but his EQ must be frightfully poor. No humility, no empathy, just all about him and how brilliant and superior he is. “I was right in kindergarten. I was right in second grade. I was right in high school, in college, at work. I was right and they were wrong, and I knew it.” Sheesh, what a jerk.

Need it even be said with that profile that he becomes a diehard believer in the Ayn Rand philosophy?

In a very brief sort of afterword at the end, Harvey concludes, “Like Michael, we are all faced with choices. To familiarize oneself with his history and compare it to one’s own can lead to incidents of self-discovery.”

Along those lines, I did find myself as I read Ego & Hubris frequently thinking about where Malice and I overlap. I mean, mostly I hope I’m not like him, since I obviously find him to be a decidedly unlikable fellow. But that’s not to deny that there are aspects of him that I probably share, and aspects of him that I actually do find appealing (e.g., his ability to spot and assess negatively corporate bullshit). Though that raises the further question of whether the former are a subset of the latter, or whether there are traits I share with him that make me kind of an asshole too.

Mostly I don’t see myself in his traits that I find most repugnant, but there are enough exceptions or I have just enough doubt on that score to still have cringed a bit here and there as I read this book.

Some of it is a matter of maturity. Maybe what I would say is that the 20 year old me overlapped 25% with his most unappealing traits, and the present me more like 5%-10%.

There were times I did kind of sympathize with him or root for him, like when as a child he would feel frustration that something adversely affecting his life had no rational justification, and he could see that and the people around him could not, or, like I noted above, in his criticisms of the kind of backbiting and other ill behavior corporate folks not uncommonly engage in.

Some people I’m sure would accuse me of being too cerebral and thereby missing or undervaluing some of the human elements of life. Like Malice I believe in thinking things through as rationally as possible and accepting where this leads one, including as regards a philosophy of life, morality, political ideas, etc.

Unlike most people, though, I don’t regard reason and emotion as in conflict. I think they are both hugely important and that therefore it’s a big deal if you lack one or ignore one, but not in the sense that you have to compromise one or both to achieve the right balance. The truth is still the truth, and rationality, by definition, is the path to the truth. The role of emotion is not to violate that, but to augment it.

So it’s not that I differ from Malice in that I think he’s too rational, that it would be better if he let his emotions override what his reason tells him. But I think you can, and should, be vastly more kind, empathic, etc. in your treatment of people than he is, and that you can be maximally rational and still do so.

It’s not his superlative intellect and the fact that he doesn’t suppress it that makes him an asshole. He’s an asshole for independent reasons having to do with being a lot more stunted emotionally and morally as a human being than he is physically.

But I’m sure when I was 20 I could come across as more dogmatic than today, and with being more concerned with winning arguments and being acknowledged as right. Again, it’s not so much that maturity taught me that I was overvaluing rationality—and it’s certainly not that it taught me to be some sort of relativist who somehow regards everyone’s opinions as equally valid—as that it taught me that rationality is fully compatible with things like humility and with not needing to convince people I was right whenever we disagreed about something.

I don’t know if that’s how most readers will respond to this book—with a “How are you like and unlike Michael Malice, how do feel about that, and what would you like to do about it?”—but that’s where my mind went.

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