By Robert O’Connor
Harvey Pekar was an ordinary man whose love of jazz and books helped him have an extraordinary life. And in the process he helped make ordinary life more tolerable for everyone else.
Pekar was born to Polish immigrants in Cleveland. His father owned a grocery store and he lived above it. He attended Case Western University in Cleveland for a year before dropping out. He then worked a series of odd-jobs, including a stint in the US Navy, before getting a job as a file clerk at the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration Hospital (now named the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center). He worked alongside Robert McNeill, a veteran who would be the subject of a biography by Pekar in 2003.
Pekar lived a block and a half from Robert Crumb, who was in Cleveland working at a greeting card company while drawing comix on the side. They both shared an obsession with old jazz records and became fast friends. Pekar was introduced to comics and realized that not much had been done with them except superhero stories.
He theorized for about ten years about what comics could do – whether they could tell stories about regular people much like George Ade had done – Pekar liked George Ade.
Finally, in 1975 Pekar decided to put out his own comic. It was a series of nonfiction pieces written by him and illustrated by friends Crumb, Willie Murphy, Bob Armstrong and a few others. The result was the first issue of American Splendor.
He then put out an issue of American Splendor every year. They were self-published, but they caught on. He was a frequent guest on David Letterman‘s show until in a 1988 appearance Pekar – who was always politically outspoken – criticized General Electric on Letterman’s show (which was on NBC which is owned by GE), resulting in him being banned – though the two patched up their differences and Pekar was a guest on the show several years later.
American Splendor also had biographies of jazz artists – Pekar was a prolific jazz and book critic as well as a comic writer. In 1991 the series was published by Dark Horse, who kept it up until it was moved to Vertigo (a DC Comics imprint) in 2006.
Pekar also wrote a history of the Beat Poets, a graphic history of the SDS and adapted Studs Terkel‘s Working into a graphic novel.
Pekar also wrote the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Our Cancer Year” in 1994 with his wife Joyce Brabner. The novel is a chronicle of his treatment for lymphoma.
Pekar retired from his job as a file clerk in 2001 and became a full-time writer, giving lectures and interviews more frequently. In 2003, the acclaimed documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made a biopic of Pekar titled “American Splendor” starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Pekar was diagnosed with cancer again in 2010, and shortly afterwards was found dead on July 12, 2010. In October it was determined that the cause of death was an overdose of antidepressants.
Like George Ade, Pekar championed the ordinary man through his work. The big difference between the two was that Pekar stayed an ordinary man by working a menial job as a file clerk. Pekar’s legacy is that he showed that comics could be just as varied as other art forms and deal with mundane issues just as powerfully. His comics were not about superheroes, but about real people – who are even more fantastic.
MORE: Interview, Sound of Young America (mp3) // list of American Splendor collaborators // Boppin’ with Pekar // Archive of Jazz reviews, Austin Chronicle // INTERVIEWS: Fresh Air, New York Press, Walrus Comix, WPSU // OBITUARIES: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, La Cucaracha // Discussion of “American Splendor” film with Giamatti, Pulcini and Berman on Charlie Rose, 2003 // APPEARANCES ON DAVID LETTERMAN: First interview (1, 2), 1987, infamous show (article on the appearance, In These Times), later appearance (video is coded April 1993)
First posted: Thursday, December 23rd, 2010.