Splendid American: A Eulogy for Harvey Pekar

August 6, 2010

Harvey Pekar at the 2005 Midwest Book Festival, autographing our correspondent's copy of "The Quitter."

When the word “writer” is spoken, it tends to call up a variety of traditional images. Some of us go for the romanticized image held by a young William S. Burroughs, where “writers are rich and famous… they lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit.” Others may think of the traditional academic with pipe and tweed jacket, while others visualize the adrenaline-jacked free association writer banging at the typewriter until the fingers start to bleed a bit. I doubt anyone’s first thought for the term would be a grouchy, balding, Cleveland native who spent the majority of his life working in a Veterans Affairs hospital and obsessed over the worst-case scenarios in every drive to the store.

But there’s one such person whom I’d call a true writer over many other candidates, and one such person whom the literary world tragically lost last month. Harvey Pekar, an career file clerk and the creator of the “American Splendor” comic series, passed away at his home in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 70. The cause of death is still unknown, but as anyone who read his comics knew he was no stranger to health problems: at various times over the last few years he suffered from lymphoma, prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and severe depression.

(Update 10/26/10: The coroner who conducted Pekar’s autopsy has since reported that Pekar’s cause of death was “an accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion,” better known as Prozac and Wellbutrin. Pekar had been taking both drugs at the time of his death.)

And readers knew all the details about not just Pekar’s health, but his financial issues, his marriages and a hundred other details about his life and surroundings. In a 35-year career Pekar became one of the most predominant autobiographical writers working in the comic medium – or any written medium, for that matter – by delving into his everyday life and the lives of those surrounding him, rather than superheroes or otherworldly situations. From the simple idea of making comics about the mundane, Pekar went on to a career that paid little but turned him into a figure as important to comics as Stan Lee or Alan Moore, someone whom a legion of writers owes without even knowing it.

“Well, let’s get this thing going. I’m Harvey Pekar, author and protagonist of this autobiographical comic story. Maybe you’ve read some of my gloomy stories here before. They appeal to people who are miserable and love company. I think if you feel rotten most of the time by a certain age, you’re always gonna feel lousy – your glass is always gonna be half empty. I don’t have it any worse than a lot of people, but I pity myself more. What else can I do? I can’t depend on them to pity me. Anyway, I look at it this way – anything that doesn’t kill me could be the basis of one of my stories.”

- Harvey Pekar, “Payback” (2000)

Pekar, who was introduced into the world of underground comics through a friendship with R. Crumb, approached it with an attitude that was unique at the time – looking past the basic framework of comics as “funny pages” or telling bombastic superhero stories. Living an unsatisfying life in decaying Cleveland neighborhoods and working as a file clerk for the VA, Pekar was understandably looking for some outlet for the everyday annoyances that beset him. Waiting in line behind elderly Jewish ladies, the endless monotony of a depressing office job, selling second-hand pop records to support his jazz collection – these stories seemed not only more real than mainstream comics but more interesting to Pekar, and he thought the comic layout could carry those stories.

And Pekar managed not only to carry these stories, but make them “mundane bordering on exotic” as Crumb would later say. The issues of “American Splendor” had an almost epic feel to them in many ways, as he hustled his way through each day he struggled to get up for in the mornings. He was fighting little battles – turf wars between VA departments, better deals on repairs to his car, getting the right groceries for his wife – and readers were caught up in the “lose many, win some” attitude that kept him plugging away day after day. Thanks to collaboration with a broad range of artists – Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, Joe Sacco and Dean Haspiel to name a few – the stories also had a varied appearance and proved comic panels could be dynamic without action scenes.

“Underground comics had already proved that comics could appeal to adults. They were as good an art form as any that existed. Comics are words and pictures – you can do anything with words and pictures. So I thought, why couldn’t I write about everyday quotidian subjects in comics? Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs? We’re as interesting and funny as everyone else.”

- Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

The stories he chronicled were interesting and funny, but they wouldn’t have been so without Pekar’s keen ear in capturing the personalities of the people he portrayed. His “genuine nerd” coworker Toby Radloff, his third wife Joyce Brabner or his inimitable boss Mr. Boats – they were people who were genuine characters, and he made them seem real without being caricatures. This likely has to do with the fact that Pekar began his writing career in his teens as a jazz critic, and his fascination – one which he and many others would call obsession – with the way the music worked no doubt shaped his ability to listen to other people and get a feel for their dialect and mannerisms.

Not only did this background help him write, but it also led to further expansion of comic storytelling. Many “American Splendor” highlights came when Pekar spent his time talking about topics that interested him, be they improvisation of obscure jazz musicians or Russian experimental authors or a life-long resident’s view on why Cleveland’s rebirth post Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a joke. Pekar wasn’t just lucky to be hearing what he heard, his was a cunning and critical mind that knew what it was talking about, and the strength of his intellect both strengthened the stories he told and added to readers’ regret he couldn’t earn a better life. (As a side note, I lived in Cleveland for three years during my childhood, and my own grim memories of that time certainly back up Pekar’s observations.)

But while the intellect driving Pekar’s work was exceptional, it paled next to the undeniable honestly he wrote about his life. Although he occasionally used pseudonyms like Jack or Herschel for his main character, the comics never hid that he was writing about himself – and in the most unflattering light. In stories he was cheap to the point of miserly, drove away wives and girlfriends with his complaining, and dwelled heavily on being alone and bored over the weekends. The words “curmudgeon” and “misanthrope” were attributed in virtually every article about him, and he never disassociated himself with any such term or took pride in it. To put it bluntly, Pekar was Pekar, a man whose stories came as much from his dissatisfaction and worry as his ear for conversation – and the more he raged, the more his audience sided with him.

“OK. This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he’s a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he’s now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day… guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie.”

- Harvey Pekar, “American Splendor” (film narration)

During my college career, I had the good fortune to see Pekar speak on two occasions at the University of Wisconsin – even writing about one of them – and found him to be an immensely rewarding presence on stage. As unassuming in real life as he was on the page – he almost walked onto the stage during the moderator’s introduction, and then quickly headed behind the curtain – Pekar was grouchy but also somewhat affable, perfectly willing to answer any question directed at him by the moderator or the audience. He didn’t have any interest in deceiving an audience, calling this a “rotten night” and admitting that the various writing contracts he’d gotten as a result of the “American Splendor” film were a good thing because he “could really use the bread.”

Around the time of his second visit for the Midwest Book Festival in 2005, I also had the opportunity to have my copy of his novella “The Quitter” personally autographed, and later had the privilege of reviewing it for my local newspaper. In a rather Pekarian frame of mind, I debated at the time whether or not to send a copy of my review his way, but put it off because even though I reviewed it favorably I was worried about his reaction. It remains one of my regrets in this career, compounded by the fact that I was too young to seek him out when I lived in Cleveland.

For those who have not had the opportunity to read “American Splendor” or any of Pekar’s other works, “The Quitter” also serves as probably the best introduction. Most of the details can be found in my earlier review, but as a first step it works because “The Quitter” manages to condense many of the stories on his family and early job experiences, scattered through previous issues. It also helps that thanks to the solid art style of Dean Haspiel, Pekar’s story is unified in a way anthologies of “American Splendor” comics lack. It’s not as as strongly written as some “American Splendor” issues (though definitely not as bad as some critics said) but its a reliable Cliffs Notes for the series.

After this introduction gives the right understanding of what Pekar readers are in for, it’s simple enough to jump into any of the anthologies that have been collected over the years. I’m partial to “Best of American Splendor” (which I actually won as a door prize at the MBF) but the most famous “Splendor” stories are contained in “The New American Splendor: From Off the Streets of Cleveland,” and “American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.” Pekar’s life and work was also adapted into the 2003 film “American Splendor,” staring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, and it’s a film that nails the beat of Pekar’s writing and attitude and taking only the appropriate liberties with chronology. From the film, he was also able to expand into other writing projects, ranging from a graphic history of Beat writers to the political state of Masadonia.

And if you happen to be as cheap as Pekar, there’s a way to introduce yourself to his style for free. In his last months Pekar, notorious for his technophobia across all computer platforms, actually made the bridge to webcomic writer thanks to The Pekar Project on Smith Magazine. Collaborating with a pool of new artists, the project allowed Pekar to tell new “Splendor”-type stories on a biweekly basis, waxing about Comedy Central or Muncie, Indiana. It’s certainly worth checking out, if only for the fact that according to its creator the project still has several unpublished Pekar stories to bring to life – a posthumous offering appropriate for such a workhouse of a writer.

But sadly, the one posthumous offering we won’t get is the one that would be his perfect swan song: if the Angel of Death had given him ten final minutes to write one last story for the Project or Crumb or Haspiel to illustrate. This might come across as a little insensitive – asking a man to work before their goodbye-cruel-world – but if anyone would have been unreservedly angry, unabashedly honest and tragically funny with the Grim Reaper tapping his watch over their shoulder, it would have been Harvey Pekar. Here’s hoping he’s found the peace that eluded him so on the streets of Cleveland.

“I was alone all that weekend. I thought about “Jennie Gerhardt” an’ Alice Quinn an’ decades a’ faces ran through my mind. I felt like cryin’; life seemed so sweet and so sad an’ so hard t’let go of in the end. But this is Monday. I went t’work, hustled some records, came home an’ wrote this. Life goes on. Every day is a new deal. Keep workin’ and maybe sump’n’ll turn up.”

- Harvey Pekar, “Alice Quinn” (1982)

Our correspondent's personally autographed "The Quitter."


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