Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Harvey Pekar – a Splendid American

July 14, 2010
Written by David Tosh

(It is with a heavy heart that the Heritage blog is posted today, some three days after the demise of Harvey Pekar, he of American Splendor fame. The post below is more than ably written by my fellow Heritage employee David Tosh, well known to any one that knows comics... David writes eloquently and movingly about Pekar's passing earlier this week. Needless to say, it is a bitter pill to swallow. Pekar was a singular talent, a man of peculiar brilliance and refracted insight, whose brilliant writing made the everyday epic. American Splendor was one of my favorite comics through my 20s, and I can remember being barely 12 when he was on Letterman, and watching his appearances, not knowing how much of an inspriation he would be to me in my own attempt at a writing career so many years later. Believe it or not, I used to write plays and have them produced in New York City, and I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that Harvey's terse, scathingly funny dialogue didn't influence my own attempts at drama. Harvey, btw, did it much much better... - Noah Fleisher)

In the middle of scrambling through the business of the day, I got stopped in my tracks by a bit of news this morning. The message made its way to me by email: “Harvey Pekar (PEE’-kahr), whose American Splendor was made into a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti, has been found dead in his Cleveland, Ohio home.

Wow. I knew this guy.
In fact, I’ve known of him for many, many years.

I first became aware of this most unusual name back in the early 1970s. It was in the pages of an underground comic book that I read one of Pekar’s first published comic strips, which was about his love of junk food like Hostess Fruit Pies and corn chips, and how everyone gave him a hard time for not eating more healthy fare. Harvey didn’t care – he liked what he liked, and that was good enough for him. Later, he started publishing his own comic, American Splendor, with artistic help from his old Cleveland buddy, Robert Crumb.

The comic was entirely self-published, as a professionally produced magazine with a slick, four-color cover and crisply printed black and white interior pages, featuring artwork by Crumb and others. Harvey himself didn’t draw beyond the “stick figure” layouts he provided his artists.

What Harvey did do was write – not about superheroes, or exaggerated fantasies, but about what happened at work last week (he was a file clerk for many years), breaking up with a wife or girlfriend, dealing with a car that wouldn’t run, or even about the best place to grab a good cheap taco. It was “slice of life” all the way, and often the stories seemed pretty mundane, but they tended to stick in your mind. His stories were about ordinary people doing things we could all identify with, told in a matter-of-fact style, and he wasn’t afraid to tell it like it really was, even if it meant exposing his own personal flaws.

His “slice of life” stories greatly inspired me, back when I wanted to be a comic book artist myself, so much so that I named my first little home-made comics company Slice O’ Life Press. Pekar managed to publish about one issue of American Splendor a year back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I kept up with most of them (whenever I could find them). A couple of years later, I got the chance to see R. Crumb at a rare comic book convention appearance. I attended Crumb’s panel, and talk turned to Pekar and Crumb’s work illustrating stories for American Splendor.

It quickly became apparent that the majority of the people in attendance that day knew little or nothing about Harvey or his comics. That would soon change.
While Harvey’s fans may have been few and far between in those days, his work made it all the way to David Letterman, who was impressed enough to invite him on his “Late Night” show. That was quite an accomplishment for Harvey, but rather than seeing this as the opportunity to turn on millions to his comics, he preferred to turn the table on his host by being deliberately obstinate, obnoxious, unruly, and downright ugly. It was all a game to Harvey, but the novelty quickly wore thin with Letterman, who banned Pekar after only a few appearances.

Harvey knew what he was doing, though. There’s something about being banned that made people sit up and take notice. Soon, American Splendor started selling, and in time Harvey himself was a guest at one of the Dallas Fantasy Fair comic book conventions that I attended regularly. It was at this first Dallas appearance that I got to meet and hang out with Harvey and his new wife, Joyce. Knowing what a voracious reader he was, I would up taking Harvey to a big Half Price Books store, and we spent several hours digging through musty old tomes. Harvey walked out with a big stack of books, and I made a new friend.

American Splendor continued to make a bigger and bigger splash, and back issues were soon reprinted in trade paperback anthologies. Other publishers rushed in to finance Pekar’s comics, and a small but dedicated cult audience followed every issue. Eventually Hollywood called, and a well-received feature film was the result. It was a little strange to sit and watch this movie, especially the scenes with Paul Giamatti as Harvey and James Urbaniak as Crumb, having lunch together.

“I know these guys in real life!” I would say to whoever was within earshot.

“Big deal! Shut up and watch the movie!” I can hear them say in return.
It’s been many years now since I last talked to Pekar, way before the movie made him better known. Back when I did know him, he seemed upbeat, not a curmudgeon as he’s usually described. I remember asking him to write an introduction to a book of my comic strips that I was trying to get published. I gave him a copy of the prototype, and figured if I was lucky, he’d send me a few words. In pretty short order, he called me, reading off what he had written. It was a wonderful introduction – too bad the book was never published.

I’ve heard Harvey was depressed a lot in later years, and dealt with a variety of health problems, including prostate cancer. It seems obtaining something one strives for all their life, like the fame and recognition Pekar finally got for his work after many long, lean years, can mean little when your health starts slipping.

Maybe Harvey should have listened to his mother and well-meaning pals back when they tried to get him to eat right. Nah – that just wouldn’t be Harvey. He was his own man, and he insisted on playing the game as best he could on his own terms.
Now Harvey has passed away. I’m floored by learning this, and my first instinct was to pick up the phone and call Crumb, whom I’ve managed to get to know pretty well in the past few years (I can’t help but think it was because my first contact with Crumb was to talk about Pekar – that must have made an impression). We spent a few moments reflecting on our fallen friend.

At least now the rest of the world managed to catch up with this fascinating, creative man, who did something many others have tried to do without success: make ordinary, day-to-day life seem much more interesting. In that regard, Harvey Pekar did a splendid job. He will be missed.
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-David Tosh

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