HARVEY PEKAR, 1939-2010

Posted by on July 12th, 2010 at 1:10 PM

I haven’t even begun to absorb the news that Harvey Pekar died today, although I have been staring at the headline at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for the better part of two hours. For those of us who have been following his life for over thirty years, the loss will be a deep one: the loss of friend, whether we ever met the man or not, whose life we have come to know as intimately as can be imagined and whom we have grown to love despite, and because of, the fault-lines  he so painfully and lovingly explored.

I only had the pleasure to meet Harvey once, when a few years ago he visited Columbus for a talk, and I was given the terrifying job of talking with him in front of a packed auditorium. Despite many warnings in the weeks leading up to the event as to the public humiliation I had signed up for, I found Harvey—both on stage and off—generous, smart, thoughtful, and warm. And in truth, there is little to be surprised at for anyone who has spent time with his stories (as opposed to youtube videos of his appearances on David Letterman).

I first encountered American Splendor as a teenager sometime around 1979 in a Greenwich Village comics shop where I had gone for my weekly fix of whatever crap I was reading at the time. It had been a bad year on the whole: Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula had both been canceled. The only bright light on the horizon was this kid Frank Miller who had taken over Daredevil. For the most part, everything good in comics seemed to have happened in the past before I was old enough to appreciate it: E.C., early 60s Marvel, and most titillating of all to my 13-year old imagination, the underground comix revolution that had petered out earlier in the decade. I had just said something to this effect to my companion when the owner, who had never said a word to me in my several years of frequenting his establishment, suggested I might be ready for the more “mature” comics he had in the back of the store.

To be clear, I was not ready. There they were, these comics that didn’t look at all like comics, with titles like Tits & Clits, Anarchy, Dope Comix, and Bizarre Sex. But I could not walk away without picking something up or I would never be able to show my face again, and so I grabbed the safest looking one I could find: American Splendor #4. The cover seemed innocuous enough to avoid censorial glares on the subway home—two guys trading records, each thinking to themselves that they had played the other for a sucker—but inside was sure to be some wild, sexy, offensive stuff. After all, while the cover tamely promised only “Stories about Record Collecting and Working,” the notorious Robert Crumb was one of the contributors, which to any knowing teenager meant dirty stuff was surely waiting inside.

Needless to say, it was not. The book really did just contain stories about record collecting and working, neither activities in which I took much interest; but with no Howard the Duck and without the guts to buy Bizarre Sex I was stuck with little other reading material for the ride back to Brooklyn.  And after reading those sixty pages of stories—about how Pekar first met Crumb, how he starting making comics, how he loses his temper in the office while trying to get through yet another day as a file clerk, about his memories of working in his father’s grocery store, about his co-worker who slowly goes mad after the death of her husband—I was hooked. At age thirteen I had for the first time been given a window into an adult world that was neither glamorous nor melodramatic but seemed honest, true, precisely what teachers or parents could not bring themselves to admit to a child about to enter the adult world. The adult life that awaited me would neither be romantic or tragic: it would instead be a series of small, repetetive movements out of which any beauty, any poetry, would be only what I found a way to wring from it.

From that day, my interest in superhero comics dropped off measurably and soon my interest in comics in general followed suit, given how little at the time promised similar insights, similar truths. But I stayed with Harvey for the next three decades. I made sense of my parents’ divorce through Harvey’s accounts of his own—also the disappointment of teenage sex, the mind-numbing pain of the first real job, the endless stupidity of other people, and the strange, unlikely epiphanies that happen on overpasses and in grocery stores. All of those shocks and jolts of everyday life were made less jarring from having lived them first vicariously through Harvey.

When I came fully back to comics in the early 1990s, there was more on the shelves that took the kinds of chances on the quotidian as American Splendor had since 1976. And of course in the years to follow, we have seen the quotidian come to rival the superheroic and the supernatural as the most familiar subject for comics creators. To say all of this is due to Harvey would be of course precisely the kind of overstatement he would have scoffed at, and yet it is true that without Harvey, it is almost entirely impossible to imagine an entire generation of comics.

In my own case, it is impossible not to see my life and the choices I have made as owing more than a little to the honesty and wisdom of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comics. As I prepare to confront whatever comes next, I know I will be returning to his comics with the same sense of wonder and gratitude that I experienced more than thirty years ago. But man, I’m gonna miss him.

[my conversation with Harvey Pekar at the Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State University from February 28, 2007 can be found at: http://cstw.osu.edu/files/cstw/mp3/Pekar.mp3 ]

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4 Responses to “HARVEY PEKAR, 1939-2010”

  1. RWB says:

    Great story. What a wonderful way to have been introduced to Pekar’s work.

  2. Michael says:

    That is a great story. This loss hurts. I just picked up the last two issues of the magazine series I didn’t have, #1 and the one you first read, #4. I love reading his comics, there is a quiet dignity in his vignettes, his observations. As you say, and I am the same age as you, Harvey gave us “a window into an adult world that was neither glamorous nor melodramatic but seemed honest, true, precisely what teachers or parents could not bring themselves to admit to a child about to enter the adult world.” I am just struggling to accept he is gone.

  3. Chris Reilly says:

    Well hell. I do have a very funny anecdote but anyone who knows me knows the story about me unintentionally annoying Harvey at the Ignatz awards but that turned out to just be a funny misunderstanding. It would not be appropriate for me to tell the story here because it was 99% about me, so I will just say that we have lost one of the most unique, honest voices in the history of comics and the world will be that much more intellectually bankrupt without him. Goodnight, Harvey.