The Cleveland Plains Dealer is reporting that underground comics legend Harvey Pekar died last night. Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner found him dead at about 1 am. Pekar had battled lymphoma previously, as chronicled in Our Cancer Year, but the cause of death is awaiting an autopsy. According to the AP, he had been suffering from prostate cancer, asthma , high blood pressure and depression.
Pekar was best known as author of American Splendor, an autobiographical comic that adapted Pekar’s lowly life as a filing clark at the Cleveland VA into a journey of humor, drama and insight as memorable as any fictional hero, hiring artist friends such as R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack and others to illustrate his stories. American Splendor was an early self-publishing success story of sorts — while its acclaim gained Pekar enough notoriety for him to become a semi-regular on the David Letterman Show (until erratic on-air behavior got him banned) he still had to work at the VA to rely on getting a pension and continuing to make a living — indie comics was not a cash cow.
While plugging away at his comic, Pekar got a second and more lasting shot at recognition with the production of an American Splendor movie, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003 and helped usher in the era of greater critical and popular acceptance for graphic novels. The film opened many doors for Pekar as a writer and social commentator, with his American Splendor comic moving to Vertigo and his chronicle of his early years, The Quitter, also coming out from that imprint.
Recently, Pekar had been writing “The Pekar Project”, a webcomic hosted at Smith Magazine and illustrated by Tara Seibel, Joseph Remnant, Rick Parker, and Sean Pryor.
A storyteller whose keen observations were couched in the common man’s argot — as he said in the film, “Ordinary life is complicated stuff” — Pekar was immensely influential on bringing real-life themes and literary influences to comics. While the many many retrospectives and remembrances are sure to come in the next few days will give him his place, putting him besides Alan Moore as the most influential comics writer of the 20th Century would not be amiss.
Pekar is survived by his wife Joyce Brabner and their foster daughter, Danielle.
UPDATE: I hope Harvey would have liked this.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.