Remembering Harvey Pekar
American Splendor No. 16, published by Harvey Pekar, 1991. Illustrations by Joe Zabel, Gary Dumm, John Stats.
Back in 2003, Print profiled Harvey Pekar in its July/August issue to coincide with the film version of American Splendor. Here’s an excerpt from the article, written by PictureBox publisher Dan Nadel:
Pekar grew up in working-class Cleveland after World War II, the only son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. Yiddish culture and far-left politics were the household norm, but Pekar was steeped in comic books. He dropped out of community college after a semester, preferring an autodidactic education via rigorous excursions into history and world literature; in the latter arena, he developed a particular fondness for realist writers like George Gissing. He undertook a succession of menial jobs before settling in as a filing clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration hospital in 1966, where he remained until his 2001 retirement. The origins of American Splendor began with a fortuitous 1962 encounter with a 19-year-old cartoonist, new to Cleveland, who bonded with Pekar over their mutual jazz obsession. The newcomer was Crumb, who remembers Pekar in his youth as a “prototypical seething Jewish hipster from that period. He had crazy modern-art paintings on the wall and he listened to modern jazz. He was a real intense and articulate guy, but very working class as well—he was a self-made and self-taught guy.”
Below, we’ve compiled a few additional reactions and responses.
From American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, published by Doubleday/Dolphin, 1986. Illustration by Robert Crumb.
The New York Times obit:
Mr. Pekar, who toiled for nearly 40 years as a file clerk in a Veterans Administration hospital, applied the brutally frank autobiographical style of Henry Miller to the comic-book format, creating a distinctive series of dispatches from an all-too-ordinary life. His alter ego, introduced in 1976, trudged on from episode to episode, quarreling with co-workers, dealing with car problems, addressing family crises and fretting over money matters and health problems.
Pekar: It’s extremely seldom that anybody wants me to change what I’ve written about them. I can hardly remember any time that’s happened. Generally I portray them in a good light, if they’re friends. Of course, there are some people that I really dislike that I’ve written about, and I don’t go up to them and ask for their approval.
The series [American Splendor], and Pekar’s other comics projects that grew out of it, were quirky and unpredictable and filled with grace notes of unaffected, crazy humanity. They also expressed a curiosity about life and other people that is too often overlooked. Pekar’s gift was to bring everyday things to life, starting, almost always, with himself as focalizer, but reaching farther than himself. American Splendor was not only testimony to a life stubbornly lived and vividly observed, but also the work of a brilliant — not just abrasively comical, not just winningly neurotic, but brilliant — searching, and original mind.
The Guardian remembers:
Pekar [is] “a comic-book hero who is a lot easier to identify with than any X-Person, Hulk, Daredevil, Terminatrix or Governator” … “if he were an X-Man, his special power would be a pronounced ability to bitch and moan on cue.”
An appreciation from The LA Times:
[H]e yielded nothing, angering those who might help him for what at times seemed like capricious reflex. In the late 1980s, he was banned from “Late Night With David Letterman” after a series of contentious appearances, including one during which he wore a T-shirt that declared “On Strike Against NBC” while launching into an extended rant about its corporate parent, GE. Invited back to make amends, he accused Letterman of being a corporate shill. It was discomforting, funny in a provocative way. And yet, to watch those clips now on YouTube is to see something authentic and subversive, the talk show as Dadaist political experiment, in which the power of the open mike is used, even for a few minutes, to pry back the slick veneer of entertainment culture and expose the contradictions underneath.
Here’s the Letterman video where he protests GE:
From The Washington City Paper Arts Desk:
Harvey called his comic book American Splendor in an ironic and cynical sense. “When I was a kid, and I was reading comics, there was all this patriotism going around, and comics were being called All-American Comics and Star-Spangled Comics and stuff like that, so that’s where I got the ‘American’ from,” he told me. “And then the ‘splendor’… the movie, Splendor in the Grass… I don’t know … for some reason that always struck me as an absurd title, absurdly funny [audience laughs]. I just hooked up American and splendor – an American splendor – it’s an ironic title. I don’t think most people would consider my life particularly splendid.”
Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics:
America is a little less splendid today.
From Entertainment Weekly, 2003. Illustrator: Gary Dumm; color: Laura Dumm.
From American Splendor No. 13, published by Harvey Pekar, 1988. Illustrators: Joe Zabel, Gary Dumm.