Harvey Pekar, comic book revolutionary, dead at 70
Now that Harvey Pekar has died, we’ll be reading a lot about how he revolutionized comics, even though he couldn’t draw. But here’s my two cents: He was a great modernist, in the tradition of Henry Miller or Samuel Beckett, finding art in the tedium of his own shlubby life.
Best known for the comic book series American Splendor, and the 2003 award-winning indie film adaptation, Pekar was found dead Monday by his third wife, the writer Joyce Brabner, according to the Associated Press. At 70, Pekar was a cancer survivor (detailed in his 1994 collaboration with Brabner, Our Cancer Year) who suffered from other ailments as well.
“The humour of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV,” Pekar once said, according to the Guardian. “It’s the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there’s no routine and everything is unexpected. That’s what I want to write about.”
A Cleveland native, Pekar worked most of his life as a hospital file clerk, but his crusty ordinariness “masked a passionate, elegant intellect,” according to a detailed obit in the Los Angeles Times. He also had a driving creativity that was encouraged by his friendship with the underground comix artist R. Crumb. The two men met in 1962, when Crumb was only 19.
Inspired by Crumb and other ’60s underground artists, Pekar began writing comic book stories based on his own banal experiences, illustrating them with stick-figure panel drawings. Crumb like them well enough to offer to illustrate some of the stories, which set the pattern of Pekar’s career, in which leading comix artists interpreted what he wrote.
Crumb once described Pekar’s vision of one American life as “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.”
The story of how Pekar self-published the first issue of American Splendor in 1976, met and married Brabner, antagonized David Letterman on the air, and other details of his life are included in the movie version, which starred Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.
“He had a huge brain and an even bigger soul,” Giamatti said. “And he was hilarious. He was a great artist, a true American poet, and there is no one to replace him.”
In extended appreciation, the L.A. Times book critic, David Ulin, praises American Splendor as “perhaps the greatest of all the underground comics. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent history of the form without its influence.”
Likewise, the Guardian‘s Steve Holland says “it was the sheer ordinariness of the stories that slowly earned him a strong following, critical acclaim and comparisons with Chekhov and Dostoevsky.”
Not bad for a man who, were it not for comics, most likely would have lived and died in crotchety obscurity. Pekar once invoked Henry Miller, another obsessively self-referential writer, as an influence, and Miller, in turn, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning of his most famous book, Tropic of Cancer:
“These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies–captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth, truly.”
Emerson certainly did not have comic books in mind when he penned those words, but there you have it: Harvey Pekar, exemplar of an Emersonian ideal.