“I’m saddened to learn of the death today of Harvey Pekar, age seventy, author for thirty-four years of the comic book American Splendor...”
A lot of things happen when a person dies—but, mostly, nothing happens. Harvey Pekar has been remembered, his life recounted in dozens of newspapers, yet no one has actually done anything about it.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave him a front-page story, which lacked anything remarkable except for occurring in the only daily paper of the city Pekar lived and knew. (I was going to take the time to electronically scan the newspaper but luckily these days so many newspaper articles have an online counterpart.) This article is the headpiece, in my mind, for a long series occurring in papers about the world, telling the same basic story. Ha. Obits...
So. “Here's our guy...” In the obituary title, I have labeled him a “great man,” a personal title as full of sad irony as the title of his long-running series. “Great” is an adjective I am hard-pressed to use to seriously describe anyone, but I will always be ready to admit that there was something special about Harvey Pekar. He was a man inherently outside the mainstream: ugly, neurotic, anti-social, “curmudgeonly,” and probably smelly too. (Don't believe that last: I never met him.) He was a guy many probably felt sorry for, and whom others laughed at, as with his infamous appearances on Letterman. I, for my part, felt there was no other route but kinship.
I never met him, as I said, yet I still feel like I know him—a peculiar side effect of autobiography, especially the quotidian variety (Harvey, you taught me that word) Pekar's work typified. He was a man I wanted to meet. I was going to—at some book-warming event, or a kind of gallery showing—but plans fell through that night and I ended up reading one of his comics instead. Maybe it was for the best... we'll never know. As it is he will always occupy a tender, endearing place with me, alongside other grumpy, seemingly unapproachable people.
And he was unapproachable, at least in his stories, at least to some. Man... you think Pekar himself was ugly... his writing is what nice guys call “vigorous” or “full of ‘local color’” or “true to life,” while craftily avoiding words like “boring” and “stiff,” never mind “finely-crafted” or, simply, “gorgeous.” His writing style and his character are both hard to like, but certainly they are equally hard to hate—probably because they are so true, so full of sincerity. There are no intentional lies between the pages of American Splendor—just an ordinary guy attempting earnestly to tell it like it is.
About his real life—the parts never put on paper—I can say nothing absolutely. Working with him was probably not always easy: his unswerving attitude towards his stuff caused some head-butting with his artist collaborators throughout his career. His tendency to leave his work uncut and unedited, for example, peeved both artist (Gary Dumm, one of Pekar’s long-time collaborators, once complained to us, “There’s no room for the art!”) and reader (“Hey, mac, you got anything shorter, maybe?”). But in the end, Dumm, the artist, found him to be “without fail a generous and helpful friend to me....” And Abe, the reader, is in the midst of accounting for himself.
Don’t believe the news anchors: “Cleveland is my hometown.” Chicago was taken—Miami, too. Pekar was—is—the real king of Cleveland. He deserves more recognition, from both the comparatively highbrow, and the people “from off the streets of Cleveland”—as American Splendor was originally subtitled. As it is, we’ll simply have to pretend that the Harvey Award is in honor of him as well as the late, great Harvey Kurtzman. And we’ll have to hope that the four or five of his books in every local library will reach dolefully empty hands and will maybe spark a tinder in just the right imagination. And hopefully someone can be conjured up to say: “This is our guy! I’m immensely proud of him.” Oh, hell—it’s already done.
May he rest in peace.
● Our Cancer Year, with Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack—“This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick, too.” Harvey’s and his wife’s trials with his cancer during the early nineties are juxtaposed against larger events, particularly the escalation of the Gulf War.
● American Splendor: Our Movie Year—Harvey tells us what it was like to be a celebrity, of a sort. This book documents his life leading up to, and including the release of the well-received film adaptation of American Splendor. “Can he keep his everyman persona [and good looks] in the face of an award-winning movie based on his autobiographical comic-book series? Happily, the answer is ‘you bet.’”
● The Quitter, with Dean Haspiel—A memoir of earlier years, from the little kid days, through his short-lived college experience, to his many menial jobs and his finally settling with—more like grasping onto for dear life—a government file clerk position. In short, it’s the story of a kid who quit at everything and later kinda fell into becoming an icon of his city.
● Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, with Gary Dumm—This book follows the entire life of one Michael Malice, a semi-successful business man who attributes his success to reading Ayn Rand. From my review: “Michael Malice is a real jerk, but I loved reading about his life.” and “I think I’ll just stick to my indifferent attempts at altruism, thank-you-very-much.”
● Macedonia, with Heather Roberson and Ed Piskor—This book follows a college student who dives into the history of modern-day Macedonia in an attempt to discover more about practical peace-making work. Never read it.
● Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History—The story of a radical ’60s-era student activist group. Never read it.
● The Beats—A hodgepodge of stories and artists, memoirs and more typical nonfiction comics. It starts with lengthy graphic biographies about Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, then breaks down into a series of smaller of comics divulging both a more general history and, sometimes, a more specific angle—“Beatnik Chicks,” for example.
● Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation—Another hodgepodge of writers and artists—Pekar just sorta presided. It’s the perfect book for him to adapt: a series of people talking frankly about their everyday working lives.
Below, I have collected a few more articles of more interest than the average obituary.
● Jacob Heibrunn of The Huffington Post wrote an inspired piece, “The Collapse of Cleveland,” in which he pulled together three seemingly unrelated events—Pekar’s death; the death of George Steinbrenner, Yankees owner and one-time Cleveland shipping magnate; and the exit of Lebron James, former Cavalier all-star and supposed god, for another team—as a sort of base for apocalyptic conclusions obvious from the title.
● The Washington Post, in their “Comic Riffs” perennial feature, paid more appropriate tribute, gathering quotes from some of Pekar’s former collaborators and fellow members of the industry. Frank Stack: “I’ve heard him compared to Charles Bukowski, of course. But I think he was even more like an American Chekov.” *eh*...
● Splash Page, MTV.com’s comic-themed blog, featured an interview with Jeff Newelt, editor of “The Pekar Project,” an online comics project that saw Pekar paired with a “quartet of artists.” Of course, Pekar left many projects unfinished, and others that are finished but yet to come out, among them “a bunch of” comics for the project and a graphic novel, simply entitled Cleveland, intended for release in 2011. Newelt also spoke of writing a tribute comic himself, as well as the possibility of tribute comics from other artists and writers.