Editor’s note: Hey! Everyone say hey to Abby. She’s a new contributor here and I’ve known her for a while. We both share an appreciation for sweet flicks and comics, particularly the comics of Harvey Pekar. With Harvey’s passing this past year, it seems only appropriate that Abby’s first contribution to the site be a really pleasant look back on the work of a real underground comix genius.
A New Year usually means one of two things: reflection on things that went awry in the past year or reflections on things that will go awry in the future year. This year, I decided to go with past year reflections. I know that Comic Con, the largest of all comic conventions, is mostly a Hollywood, big studio event, so I am not going to gripe about this fact; I have accepted this. Yes, there is a special endurance that one must possess in order to survive a Twilight panel (especially without earplugs, gah, the screaming!), but there is also a special reward in following Edgar Wright down the San Diego streets as he leads you to an exclusive peek of Scott Pilgrim, where the cast is waiting for you, and Metric play a show afterward, and there is free soda and popcorn, and did I mention that Edgar Wright hi-fives each an everyone person before they sit down?! In short, yes, Comic is overrun by big studio agendas and can at times be one huge over lit advertisement, but it can also be a place to meet incredible illustrators, directors and writers. The comic artist is not king at Comic Con, but in a field that sometimes gets treated only as a storyboard for major motion pictures, the artists is typically lauded as significant contributor. Thus, I was a little surprised this year when I heard only one mention of Harvey Pekar, the creator of the autobiographical series “American Splendor”, who died a mere nine days before the Convention began. Who mentioned him? Was it a fellow alternative comic writer? Was there a panel for fans to remember the great contributor of alternative comics? It was Oscar award winning actress Helen Mirren, who wore a shirt in remembrance of Pekar and made an announcement about the sudden and sad loss. I know the studios have their paws in it, but how could the biggest comic convention of them all forget to at least bid farewell to one of the biggest contributors to alternative comics? This was something that really went awry for me in 2010 and I had to come up with some suitable answer.
It is easy enough to blame commercialism and Hollywood. Harvey Pekar did not add an iota of escapism to his comics, in fact, according to his wife Joyce, if the reality had a happy ending, Harvey would not put it in his comic, for fear of alienating other miserable folk like himself. Instead, he wrote hundreds of stories about lost keys, getting locked out of the house, flat tires after movies, misplaced glasses, excruciating long days at work, and surviving cancer, twice. Unlike the comics Harvey grew up reading, “American Splendor” did not have super heroes or tell encouraging stories of overcoming burdensome odds, it told a story that can be much more scary and frightening: the day to day reality of living. According to Harvey he had two driving forces behind writing: he believed misery loved company and that ordinary life was pretty complicated stuff and therefore interesting enough to engage any audience. It is here that my traditional nerd rage against Hollywood and studio establishment fell apart, because Harvey was right, people did respond to his stories.
Whatever the reason that made Harvey Pekar’s death a mere blip on the comic radar for 2010, it was not due to any inability of his work to overcome Hollywood glitz and glam. When American Splendor the movie came out, it was very much like his comic: honest with no escapist frills attached. It was a little film about a relatively insignificant man, doing all the normal things every working class guy does, and audiences did respond it, allowing the film to do quite well. Once the public became more aware about Harvey and his stories, his comics started selling more too, and he was able to retire with a little more cash then he expected. Although blaming Hollywood bias is an easy enough argument to make, it would be disrespectful and inaccurate to say that Hollywood overshadowed his honest storytelling enough to render him, in his death, irrelevant.
2011 is almost here and I still have not been able reconcile why Harvey Pekar did not get the parades of farewell that I thought he should have received. However, I am reminded of something he said to me a few years back that makes the whole awry situation inconsequential.
Harvey Pekar was at Wonder Con a couple of years ago sitting in on a panel about his new comic “The Quitter”. He was sitting at the front of the room with a huge bottle of orange soda (which he had almost finished by the end of the panel) and a bag of groceries that he told us Joyce told him to grab before he went back to the hotel. After the panel was over, most everyone filed out, but a few of us stayed back to meet him. When it was finally my turn, we were the last two people in the room and there was awkward silence until Harvey deciding to break the ice by asking, “Do you want to see my driver’s license from when I had cancer?”
I agreed and he pulled out the license from his back pocket and explained to me how long it took for his hair to grow back and that the reason why he keeps the picture on him is that he meets people all the time now that have cancer and he finds that when they see the picture of him dying, it makes them feel better. I could not really tell if they felt better because they recognized they were not alone or if because he had it worse then they did, his intonation was a little unclear. Before I could clarify, he asked again, “Did you know I got cancer again after the movie was made?”
“No. What was that like?” I asked.
“I got really depressed. I had spent such a long time on the [movie] set, hanging out with people everyday that when it ended, it felt like everything had ended. And then I got cancer again. I wanted to commit suicide. I had experienced the best time of my life, only to realize that it didn’t last very long. So Joyce had me get hospitalized and I stayed there for a couple of weeks.”
“Did it get better?”
“Eventually. I realized that I had to get back to work and provide for my wife and kid. Here I was depressed that everything I had was gone, but my wife and my kid were coming in everyday to see me and they really needed me. I had to be there for Joyce and try to get my kid through college. I knew that if I didn’t focus on them, I’d just kill myself right there. So that’s what I did and that’s what I’m doing. I really hope the new comic sells, I could really use the bread for tuition.”
There was a long pause after he said that and then he shook my hand and said it was nice to meet me, but that he had to leave before Joyce yelled at him for being late with the groceries. I said goodbye and that was the last time I saw Harvey Pekar.
On July 12, 2010 Harvey Pekar died in his house with Joyce and his daughter attending college. I don’t know why Harvey Pekar’s passing did not garner as much attention as his work so clearly deserves, but I do know, from what he told me, that he would not care in the slightest. In fact, I bet that he would be pretty impressed that Helen Mirren is such a big fan.