So I go off the radar for a couple of days, taking some much needed R&R, and what do I come back to the office to find? News that Mel Gibson is even crazier than I had first thought and news that Harvey Pekar had died. What the hell, world?
See, there’s indie comics and then there’s indie comix and for a really long time, Pekar fell into the latter category. He was one of those guys working so deep underground that he was associated with Robert Crumb and as Crumb started to come to the surface, Pekar hung out in the depths for a bit longer before his unique personal style was propelled into the mainstream with a sweet biopic starring Paul Giamatti. And it was about time. I discovered American Splendor on the high shelves of a local comic shop when I was at my snobbiest. Having been fed up with the double gate-fold excesses of super hero books in the early 90’s and a revelation that The Uncanny X-Men insisted on looping back around again and again to jump that fucking shark with a book dedicated entirely the marriage of Cyclops and Jean Grey, I started digging deeper for comics that had some kind of actual value to them in the creativity department and in the process found Harvey Pekar. Most of the my early experiences with off-beat indie books rolled off into oblivion, most of them pointless exercises in abstraction, but Pekar wrote with a voice that echoed in my head for days or weeks after reading.
If you’ve seen interviews with Harvey or the awesome biopic, which features him extensively, you know that he’s a pretty mousy guy and he comes off exceptionally pessimistic and bitter but that was just his way. The real Harvey, seen in the pages of his comic, American Splendor, was deeply human and very funny. He documented his take on shit that happened all around him in his native Cleveland, Ohio, and did it in such a way that made the extremely ordinary seem downright exotic. This was a sentiment that I could understand seeing as how I’ve spent most of my life living in the slow lane of small-town New Hampshire (aren’t they all small towns?). A lot of people have flexed their creative juice by talking up the banality of their particular setting but nobody did it like Harvey and it made the ennui of a thrill seeker living in a place where nothing ever happens seem a little less oppressive.
Harvey was the antithesis of pretense and his modesty is what made his art so potent. There’s an enormous back catalog of American Splendor to be read not to mention an excruciating document of Harvey’s struggle with cancer in the form of Our Cancer Year, illustrated by Frank Stack and co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner. If you’re only marginally aware or completely unfamiliar, I urge you to look into the work of one of the greatest minds of independent comics. Pekar was a poet at heart, one of the last of the beats and chose to express his fustrations and general observations about the ways that we choose to live out our lives in comic book form. Often dismissed as kid stuff, Pekar was a cornerstone in the argument in favor of comics as art. He was billiant and funny and will be missed. To honor his way out, here’s Harvey deep sixing his regular appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.