#119 - From Off The Streets Of Cleveland...
1939 - 2010
I hope you’ll indulge me this week as I write about something only tangentially related to movies. Longtime readers of this column know that I’m as much of a comic book geek as I am a movie geek. Early Monday morning, the comics world lost one of its most original voices as Harvey Pekar passed away at his home in Cleveland. Harvey’s long-running American Splendor was, in its own quiet way, one of the most innovative and daring comics ever published. In collaboration with an ever-changing roster of artists, including Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, and many others, Pekar told stories from his own life as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital. The stories were intimate, relatable and always vividly told.
Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Harvey Pekar came with his now legendary appearances on the Letterman show in the 80s. I’d never heard of him at that point. But he was introduced as a comic book writer, so I made sure to watch. After all, how many comic book writers do you see on talk shows? I thought he was funny and fascinating and made sure to catch him every time he was on, including his notorious final appearance where he accused Dave of being a “shill” for General Electric. It was a spellbinding moment. Even watching it today, you can feel the tension in the studio. I didn’t know if I agreed with Pekar’s position or not but I admired his guts.
Since I was living in Montana (not exactly known as a hotbed for underground comix), it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually read American Splendor. I was visiting my mom, then attending grad school at the University of California in Davis, when I spied the latest issue at a newsstand. You’ve gotta love liberal arts college towns. Even though I’d already started to read a few indie comics like Peter Bagge’s Hate, I’d never encountered anything like American Splendor. Harvey’s stories were funny, touching, raw and real. I was hooked.
In the 90s, it became a bit easier to get my hands on Pekar’s work. Early issues were reprinted in trade paperback and new stuff was coming out from Dark Horse. In 1994, Pekar released Our Cancer Year, co-written with his wife Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Frank Stack. It’s an honest and emotional graphic novel depicting Harvey’s fight with lymphoma. The book pulls no punches and spares no detail. If it isn’t Pekar’s masterpiece, it’s certainly right toward the top.
In 2003, Pekar got as close to mainstream popularity as he ever would with the release of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s movie adaptation of American Splendor. It’s an amazingly good film that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Here’s what I said about it earlier this year, when I named it one of the best movies of the decade.
26. American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical underground comic book is probably the unlikeliest candidate for movie adaptation you can find. But directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini found an ingenious way into the material by having multiple Pekars appear throughout. There’s the real Harvey. There’s Paul Giamatti as Harvey. There are animated Harveys. There’s even Donal Logue as Paul Giamatti as Harvey. But as clever as all this is, it doesn’t take away from what’s most important in Pekar’s work: a celebration of the beautiful banality of everyday life. It isn’t that Pekar doesn’t believe in heroes. He just doesn’t believe in superheroes. American Splendor reminds us there are victories, tragedies, comedy and beauty all around us every day, provided we open our eyes to them.
In recent years, Pekar had been busier than ever, making his death all the more shocking. DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint published new issues of American Splendor and the autobiographical graphic novel The Quitter. In 2009, he published an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working and The Beats, a graphic novel history of the Kerouac and Ginsberg generation. Most recently, Smith Magazine began The Pekar Project, an online series of webcomics. One thing is certain: Harvey Pekar never would have run out of stories.
Harvey detailed the minutiae of his life for decades, so his passing truly feels like the loss of an old friend, despite the fact that I never met the man. I also feel like I know his wife Joyce and their foster daughter Danielle. My sincerest condolences to Harvey’s family and friends. I’m not sure that Harvey ever quite came to terms with the idea that his vivid stories of everyday life struck a chord with so many people. He was just doing his own thing and if he could hustle a few bucks while doing it, so much the better. But his legacy runs deeper than he could have possibly imagined. American Splendor is a highwater mark for comics and Harvey’s voice will be missed. Thank you for sharing your stories, Harvey, and showing us that ordinary life is pretty complex stuff. We’ll miss you.