Graphic autobiography: Harvey Pekar | Arnold Zwicky's BlogThe 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. 2010-7-12 12-45.jpg


  1. While I am saddened to hear that he has died, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that his death is in the “Top Stories” on both of Canada’s national broadcast networks at the moment, not even merely the “Entertainment” section either. That right there is a nice testament to a guy who made ordinary life extraordinary, through the humble medium of comics, no less.

  2. When I was younger he made me realize that there was a lot more to the medium than just capes, will be missed.

  3. Although he had a reputation as a curmudgeon, I found him to be incredibly sweet the few times I was lucky enough to meet him. The first time, more than 26 years ago at a signing at a long-gone SoHo comics shop, he insisted I take his seat because I was pregnant.

  4. A sweet and genuine no BS guy who made writing comics about ordinary life very very cool. I got to know him a little bit and that’s my claim to fame.

  5. We’ve been working on a comics collection called YIDDISHKEIT: JEWISH VERNACULAR AND THE NEW LAND, edited by Paul Buhle. Harvey contributed much of the writing in the book, and was passionate and completely professional. As an editor, you never get used to your heroes calling you up to pitch a project, or work with you to make something stronger. It was an honor to work with him. His contribution to comics is immeasurable.

  6. I wish I’d been able to meet him, but I always felt like I had through his work. Amid the hullabaloo over the egomaniacal LeBron James, I hope the people of Cleveland realize their true national treasure never abandoned them.

  7. Harvey was — is — Cleveland’s Walt Whitman. You could see him on the street, at bus stops waiting for his kid, and at steak houses. Slouched over, shuffling, with those wild eyes taking it all in.

    He also gave me the best professional advice I ever heard. I was at a signing of his and some guy in the audience launched into a big fat question about what advice Harvey had on how he should learn how to write or draw and how should he start and how he can get people to like his stuff, etc. etc. Harvey just brushed him off and stared at him, saying: “Just get it done and send it off. Let them worry about it. If you spend all your time worrying about whether it’s good or not, it will never get out there.” This was not what I expected from him — but it absolutely (no foolin) changed everything. We will all miss him here in Cleveland. And I think the greatest tribute that could ever be given to him — or anyone, really — perfectly sums who he seemed so adamant on preserving — he was a pretty famous, sometimes strange, highly intellectual guy — but he was never, ever, “Mr. Pekar.”


  8. Aw, man. Harvey was a stand-up guy. I had the good fortune of being an assistant editor on most of the Dark Horse “American Splendor” material in the 1990s, and I used to love getting phone calls from Harvey. A very funny guy, and he’d entertain me with such great stories. He fought hard over the years, I hope now he can rest at last.

  9. I loved talking about Harvey with Dean Haspiel at the 2005 SDCC. He told me the key to drawing Harvey was “Darkseid, but with hair.”

  10. He was like the Jack Kerouac of comics to me. This is an awful blow. I’m so glad I got to meet and talk with him a couple of times at past San Diego Comic Cons. His American Splendor series, along with Omaha The Cat Dancer was technically my first foray in diving into independent comics and I so related to him at the time when I first read those books because I was a file clerk at a dead end mortgage firm.



  11. The entire comics world is hurting today, but I hope no one takes offense when I say Harvey’s fans in the Cleveland area are hurting even more. Along with Jerry and Joe, he is our city’s greatest contribution to the comics art form.

  12. I had the privilege to spend a weekend with Harvey and his family when they were our guests at a Big Apple Show about 5 years ago. He was a wonderful guest and a lot of fun to deal with. A real mench!

    His work is some of the best comics has ever offered. He helped to humanize comics in a way mainstream and underground comics never did. He will be missed.

  13. Harvey Pekar was one of the kindest, most gracious creators I ever met.
    There’s quite a few Harvey related videos on YouTube. Plenty of Letterman clips of course, but what stood out for me was this interview he did with Penn State Public Television:

  14. How fitting that Harvey left us on the day that the nominations for the comic awards bearing the same name are released. He set creative standards and reinvented the use of the medium in a way that has changed comics forever.

    Condolences to his family.

  15. His whole thing was about making his mark, and he succeeded wildly. We should all be inspired by his example.

    I remember the second collection of his Splendor anthology getting me through six weeks of dreadful filing, while reading it on breaks. It was the perfect selection. By the end, I really felt for the guy and his struggles through life, so much like those of the rest of us. Kudos for him for putting on paper the richness of himself. Ordinary life is complex stuff.


  16. I was shocked and saddened to hear this (still am). I saw him (and Alison Bechdel) at a library event here in Las Vegas not even three months ago. He seemed in good health (for someone who has battled cancer and was 70 years old). He talked about a couple of upcoming books that I’m selfishly sad that I now won’t be able to read.

  17. Condolences to his family. He was a gateway to Crumb, and to the non-Superhero, Indie/DIY world that sustained my interest in Comic Books after I ‘outgrew’ them…

    And he will live on in the “self-portraits” he left behind— irascible, reflective, manipulative, searching— varied as the many artists he worked with, multi-faceted and human.

    Thank you, Harvey. RIP

  18. I’m starting to think Someone up there doesn’t like comic book creators. Every time, I visit this site, I see an R.I.P entry featuring a prominent comic book creator.
    I haven’t read a lot of Pecker’s work but I was aware of his work.
    I enjoyed the story that Pecker did with Rich Veitch.

    LeBron James’ actions can best be summed out by this imaginary quote:
    “They fucked my Mom, man. “

  19. Joanna Connors’ obituary for Harvey Pekar was the lead story on the front page of this morning’s (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. The second I saw it, I said “Man, Harvey would have loved to write about this.”

    It’s nice to see a real Cleveland hero honored in this fashion.

  20. Did anyone catch Letterman last night? I decided to rewatch American Splendor and forgot to set my DVR. I’m curious is Dave said anything about Harvey.

  21. He really inspired me. He’s always been very do-it-yourself Have something to say and say it.

    Everyday life is pretty amazing stuff.

  22. Gerry Giovinco
    “How fitting that Harvey left us on the day that the nominations for the comic awards bearing the same name are released.”

    I also found it ironic that this was posted right after the comic awards. Which led me to ask the following question:

    Did Harvey ever win a Harvey award?