It would have pleased Harvey Pekar, I think, that his passing yesterday was noted in every media outlet from the New Yorker to EW, and not just because they made a movie about him, but as a literary figure of worth and stature. Harvey’s life’s work was in showing that the ordinary was important, and a working class existence was not a prison but a journey through the profound and beautiful that anyone could experience if they took the time. He found that beauty in simple, quotidian things and experiences that others might have found trivial or mundane, but in the end his message was that what else is there? Life as it is lived is the most precious gift of all.
Of course, it is also painful and frustrating. OUR CANCER YEAR was a harrowing, honest account that didn’t shy away from the indignities and suffering that a cancer victim can undergo. And it didn’t shy away from the unflattering. Pekar’s work explored self pity but didn’t wallow in it — or when it did, it was knowingly. Harvey was a kvetch and a complainer, but as the many loving tributes that have poured in show, he was also full of compassion and joy and friendship. For all of his legendary crankiness, there was most often a loving twinkle in his eye, a love born of the simple pleasure of talking with a friend or sharing his enthusiasm for art and music.
I first met Harvey at a San Diego con many years ago. It was his first one, and he had been out at used bookstores with a friend all day, an experience that was so exciting that he had lost his voice entirely — which was a pretty common occurrence. His throaty rasp was part of his persona, as was his vernacular speech and enthusiasm for music and literature.
I’d read early issues of AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and while a young woman emerging from an emotionally isolated adolescence wouldn’t seem to have much in common with a middle-aged filing clerk, his message was one that I could easily grasp and latch onto wholeheartedly: in an existence that was bound to be fraught with unexpected pain and struggle, why NOT enjoy the relief of deeper thoughts than your own? Why NOT experience the satori of life’s perfect moments no matter how small?
I’ve reproduced above one of my favorite pages, from AMERICAN SPLENDOR #11, that I’ve thought of many times in the intervening years. The art is undeniably awkward, but the story and effect is perfect. That sums up a lot of Harvey’s work — he often worked with collaborators who were awkward in their own way but captured his intentions, at least. I alluded yesterday briefly to Harvey’s importance to comics and surely that will be discussed and analyzed more as time passes. Along with his underground contemporaries, he pioneered comics as a medium that could handle everyday drama and humor with all the skill and impact that its fantastic practitioners were better known for. It’s not that comics COULDN’T have done such things before, it’s just that they didn’t. While Krazy Kat and Peanuts may have wondrously limned the human heart, they still used magical landscapes and sentient dogs. Harvey had to stick in the here and now, and favored realistic art styles that were much harder to execute than cartoony distillation.
What set AMERICAN SPLENDOR’s brand of autobiography apart from the many dreary pages of self-absorption that followed was his ability to observe others and tell their stories. As his literary opportunities widened, Harvey often turned to biography, as with MACEDONIA, EGO & HUBRIS, and UNSUNG HERO, as well as comics surveys of Studs Terkel and The Beats, and on through THE PEKAR PROJECT. Harvey the Chronicler was often a bit earnest, but that was part of his viewpoint. Of course, his autobiographical stories are also filled with vibrant characters, from Joyce Brabner to the many weirdos and curmudgeons of the VA. It was a rich tapestry.
The AMERICAN SPLENDOR movie is a large part of why Harvey was able to have a renaissance so late in life, but it was also remarkably true to his vision. Berman and Pulcini were wise to enough to see that it was Harvey’s almost Zen message that was key to making the film work, and creatively brilliant enough to use actors, reality, and animation to give the film an inkling of the multiple layers of the comic.
Glancing at the huge, huge outpouring of obituaries for Harvey compiled by Tom Spurgeon, hope arises that Harvey will be remembered and judged as he would have wished to be: a storyteller, biographer and memoirist whose work revealed piece of the human condition in a way we’d never seen before. And won’t see again. Thank you, Harvey.
A selection of tributes:
• The New Yorker recalled his career as a jazz critic.
• Collaborator Dean Haspiel remembers him at the Los Angeles Times:
It wasn’t until much later, when I learned that both of Harvey’s parents died having suffered Alzheimer’s disease, that all this stuff about documenting the quotidian moments of his life made much sense. Sure, he was a pioneer of the autobiographical comic book, but I believe that on a subconscious level, Harvey was creating a testament of life, leaving behind empirical evidence of his unique attitude and particular history just in case he got Alzheimer’s, too.
• Michael Cavna rounds up tributes from Harvey’s peers in comics and the literary world.
You come for Crumb — you stay for Harvey.”
• Comments from Cleveland.com show locals — still reeling from the perfidy of that asshole LeBron — remembering one of their own.
A good, decent man who embodied all of the good things about Cleveland and represented this city with class, dignity and compassion. If you want to erect a giant mural in downtown Cleveland, put Harvey Pekar on it. He was one of a kind, and one of us. RIP
• Actor James Urbaniak
Nine years ago I walked onto the set of “American Splendor” in my Crumb costume and met Harvey Pekar for the first time. He saw me, beamed and exclaimed in his full-throated rasp “That’s him! That’s the guy!” It meant a lot. Later that day, after he’d watched me perform a scene, he said I really had Crumb down and a couple days after that he told me he’d spoken to the man himself on the phone and had assured him that “he was in good hands.” That really meant a lot.
Michael Malice, the subject of a Pekar biography, pulls no punches
Harvey wasn’t being rhetorical. He was violently uninterested in status and stature; it was never Harvey Pekar, legend. No matter who he was with, it was simply two people having a conversation. The exceptions were when fans expected him to complain about things. Then Harvey knew to play to the crowd and go negative, with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m basically a ham,” he admitted to me more than once.
• Brian Heater recalls a road trip for Harvey’s 70th birthday
He was a man brimming with ideas up until the end—far more than he was ever capable of committing to paper. Even with American Splendor, his graphic novels, and the more recent online initiative The Pekar Project, the man always seemed to possess more thoughts and stories than he knew what to do with. That, no doubt, is a large part of the reason why, as we walked down the streets of Cleveland Heights on that aforementioned weekend, people in all directions shouted, “Harv!” It was part of a walking tour guided by Pekar and his artist and close friend, Tara Seibel. And Pekar was more than happy to play tour guide. To him, every shop, every street, and every corner was a story, tales he was, as always, more than eager to impart. This was a man in his element in every sense of the word.
Alison Bechdel shares video of her and Harvey from April and gives a hint of his influence:
It’s the only comic book I bother keeping in one of those archival sleeve things. There was an epic story in it about Harvey and two friends just hanging out one night. It goes on for pages and pages, and the only thing that really happens is that they move a rug from one guy’s house to another guy’s house. The guys are all at loose ends–one’s a Vietnam vet who just got fired from his job, one has been unemployed for years. And then there’s Harvey with his “flunky government job” as a file clerk. They haul the rug—which is waterlogged and smelly from being left in the rain—all the way across town and up to the guy’s apartment. But then he decides it was a mistake, and they have to haul it out again, to his back porch. It’s a perfect story about nothing, and everything, and it started to give me ideas about autobiography. You don’t need to engineer some grand sprawling thematically dense narrative. If you write honestly about everyday life, all that stuff will automatically be there.
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.