"Comix are words and pictures... words and pictures... you can do anything with words and pictures..."
American file clerk, comic book writer, and the Poet Laureate of Cleveland (1939-2010). He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Jewish immigrants from Bialystok, Poland. He had a difficult childhood -- he and his brother Allen were some of the only white kids in a mostly African-American neighborhood, and he endured more than his share of beatings, which he said made him feel inferior to everyone. English was also not his first language -- his parents taught him Yiddish when he was growing up. He graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957 and served in the United States Navy. He attended Case Western Reserve University, but dropped out after a year. After a variety of odd jobs, he was got a job at the Veteran's Administration Hospital as a file clerk in 1965. He stayed at that position -- refusing promotions -- until he retired in 2001, even after he'd gained fame as a comics writer.
Pekar got into comics because he got to know underground comix legend Robert Crumb while Crumb was living in Cleveland during the mid-1960s. They bonded over their shared love of jazz, and Pekar started reading Crumb's comics. He quickly found himself inspired by the storytelling possibilities of the comics medium, but it still took him a decade to actually get down to writing stories for comics. In the early 1970s, he laid out some stories, illustrated with his own crude stick-figure artwork, to show to Crumb and Robert Armstrong, another artist. They both liked Pekar's work, and they offered to illustrate his story. So "Crazy Ed," a single-page story written by Pekar and drawn by Crumb, appeared on the back cover of Crumb's "The People's Comics" in '72.
Pekar's work appeared in other underground comix throughout the 1970s, including "Flamed-Out Funnies," "Bizarre Sex," and "Snarf." But his best known work began in May 1976 with the first issue of "American Splendor," which focused on true (or at least mostly true) stories of Pekar's everyday life in Cleveland. He's widely considered the first person to write memoir comics, and though you wouldn't expect comics about a balding, schluby grump to be interesting, they were widely acclaimed and very popular, though rarely appreciated by fans of superhero comics. He wrote about his job, his coworkers, patients at the hospital, his family and friends, his car, money troubles, his anxieties, and almost anything else he wanted to write about. The comix were self-published about once a year all the way to 1991. Dark Horse Comics took over the publication from 1993-2002, and then Vertigo Comics published them from 2006-2008.
"American Splendor" was illustrated by a murderer's row of artists: Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Sacco, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Mark Zingarelli, Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Eddie Campbell, David Collier, Drew Friedman, Ho Che Anderson, Rick Geary, Ed Piskor, Bob Fingerman, Alex Wald, Val Mayerik, Ty Templeton, Richard Corben, and even writer Alan Moore and his third wife, Joyce Brabner.
Two of Pekar's best known issues were essentially graphic novels. The first, and probably the best known of all his works, was "Our Cancer Year," co-written with Brabner, covering Pekar's diagnosis and treatment for lymphoma. Ten years later came "Our Movie Year," which focused on the making of the film of "American Splendor."
Oh, yeah, there was a movie made of Pekar's comics! It was released in 2003, and was written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who had previously only made documentaries. It starred Paul Giamatti as Pekar, Hope Davis as Brabner, James Urbaniak as Crumb -- and Pekar and Brabner as themselves. It was a narrative film as well as a documentary -- and it got rave reviews from critics and tons of nominations and wins at film awards.
That wasn't Pekar's only appearance in the mass media, either. He made a number of appearances on David Letterman's talk show, which were extraordinarily prickly -- Pekar and Letterman argued like crazy, particularly about GE's ownership of NBC. At one point, Letterman swore to never have Pekar back on the program, but he did invite him back twice more.
Pekar was also a lifelong jazz fan and critic. He wrote hundreds of articles for the Village Voice, DownBeat, Jazz Times and more, as well as liner notes for a number of record labels and book reviews for the Los Angeles Reader and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.
In 2010, Pekar was diagnosed with cancer for the third time and was preparing for treatment. His wife found him dead in their home on July 12, 2010 of an accidental overdose of antidepressants. A number of graphic novels he wrote have been published posthumously, though others are still unpublished. Perhaps the last story he wrote -- and maybe his only superhero story -- was published in "Strange Tales II," an anthology published by Marvel Comics in late 2010. "Harvey Pekar Meets the Thing," illustrated by Ty Templeton, had Harvey meeting up with the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Ben Grimm to talk about Hungarian Jews, Hebrew school, and Ben's desire for Harvey's cushy file clerk job at the V.A.
A statue of Harvey was installed at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library in 2012. He'd visited the library almost every day.
For reQuest 2020
("A writeup on an underrated comic book writer, artist or series")