Harvey Pekar, a great writer, comics innovator: His splendid American life is over
Harvey Pekar was one of the most important, idiosyncratic, and eccentric writers that the comics medium has ever produced. He ushered in a new age of autobiographical realism to comic books and graphic novels, writing scripts that were illustrated by artists such as R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Dean Haspiel, Drew Friedman, and Rick Geary. He enjoyed a brief period of TV stardom as an occasional guest on David Letterman’s NBC talk show, and his comic-book series American Splendor inspired a 2003 film of the same name starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar. In 2003, he contributed a periodic comic strip, “Harvey Pekar’s Lost and Found,” to Entertainment Weekly.
Rolling through Pekar’s pop-culture credits, however, does not come close to describing what Pekar achieved. He spent most of his adult life working a civil-service job as a filing clerk in Cleveland, Ohio, writing comics scripts in his spare time. He loved jazz and collected vinyl albums from thrift sales and used record- and bookstores, a passion that he shared with one of his most sympathetic artist-collaborators, R. Crumb.
When Pekar began publishing American Splendor in 1976, the title was both blazingly ironic and ferociously sincere. Pekar was not living a splendid life, by any means. (There aren’t many comic books that would contain a story entitled “Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day.”) A lower-middle-class laborer who found solace and inspiration in the literary depiction of the working-class, Pekar put on a pugnacious front. He suffered from a common trait of the self-taught, the autodidact: He at once yearned to be accepted as a writer and critic (he wrote lots of music and book reviews), yet felt closed out — looked-down upon — by those in the publishing world.
He liked the comics as proletariat culture, accessible to nearly everyone. Yet he also disliked the notion of comics as (in Art Spiegelman’s phrase) “kid culture,” and pretty much despised the super-hero genre. Knowing he possessed no great talent as an artist, he wrote meticulously detailed stories about his life in Cleveland, and enlisted artists who appreciated his form of social realism to draw them. Pekar was demanding and stubborn — things had to be drawn the way he wanted them. But the result was a formidable body of work.
Staffers at David Letterman’s show brought American Splendor to the host’s attention, and he was booked as a guest. Thus began a series of appearances that Pekar, on his end, saw as an opportunity to sell his comics, and which Letterman, on his side of the desk, saw as a chance to spar with a non-star.
The relationship with Letterman soured as Pekar grew more political and less willing to mug and play the clown; he was gradually erased from the host’s guest list. But after the success of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, published in hardcover in 1986, the rise of the “graphic novel” as a commercial genre helped Pekar to continue publishing Splendor with a variety of publishers, including one of the biggest, DC Comics and its Vertigo imprint. (I am proud to say that I made a cameo appearance in one of the comics Pekar wrote for DC/Vertigo.)
Pekar’s 1994 book Our Cancer Year, written with his wife Joyce Brabner, chronicled his struggle with lymphoma, and Brabner’s own bouts of illness. And while the 2003 American Splendor movie brought him a fresh round of fame, it didn’t really change his life very much. He wasn’t a crank or a curmudgeon; he was an individualist with a fully formed artistic vision from which he never strayed. (One of his last published works was his graphic interpretation of the classic book of working-class interview non-fiction, Studs Terkel’s Working.) Pekar remained an ardent champion of the lowly comic book, as well as a highly original reader of such neglected authors ranging from the forgotten humorist George Ade to the contemporary novelist Roger Boylan.
He probably became as well known as a cult figure can be without becoming a star — a term for which Pekar had no use in his value system. It’s sad that he’s dead; what’s wonderful is that there is a great mass of uncollected prose (all of his reviews for publications such as Down Beat and The Austin Chronicle) that should find a future publisher. And there’ll always be American Splendor, in which Pekar explained to an audience more used to reading about caped crusaders than janitors that it was often the the file clerks, the grocery-store baggers, and the janitors of the world who had more to tells us about our lives, and they spoke through Harvey Pekar.
For more: Harvey Pekar dies at 70