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Harvey Pekar, comic book revolutionary, dead at 70

July 13, 2010

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    July 13, 2010 9:38 pm

    I liked American Splendor when I found them at age 15 in the 1990’s. I would catch my dad reading one I had left lying around every once in a while. By the time I read them graphic novels were common and Heavy Metal had been around for years so I did not see anything revolutionary about them. I may have missed the revolution, but I have benefited greatly from it. Thanks Mr. Pekar.

    • Tommy permalink
      July 13, 2010 9:42 pm

      P.s. By “Heavy Metal” I am referring to the American adult fantasy comic books of which I would lose on average 2 a month to teachers, principals and bullies.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        July 14, 2010 11:10 am

        Well, that’s the point of what made Harvey Pekar revolutionary in comics — no “Heavy Metal,” no pneumatic babes or gratuitous nudity, no superheroes in tights. He was even revolutionary, in his pedestrian way, in underground comix: No overt politics, no drug usage, no porny sex scenes. But you get mega points for reading American Splendor at age 15.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 14, 2010 2:26 pm

    R.I.P. Harvey Pekar.

  3. rachel permalink
    July 14, 2010 3:55 pm

    I don’t really understand the appeal of graphic novels. But I paged through an American Splendor that was lying around the house and I found some of it interesting. Some of it funny. And some of it just kind of sad almost, because of how focused he was on the things that annoyed him about life, sometimes the humor was lost on me. I do concede that it was my only experience. I have not seen the movie either, but I heard that it was good.

    And I can see that he had an effect, and therefore can respect him. But comparing him to the great greats seems a little excessive, as it seems to me that you imply Mr Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 15, 2010 12:04 pm

      In this case, I’m merely reflecting the critical consensus — which, admittedly, can be a little soft in the obit-phase of an author’s career. Like you, I’ve only read one or two issues of American Splendor, and my reaction was much the same. Plus: I’m really glad I didn’t have to deal with Harvey Pekar in real life. I think he was a handful. I saw the movie, and it was okay. Hated the part where they broke down the dramatic wall and showed the real Harvey and Joyce, as well as the actors portraying them. Gag. An “edgy” decision that made me want to run screaming from the theater. What a cliche.

  4. Sean permalink
    July 15, 2010 5:47 pm

    I haven’t read the comics but enjoyed the movie, which was funny and endearing in a way I didn’t see coming. I totally fell for that real people/actors trick!

    Man, tough summer for C-Town: LeBron leaves, Harvey dies. To paraphrase Derek Smalls, “Goodbye, Cleveland!”

    @Tommy, I finally read Mankel’s ‘Faceless Killers’ and am glad I did. Thank you for recommending. I’m going to read more of his Wallander mysteries, and some of his non-genre work because even in the conventions of his crime story you see elements of literary fiction. He’s very good at depicting emotion, relationships, the search for meaning in existence and the small but important interactions among people that signal closeness or distance. I like him a lot based on one read. Also, there’s his worldly existence to envy, judging by the author profile: half the year – the warm half – in Sweden and half the year – when it’s cold and rotten back home – running a theater in Mozambique. That’s just such a perfect writer’s life I can’t hardly stand it. Now if could just stop confusing “Kurt Wallander” with Karl Wallinger of the band World Party. S.

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