No doubt there have been worse Mondays than July 12, 2010, but it’s hard to imagine it right now. On that day, Harvey Pekar, iconic American comic book writer, creator of the groundbreaking autobiographical comics series, American Splendor, and one of the most influential and delightfully eccentric creative figures in American literature, died of unknown causes at his home in Cleveland, Ohio. For anyone that knew Harvey, responding to his death seems just too sad for words but we’re going to give it a try.
Harvey Pekar didn’t invent autobiographical or nonfiction comics, but it sure seems like he did. He certainly supplied the category with much of its current literary form; powered the popularity of contemporary nonfiction comics with his writing, inventive collaborative process and outsized personality; and has served as one of the form’s exemplars and most creative practitioners right up to this day. His early self-published comics collected stories of his daily life as a hospital file clerk in Cleveland and by the early 1980s—at a time when American comics were dominated commercially and creatively by the superhero genre—he was at the center of a movement focused on prosaic, naturalistically rendered autobiographical small press comics.
By now Harvey’s story is well known and well documented—his rise from ordinary clerical worker to critically acclaimed comics chronicler of his fellow workers has become an American literary legend comparable to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats or the Algonquin roundtable. (The Pekar legend was also chronicled and immortalized in the acclaimed 2003 film adaptation, American Splendor, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman with Paul Giamatti as Pekar). Pekar met and bonded with renowned underground comics artist R. Crumb in the 1960s and began theorizing about creating comics that explored, celebrated and sometimes lampooned the real everyday life of real people. He launched and self-published American Splendor, the series that he used to remake the American notion of what comics could be about. Pekar’s stories ranged from the careful mapping of the smallest events in the most ordinary day—in his early comics we get to know him as he pushes a cart with files around his day job, meeting and greeting his coworkers—to the goofiest self-inflicted everyday calamities to the endless struggle to make a living to big emotional dramas between families, friends and lovers.
Later came graphic novels: Our Cancer Year (with his wife Joyce Brabner and artist Frank Stack), chronicling his bout with lymphoma; The Quitter (Dean Haspiel), an expansive look at his own early life; Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story (with Gary Dumm), an inventive biography; and Macedonia (with Heather Robertson and Ed Piskor), a geopolitical exploration into conflict resolution in the Balkans. With these he expanded his reach into a new level of social depth and literary empathy. But no matter if he was chronicling his co-workers at the hospital or his frustrations with standing behind old Jewish ladies in a supermarket, Pekar was direct, funny and—despite his withering honesty and intellectual chops—compassionate; he brought understanding and social context to his subjects, not malice, dismissal or condecension. He made everyday life a heroic scenario that worked out one way or another and he turned the city of Cleveland into a kind of real-world Metropolis or Gotham City without the spandex.
He first published his comics in book form in the early 1980s at Doubleday (American Spendor (1986) and in 1987, More American Splendor), anticipating the comics medium’s later transition from a periodical-driven medium to book publishing. His most recent books were The Beats: A Graphic History (with Paul Buhle and Ed Piskor) and Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (with Paul Buhle and Gary Dumm), both from Hill & Wang. And now there is the Pekar Project (edited by Jeff Newelt), an extraordinary ongoing online project sponsored by Smithmag.com that paired Pekar with an even wider range of cartoonists to create Web comics that offered promises of a new generation of Harvey Pekar print works.
His comic book persona—irascible, no-bullshit, down-to-earth working class artist/critic/heartland intellectual—was very real. He was very smart and he was certainly as entertaining and funny in person as he was starring in his own comics. And let’s not forget that he was an excellent Jazz critic and reviewed and wrote extensively on literature. Harvey even reviewed comics for me and PW for awhile in 2003 (I’ve still got a few emails from the generally non-digitally oriented Harvey) and it was both a delight as well as a trip to deal with him. And while he could indeed drive you crazy—usually trying to make absolutely sure he was going to get paid on time—getting a phone call from Harvey Pekar was always a thrill. It’s unbelievably sad to think that there won’t be any more calls from Harvey.