I had a few other ideas for today, but I scrapped them all because of Harvey Pekar.
For those of you who don’t know, Harvey Pekar, the creator and writer of “American Splendor”, passed away early this morning. He was 70 years old and from all accounts he died in his sleep. He’s survived by his wife/collaborator Joyce Brabner and his foster daughter Danielle.
I can’t understate the influence Harvey Pekar has had on the kind of work I do, or the kind of work all comic artists of my ilk do, even if they don’t realize it. Harvey Pekar was one of the first American writers to see comics could be about more than just superhero or fantasy; that really they could really be about anything. “American Splendor” was about Harvey’s life working as a hospital filing clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. Events were usually recorded in intense detail, even if they weren’t exactly interesting or even painted Harvey in a negative light. But they always rang true to reality, which was exactly the point. Any comic artist who writes in the slice-of-life genre owes him a great debt.
You possibly know of Harvey from his appearances on the Dave Letterman show back in the 1980’s, or from the film about his work starring Paul Giamatti (clips of both seen below). Concerning the film, I remember a fellow comic artist having a furious reaction upon seeing, saying that it did little more than laugh at Harvey, his friends, and his life. I personally didn’t feel that way about the film, and frankly I didn’t think Harvey Pekar needed defending because he knew what he was getting into. Harvey Pekar was a tough old bastard…he was also neurotic, curmudgeonly, fretful, and often blunt. In short, he was human. And he was one of the first if not THE first to show that comics can be about that too. In the early 1990’s he was diagnosed with lymphoma and wasn’t at his best personally or medically, but he still dared to write about it and publish it in “Our Cancer Year”, one of the best graphic novels you’ll ever read (sadly he had been suffering from prostate cancer in recent years, which needless to say contributed to his death).
Thinking now about his life and his work, I can’t help but feel a kinship to the man. Even after the “American Splendor” comics got acclaim and recognition (and later the film), he never quit his job as a filing clerk and worked until he was able to retire with a full pension. While I would drop my day job at the drop of a hat to do nothing but make comics and get paid for it, the fact he loved comics so much to keep doing them while working his day job is nothing short of inspiring. More than that, he was always thinking forward about the potential of comics, even venturing onto the web recently with The Pekar Project, which runs on a WordPress site like my own. Harvey was also a lifelong lover of jazz (bonding over old jazz records was how he and Robert Crumb met) and was a freelance jazz critic for various sources. Considering I’m such a big rock music fan that I write reviews just for the hell of it, I just…oh I don’t know…:-(
If any of you get the chance, I highly recommend you check out the original “American Splendor” comics (as well as the movie), “Our Cancer Year”, and his recent book “The Quitter” (which has my personal favorite artist rendering of Harvey by Dean Haspiel). I don’t have much else to say (I’m honestly tearing up as I type this), except that despite his flaws Harvey Pekar left behind a great body of work that’s loved and appreciated by artists and fans all over the world. I can only hope my life in comics can be so rich.