High Five! Comics

Harvey Pekar, R.I.P.

Posted on: July 12, 2010

The passing of Harvey Pekar requires acknowledgment, not just because we’re a comics blog and this is news from our geeky world, but because Pekar was a legitimately important writer who deserves the recognition and appreciation of all of us, whether you’re a nerd or not. With comics’ longevity in our culture comes the sad fact that there are precious few true innovators of the medium left with us. We lost another titan today, as Harvey Pekar passed away of causes yet-undetermined. He was 70 years old.

His creation, American Splendor, was a pioneering effort in independent comics, an autobiographical book depicting the real-life “drama” of the human condition told by an anonymous file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio, far away from Gotham and the center of the comic book universe. His book was populated by Pekar’s own friends, his co-workers, and anybody he interacted with in the day to day, and the stories told within its pages all came from incidents in his own life. The book was illustrated by dozens of artists since its first issue in 1976 (including, famously, Pekar’s legendary buddy R. Crumb) and over the course of its run became recognized as one of the best and most influential creator-owned properties ever.

Harvey’s writing in American Splendor was favorably compared to greats like Anton Chekhov in its narrative focus on the ephemeral emotionalism of moments between moments rather than any definitive set of linear events as they might relate to a traditional style of storytelling. But unlike Chekhov, who wrote initially for money on the side before formally committing himself to the craft of writing, Pekar was never any kind of literary genius. Rather, he was akin to those other DIY-ers that dotted the artistic landscape of latter half of the 20th century, driven by something innate and maybe a little profound, to stay up all night to write down the things that he wanted other people to see in his world, even if it meant being extra-tired during his double shift at the VA the next day.

Following the underground success of American Splendor, Pekar would be “discovered” any number of times in the ensuing years by any number of outsiders who found novelty in glimpsing the mundane existence of this glum little weirdo from the distant Mid-West. In his willingness to indulge potential readers, he even became a bit of a side-show attraction at times, as when he appeared eight times on Late Night with David Letterman, culminating with an acrimonious airing of grievance that once again relegated him to national obscurity, save for those few viewers who might have actually gone on to pick up a copy of his most recent issue.

But Harvey’s insistence that he never be “co-opted” was equal parts a commitment to his art and to himself, knowing that he could not make his comic if he ever believed himself to be another phony. Even as neurotic, cantankerous and put-upon as the man could be, he was also never nearly as self-serious as his public persona might have lead one to believe. How could he be? American Splendor was downright severe in its sincerity, and showed not one iota of inauthenticity in the four decades that it was published. His body of works are paradoxically the least self-aware metatextual texts ever created. It simply couldn’t have worked otherwise.

Harvey Pekar was a Great in the world of comics, if never more than a regular guy in the real one. And he will be missed.

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