Tuesday, July 13, 2010


A blast from the past today. One of the icons of American comix, Harvey Pekar, died today. Now it's been perhaps too many years since I was a great comics fans and collector, but Pekar's work on American Splendor sticks out in my memory. Pekar had the unique talent to make the seemingly trivial events of everyday life shine with luminous meaning. His style was, of course, not for everyone, but his concerns and subject matter were universal (or at least pertinent to the 99% of us who are neither rich, famous nor members of a cult, either religious or political). He'll be sorely missed.

I sold my first comic collection almost a quarter century ago, and have been only peripherally a fan since then. Turns out I've missed a lot, at least in terms of Pekar. Here's one of the many tributes to the man, this one from the Care2 site.
Harvey Pekar, the Mark Twain of Comics, Dies at 70
His work has been compared to Mark Twain and Anton Chekov. Harvey Pekar, the "genius of the mundane," a neurotic, obsessive, erudite comic book writer and cultural historian died early Monday morning in Cleveland. It's a great loss to American arts and letters.

A pioneer in underground comics, Pekar brought the voices and lives of everyday people to the forefront of his work. While cranky and irascible, Pekar wrote of class concerns with empathy and clarity. His work was an equalizing force kin to Studs Terkels' oral histories (which makes it unsurprising that his last full-length work was a graphic adaptation of Terkel's Working.) As Joanna Connors of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote:

"Unlike the superheroes who ordinarily inhabit the pages of comic books, Pekar could neither leap tall buildings in a single bound, nor move faster than a speeding bullet. Yet his comics suggested a different sort of heroism: The working-class, everyman heroics of simply making it through another day, with soul -- if not dignity -- intact."

From off the streets of Cleveland...
Pekar is perhaps best known for his biographical comic American Splendor, which elegantly catalogued the unexpected pleasures and frustrations of life in Cleveland, Ohio. Pekar was a file clerk at a VA hospital by day, but wrote prolifically about jazz and literature in his off hours.

Pekar's work broke open comics as a medium that served a greater purpose sans the superheroics. They elevated daily life to something beyond humdrum--in Pekar's hands, finding the right pair of shoes for a song at the thrift store was a meditation on style and passing trends. He paved the way for future generations of independent comic artists dedicated to replicating the unsung morsels of daily life.

Top Ten
Pekar was politically outspoken, particularly about the undue influences of corporations. In the late 1980s, Pekar was a recurring guest on Late Night with David Letterman, until he became critical of General Electric on the air (GE owned NBC at the time).

Pekar worked with peace activist Heather Roberson on the book Macedonia, ultimately producing a case study about a country that, despite heavy political pressures, has never descended into war like its neighbor Kosovo. Other works include histories of the Beat poets and Students for a Democratic society.

Pekar's work merged the personal and the political in a highly accessible way. It embodies a core democratic sentiment: That all people should have access to art and politics--and that even the most unexpected sources have something to contribute to the conversation. To see some of his last works, visit The Pekar Project.

I have already admitted that I missed a lot of Pekar's later work which if you were to judge from the above made was what originally the more or less implicit political content of his work into something quite explicit. I think that his early work, set as it was in the depressing city of Cleveland ( probably even worse than Winnipeg )and dealing only with the events of everyday life was a much needed corrective to the tendency of all opponents of the way things are to drift into a fantasy world of spectacle. There is a direct line between this concern for the ordinary person and his later efforts. Anyways, here's his obit as published in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Harvey Pekar obituary

Harvey Pekar, who has died aged 70, was the writer of American Splendor, an autobiographical comic in which he wrote about the everyday, often mundane, aspects of his life. Pekar experimented with the narrative form and used a shifting roster of artists on his comics, but it was the sheer ordinariness of the stories that slowly earned him a strong following, critical acclaim and comparisons with Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

Set in the rundown neighbourhoods of Cleveland, Ohio, American Splendor's world was revealed without exaggeration or self-aggrandisement. Pekar, opinionated and curmudgeonly, was often the most frustrating and aggravating character to appear in his books. The writer became a regular guest on the talkshow Late Night With David Letterman, but his confrontational style led to him being banned from it.

In 1990, Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy. Heavy medication led to hallucinations and occasional paralysis, but the cancer went into remission. His wife, Joyce Brabner, kept detailed notes during this period and collaborated with him on Our Cancer Year (1994), an unflinching account of their relationship, illustrated by Frank Stack.

Our Cancer Year was central to the 2003 movie American Splendor, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Brabner. Pekar and Brabner also appeared as themselves in the film, which won major prizes at the Sundance and Cannes festivals.

When asked in an interview whether he thought the film was an accurate account of his life, Pekar replied: "I don't know what's normal because I don't see too many movies ... but yeah, it felt right. It felt true." Not surprisingly, he gave his own account of the film-making process in his 2004 collection, American Splendor: Our Movie Year.

Born in Cleveland, he was the eldest son of Saul and Dora Pekar, Polish Jews who had recently moved to the US from Białystok. Pekar grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, where his father ran a grocery store. After graduating from Shaker Heights high school in 1957, he held down a series of short-lived jobs, including stints as a janitor and an elevator operator.

He attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland but dropped out after a year. He was also briefly in the navy – as he later recounted in his 2005 comic, The Quitter, drawn by Dean Haspiel. In 1965 he settled into a dull but stable job as a clerk at a Veterans Affairs medical centre in Cleveland, where he remained until his retirement in 2001.

Pekar had read comic books from the age of six but lost interest in them after a few years because he found the stories cliched and repetitive. In 1959 he began writing jazz reviews for magazines. His interest in comics was rekindled in 1962 when he met the 19-year-old artist Robert Crumb.

Crumb was already involved in the nascent "comix" scene of artists who were creating underground, counterculture strips. Pekar, although impressed by the freedom of expression offered by this new movement, felt that they concentrated on a bohemian lifestyle which he – as a wage slave – did not share.

Pekar enjoyed the directness of writers such as Henry Miller and felt that even his workaday life had its moments of humour and drama. In the early 1970s he began writing stories, using stick figures and laying out the scripts as storyboards. He showed these to Crumb, who offered to illustrate some of the stories. Their collaboration appeared in Crumb's The People's Comics in 1972 and Pekar's autobiographical tales were featured in other underground titles, including Bizarre Sex, Flaming Baloney, Snarf and Flamed-out Funnies.

In 1975 he conceived the idea of self-publishing so that he could write longer, more involved stories. Although he lost money on the first issue of American Splendor, published in 1976, later annual issues – which ran to around 60 pages – slowly found an audience. By the early 90s, American Splendor had a print run of 10,000 copies per issue.

Pekar continued to review books and records and write essays, often for the alternative press. From 1992 to 1996, he also penned a series of comic strips about jazz, drawn by Joe Sacco, for the Village Voice newspaper. Doubleday published the collection American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar in 2006. A sequel, More American Splendor, came out the following year.

American Splendor was published by Dark Horse Comics from 1994 to 2002 and Vertigo (DC Comics) from 2006 to 2008, giving Pekar the financial stability to work on other projects, including Unsung Hero (illustrated by David Collier, 2003), about the experiences in Vietnam of an African-American colleague at the VA hospital where Pekar worked.

Pekar wrote Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (drawn by Gary Dumm, 2008) and Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation (drawn by various artists, 2009). He also contributed to The Beats: A Graphic History (various artists, 2009).

He divorced twice before marrying Joyce in 1983. The couple adopted a daughter, Danielle, in 1998. They survive him, along with his younger brother, Allen.

• Harvey Lawrence Pekar, comics writer, born 8 October 1939; died 12 July 2010
And here is my favourite Harvey Pekar quote, taken from an interview which he gave to Walrus Comix.

"NO… ACTUALLY, I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SELL OUT!! I mean if I KNEW how to sell out... I mean I haven’t given in to commercialism because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO give in to commercialism... If I DID, I might have done it a long time ago!! "

No doubt Harvey will find lots to grumble about in heaven. RIP.


Larry Gambone said...

Sorry to hear this. We also lost Tuli Kupferberg yeasterday.

mollymew said...

Oh Fug !

Anonymous said...

He did a peice about the IWW....

mollymew said...

True. He was one of the contributers to 'Wobblies ! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World'.
See the Verso Books review/ad http://www.versobooks.com/books/ab/b-titles/buhle_schulman_iww.shtml