Harvey Pekar: An Appreciation

Posted by on July 13th, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Rob reflects on the career of the great Harvey Pekar.

Photo copyright 2010 Lonnie Timmons, of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer

Harvey Pekar, one of the most significant autobiographical comics creators of all time, died on Monday, July 13th, at the age of seventy.  His career stretched from the end of the underground era all the way up to the recent publishing boom, as he scrapped and hustled his way into making a living for his family.  That includes his wife, Joyce Brabner, and their foster daughter Danielle.  Pekar’s career was unusual in that he never drew any of his comics, which is not to say that he didn’t have a strong visual sense.  Pekar’s comics came out of his famous stick-figure roughs that he gave to his collaborators, and no matter whom he worked with, the odd pacing and rhythms of his voice were unmistakable.

image copyright 1986 Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb

As was made famous by the film adaptation of American Splendor, Pekar was initially inspired to get into comics by a young Robert Crumb.  As a drifting, 30-something medical records clerk, Pekar possessed a keen mind but found no discernible outlet with which to express himself.  Crumb became one of his first collaborators as Pekar expressed his gift for expanding upon the mundane moments of life, writing about them with such a distinctly rich and plain-talking voice that one couldn’t help but to be drawn into his world.

In American Splendor‘s early years, Pekar wrote, in aching fashion, about his lingering sense of loneliness after his first two marriages failed.  Even at his most despondent, Pekar’s comics persona had a pugnaciousness that helped him bull through even the worst situations in life.  He may have been constantly complaining, but he was far from anhedonic.  Indeed, some of his finest strips went into exacting detail about the delights a beloved bakery or restaurant had to offer.  Because Pekar’s work was all about time and place, he couldn’t help but become Cleveland’s comics “poet laureate”.  He was a font of knowledge regarding his hometown, and he would go on for pages at a time about the ways in which certain neighborhoods changed, about the history of racial relations in his city, and any number of cultural touchstones of Cleveland.

What distinguished Pekar from other autobiographical cartoonists was the way he was able to tell the stories of others.  In particular, his stories about his day-to-day dealings with fellow VA hospital workers like Toby Radloff and Mr. Boats were especially amusing.  Pekar relished relating their anecdotes in a manner that was never mocking, even when he found what they had to say was ridiculous.  Pekar was obsessed with capturing the voices of the people around him precisely as they talked, which meant relating dialogue in dialect.  As a reader, I always found this insistence on absolute verisimilitude to be off-putting at first, yet inevitably Pekar’s skill at recreating the ways in which people interact would always wind up immersing me in these conversations.

Pekar was also an accomplished jazz critic and frequently wrote reviews of novels (in comics form) he happened to find interesting.  Unsurprisingly, he focused on unearthing hidden gems.  Some of his best comics were his jazz biographies, frequently collaborating with the great Joe Sacco.  Pekar also wrote with little sentiment but a great deal of loving detail regarding his Jewish roots, especially regarding his family.

image copyright 1994 Harvey Pekar and Frank Stack

1994 saw the publication of what is probably his single best work: Our Cancer Year, a collaboration with his wife Joyce and underground artist Frank Stack.  The book actually wove two together two separate narratives: Pekar’s journey through cancer treatment and Brabner’s interactions with a group of teenagers from various war-torn parts of the world.  Having had two parents die of cancer and having worked in a cancer clinic for over twenty years, Our Cancer Year is the single finest examination of the brutal realities of how cancer changes the lives not only of the afflicted, but their families as well.  It asked for no pity and went out of its way to make both Pekar & Brabner as unsympathetic and unheroic as possible in how they coped with the disease, and in so doing, revealed the true humanity of both.  The last pages of the book, as Pekar survived his harrowing encounters with chemotherapy and is walking around Cleveland with several of the teens we met earlier in the book, never fail to evince tears.

Pekar finally found a regular publisher in the early 90s when Dark Horse picked up American Splendor, albeit in a bizarre, fractured series of one-offs and miniseries.  I never quite understood what Pekar or Dark Horse’s strategy was regarding the promotion of his comics during this era, but a number of them were quite good, especially Transatlantic Comics (the correspondence between Pekar and a man with Asperger’s Syndrome who faced extreme social anxiety) and Portrait of the Author In His Declining Years, a collection of odds and ends that celebrated his 25th year of writing American Splendor.

Pekar was a hustler.  He fueled his voracious appetite for jazz records by selling other cheap LPs at a profit at his job.  He relentlessly promoted his comic because no one else was going to do it.  He debuted American Splendor in 1976, which was just about the worst time imaginable to try to make money from underground comics.  He stuck it out and self-published for years until he was able to get his early comics collected by Doubleday and then later got a deal for an original graphic novel from a small publisher.  He went on Late Night With David Letterman to push his books, but refused to kowtow to Letterman’s attempt to control what he had to say when Pekar spoke out against General Electric, NBC’s parent company.  That stance got him banned from the show for several years, but at least Pekar got some material for a story out of it.  Pekar spent years trying to get a movie version of his comic off the ground after it was turned into a play, but only wanted to do things on his terms.

It wasn’t so much that he was his own worst enemy in terms of gaining mainstream success, but more that he had a strong, personal vision of what he wanted his work to be.  When American Splendor finally made it to the big screen, it was warmly received by critics and fans alike as a clever, innovative mix of live action, animation, drawings and juxtapositions of actors & real-life personae.  That film (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay) opened up a lot more work for Pekar, exactly as he had hoped, but as he grew older and had to live on a pension to support his family, more was at stake.

Pekar was up to the challenge, churning out a number of books in a short period of time.  Our Movie Year was a collection of short stories regarding the experience that had more hits than misses; it was clearly assembled in a hurry to capitalize on the success of the film.  After that, Pekar almost perversely turned to subjects that were tough sells: a full-length comics biography of a curmudgeon named Michael Malice called Ego & Hubris (with Gary Dumm) and an outstanding book called Macedonia,  about a young woman named Heather Bryant who traveled to the titular nation to find out how ethnic warfare was averted.

His highest profile project was The Quitter for Vertigo, which later led to a couple of miniseries with the publisher that featured a number of high-profile collaborators like Richard Corben, Eddie Campbell and Gilbert Hernandez.  Pekar didn’t seem quite as comfortable writing for some of these artists, but it was a joy to see him working on a smaller scale again after several years of longer narratives.  While his graphic novels were interesting, they didn’t capture what he did best: writing about the small but significant moments of life.  He wrote straight-up history comics like Students For A Democratic Society: A Graphic History as well as The Beats: A Graphic History, both of which demonstrated his talent for boiling down facts and anecdotes into a compelling narrative.  He also adapted Studs Terkel’s Working, an apt fit for a man who spent much of his career detailing the lives of working men and women.  After his work for Vertigo dried up, Pekar moved on to work with Smith Magazine on The Pekar Project.  His final book, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, will be published in 2011.  Pekar even wrote a libretto for a “jazz opera”, Leave Me Alone, that he described as a “rant” against the divide between the Everyman and avant-garde art.

image copyright 1997 Harvey Pekar and Joe Sacco

Though Pekar couldn’t draw, he always knew exactly what he wanted his stories to look like.  When working with Robert Crumb, Pekar leaned heavily on Crumb’s ability to speak volumes with simple gestures, body language and pauses.  With someone like Gary Dumm, Pekar knew he’d get a workmanlike though unspectacular story that drew more attention to the words than the images. With Frank Stack, Pekar told stories that were flattered by Stack’s heavily expressionistic, scratchy style.  With Joe Sacco, whose work he championed early in his career, he got a lively naturalism.  As an aside, Pekar said in the pages of American Splendor that Sacco’s Palestine was far superior to Art Spiegelman’s Maus–though that may have been in part a symptom of his conflict with Spiegelman, whom he criticized publicly in the pages of The Comics Journal for representing Maus‘s Poles as pigs.

image copyright 2005 Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel

Pekar always had a keen eye for young talent.  If Crumb and Dumm were his early go-to guys, it was the likes of Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld who became reliable collaborators in the 90s and young Ed Piskor & Joseph Remnant in the last decade.  The movie may have raised his profile, but every young cartoonist knew who Pekar was.  Every autobiographical artist who emerged during the last thirty years owes him a debt; without Harvey Pekar, we would not be seeing the likes of Fun Home, Stitches or any number of high-profile, literary autobiographical comics.

Pekar was a self-made-man, an autodidact with an insatiable desire for literature, history and politics.  While passionate and occasionally cranky about his passions and interests, he was always as rational as he was forceful in presenting his arguments.  Pekar worked through depression, three bouts with cancer and several other maladies and turned them into story fodder in a way that was true to life without being maudlin.  Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, his genuine warmth and interest in the lives of others always shone through during his personal appearances as well as his comics.  After all, the man was a storyteller and always had his ear to the ground for new stories to tell about the lives of others.  Pekar was an American original, a working-man’s intellectual and poet, and a remarkable cultural force in spite of himself.

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One Response to “Harvey Pekar: An Appreciation”

  1. […] alcune pagine del web con ricordi di Pekar: Dal Comics Journal: http://www.tcj.com/news/harvey-pekar-an-appreciationhttp://www.tcj.com/blog/harvey-pekar-1939–2010 Eric Reynolds della Fantagraphics: […]