Who was Harvey Pekar? He was a retired file clerk, a jazz critic, a husband and adoptive father, an autodidact, a voracious reader, a Jew who frowned on Israel’s policies, a guest on David Letterman’s show, the subject of an Oscar-nominated film, an armchair historian of the times and culture that shaped him. Most relevant to this column, though, he was an influential — some would say revolutionary — writer of comic books.
Pekar wasn’t interested in superheroes. Nor was he into the wild sex-and-drugs ethos of the underground comics of the ’60s. But while hanging out with his buddy Robert Crumb — soon to become famous as one of the greatest cartoonists the medium has ever seen — Pekar took a look at a comic Crumb had drawn, and he had an epiphany: “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” So he took a day gig as a file clerk in a VA hospital, and in his spare time he began roughing out comics stories. He didn’t draw, but he managed to interest Crumb and some other local artists in providing the pictures to flesh out his words. He didn’t get around to self-publishing the first issue of his life’s work, American Splendor, until 1977.
Pekar eschewed escapism in favor of slice-of-life realism. When mainstream comics try to be “realistic,” what that usually means is that the superheroes bleed or drop F-bombs. Pekar was after something else. Many of his stories took the form of monologues, Pekar holding forth on some topic. Others focused on everyday foibles — Pekar built entire stories out of standing in line at the grocery store or losing his glasses. No mean raconteur himself, Pekar loved listening to and sharing other people’s tales as well, often stepping out of the way and letting co-workers, buddies or random acquaintances wag their chins, sometimes for pages and pages. The point was clear: Everyone had a story, a point of view, an inner life.
The force of Pekar’s personality — raspy-voiced but eloquent, working-class but culturally refined, smart but not snobbish, pugnacious but pragmatically pacifist — helped put everything over, and the variety of artists illustrating his comics (some great, some just serviceable) guaranteed a draw for discerning fans of cartooning. Alas, the rewards were not immediate. For years Pekar toiled in the wilderness, losing money on the endeavor even though he hustled his ass off trying to get American Splendor under the noses of both potential readers and media outlets that might make a difference. An anxiety-ridden depressive, he agonized over the mere possibility that a forthcoming review of his work might be negative.
Slowly Pekar gained visibility. He made the first of several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986. Pekar dusted off his old street-spieler persona from his youthful days on the corner shooting the shit and playing the dozens. Letterman enjoyed the grouchy give-and-take enough to invite Pekar back, but Pekar soon fell out of favor when he tried, on a 1988 appearance, to point out the hypocrisy of GE, which owned NBC, which at the time was Letterman’s boss. (God knows what Pekar would’ve made of the NBC/Comcast merger.) So Pekar was banished from the show — though he was asked back years later after the first of his three bouts with cancer — and it was back to the drawing board. Pekar later said that his Letterman spots never did much to promote and sell his comics anyway.
What did move the books, finally, was the movie American Splendor, released to justified acclaim in 2003. Starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his no-nonsense wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, the film introduced a new audience to Pekar’s kvetching aesthetic. Pekar and Brabner appeared in the film, bemused onlookers in their own biopic. Judah Friedlander, later a 30 Rock regular, played Pekar’s eccentric co-worker Toby Radloff, who had his fifteen minutes of fame on MTV in the late ’80s. According to Pekar in an interview with Walrus Comix, “What happened was I had just been on the Letterman show… and MTV sent somebody out to do a story on me at the VA Hospital and I was just taking them around and showing them different things. I introduced them to Toby and after five minutes with him they kicked me to the curb! I can’t compete with that guy.” Toby appeared as himself in the film, too.
By then, Pekar was no longer self-publishing American Splendor; various book publishers had reprinted his early comics in trade-paperback form, and the semi-indie comics company Dark Horse (which also distributed Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300) started publishing Pekar’s comic in 1993. Bizarrely, in 2005 Pekar found a new niche at DC Comics, the home of Superman and Batman. Actually, it was DC’s Vertigo imprint, which specialized in mature-audiences fare like Hellblazer (which became the movie Constantine with Keanu Reeves), but still — DC publishing Harvey Pekar was a trip, man. Pekar’s DC tour began with the superb 2005 graphic novel The Quitter and lasted through two four-issue miniseries (which are available as the trade paperbacks Another Day and Another Dollar).
Pekar kept busy till the end. Retired from clerking, he initially had trouble keeping his overactive mind from eating itself; he was also obsessed with making enough “bread” so that his wife Joyce and their adopted daughter Danielle could survive once he was gone. He kept writing comics; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Leave Me Alone!; he guested on an Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations segment filmed in Pekar’s Cleveland stomping grounds. Bourdain, a fan, treated Pekar like the local literary lion he was; a Pekar collection to be published in April is said to include a Bourdain “appreciation” of his Cleveland guide. Bourdain still considers the Cleveland show his favorite No Reservations episode.
Facing a third fight with cancer — the first had been chronicled in his 1994 masterpiece Our Cancer Year — Pekar died of an accidental overdose of antidepressants. I was still reeling from my mother’s death not even a week before, and when word of Pekar’s passing hit the internet I felt my stomach sink. Death is both always expected and never expected. I had seen my mom’s death coming — it was a long, difficult illness — but I hadn’t known Pekar was even sick again. At 70, he was two years older than my mom. At times like that, you reflect that all deaths are untimely. Pekar’s loss, for me personally, was obviously not on the level of my mother’s, but — even though I’d never met, spoken with or corresponded with the man — I felt I’d lost a friend.
I’d discovered American Splendor in high school, right when I was starting to tire of spandexed beefcakes punching each other and was looking for something more substantive, more experimental. I found it in a variety of indie comics (many published by Fantagraphics), and I damn well found it in Harvey Pekar. I bought American Splendor wherever I could find it. He was one of the very few comics creators I fantasized about just shooting the shit with — and he probably would’ve been receptive; his number was listed, and he used to talk to his fans on the phone (or write back to them) all the time. I could’ve reached out to him, but I think I decided it would be better to let him be. The man didn’t owe me his time; he’d given me twenty-some years of great comics.
At the end of one of his stories, Pekar poignantly asked: “Will anyone at all read my stuff after I’m dead? Will they wonder what kind of guy I was?” The answer to the first question: a resounding yes. Second question: probably not. Harvey Pekar, after all, spent 33 years of his creative and personal life showing us what kind of guy he was — the kind of guy more people should aspire to be: honest, passionate, committed, hard-working, and uniquely insightful about this weird matrix we’re all stuck in. In short, one of the good guys.