Harvey Pekar and the Death of a Splendid American
Harvey Pekar will probably end up remaining best known for his mass-media appearances, such as his contretemps on the Late Show with David Letterman, or the American Splendor movie based on his life. However, in many ways, Harvey exemplified the American dream. The son of Polish immigrants who ran a grocery store, Harvey eventually overcame both his lackluster job as a hospital file clerk and his crippling neuroses to become a noted music critic, a book reviewer for major newspapers, a regular guest on David Letterman's television show, and the subject of an award-winning movie. Not the least of his achievements was writing and publishing his autobiographical American Splendor comic book for 30 years. Harvey accomplished all of this through his willpower and his brains.
Harvey called his comic book American Splendor in an ironic and cynical sense. "When I was a kid, and I was reading comics, there was all this patriotism going around, and comics were being called All-American Comics and Star-Spangled Comics and stuff like that, so that’s where I got the ‘American’ from," he told me. "And then the ‘splendor’... the movie, Splendor in the Grass... I don’t know ... for some reason that always struck me as an absurd title, absurdly funny [audience laughs]. I just hooked up American and splendor – an American splendor – it’s an ironic title. I don’t think most people would consider my life particularly splendid."
Born on Oct. 8, 1939, Harvey lived his entire life in Cleveland, but much of the appeal of his comic was that Harvey was an American everyman. It took him a while to get there. In 2005, he told me, "... I was always worrying about stuff—'catastrophising’—and got to a point even as early as elementary school where I ... things just got too important to me." After trying several jobs as well as college and the Navy, he found his second niche. "I finally got another civil service job which was so easy that I could live with it. I didn't use to worry about whether I'd screw things up or anything like that. I could just go in and put in my hours and go home and that would be it. It would be over with. Normally what happened when I went home was I just would worry about everything all the time. So this job really stabilized my life and another couple of things happened that gave my life stability."
His first niche was jazz criticism. "I started doing that in 1959. That was at the time... this was like the era of the beatniks and it was considered a real accomplishment to get your stuff published somewhere. So when I got my criticism published, I sort of rose in prestige in people's eyes."
In 1962, Harvey met Robert Crumb through their shared love of music. Crumb's work on underground comix eventually convinced Pekar that he could tell his own stories through comic art. ".I was so impressed with [Crumb's] Big Yum-Yum Book and later with other underground comic books that I saw coming out that I realized that there was nothing wrong with the comic form, there was nothing limited about the comic book form, it was just used in a real limited way. It was just like mostly for superheroes and talking animals. I thought, 'Jeez, comics can be about anything.' I was also impressed by the fact there was so little realism in comic books. ...I started thinking about doing stories that were realistic, and the best realistic stories I could do were autobiographical. It seemed that the more accurately I wrote about my life, the better the story came out. I also wanted to write about everyday life, quotidian life, because I felt that writers in just about every area had ignored a lot of what goes on in everyday life. So I used to write... I was thinking about writing stories about working and what it was like to work on a daily basis and how to get along with your boss... Writing about the nuts and bolts of marriage and things like that. ... I had these ideas about experimental comic stories, and I wrote them in like a storyboard style with stick figures with word and thought balloons. I showed them to Crumb and I asked him his opinion of them. He read them and he told me he liked them. He asked me if he could take some of them home with him to illustrate. I was completely floored. I wasn't used to having good luck."
Crumb's willingness to work with Harvey gave Splendor instant credibility in the insular underground or alternative comix world, but Harvey wanted to do his comics on his own terms which came at a cost. "I first started by publishing my own comic book in 1976, American Splendor, and I published that for about 15 years. I published it because I frankly had more and more grandiose ideas about what I could do in terms of stories in comic books—more complex stories and longer stories. And frankly, there weren't any publishers around that I thought would accept any of these stories. For one thing, if I wanted to write a 35-page story, they were just printing comic books that were like 25 pages long or something like that. So I had to decide to publish my own comic and the way I did it was I lived pretty frugally, but I spent a lot of money on rare records. Thousands of dollars on rare records every year. I decided that I would quit collecting records and use the money that I spent on them to put out a comic book."
Harvey's comic book dealt with aspects of his life as a record collector or file clerk or Cleveland resident. He mused on peeling an orange or buying groceries, hiring cartoonists to render his stories in pictures. The comic book outlasted two marriages and led to his third when fan Joyce Brabner contacted him about buying back issues of Splendor. A long-distance romance ensued, and their whirlwind courtship led to an enduring marriage in 1983, along with an adoption of a daughter, Danielle, and Our Cancer Year, a graphic biography written jointly with Joyce. Illustrated by Frank Stack, Our Cancer Year is probably Harvey's most fully realized and affecting work, and covers his 1990 battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Harvey's appearances on Late Night with David Letterman never brought him the financial windfall that he had hoped for, but they probably set the stage for the wider world to notice him. "I got on Letterman in 1986 because of a guy named Steve O'Donnell who was Letterman's head writer and who came from Cleveland," Pekar said. "I didn't know Steve at the time, but he knew my work. He was responsible for getting me on the show. When I was on the show... I thought I'd just be on once. I went on once and I did kind of shtick, sort of a parody of a Cleveland working man, a rust belt guy, the 'dese and doser' kind of guy... and it went over really well. So, they had me back several times, but they always wanted me to act the same. It got old for me. Not only that, my comics weren't selling better, and I wasn't getting much money. Now you talk about compromise, see if he would have given me a lot of money, I'd have probably let him abuse me a whole hell of a lot more than he did."
Versions of Splendor appeared on stage in the late '80s and 1990, and the movie rights sold several times, but Harvey's larger career seemed stalled. A major publisher collected his early issues and the book won an American Book Award for the first self-titled collection. In 1995, Our Cancer Year won the comics industry's Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work. He was no longer self-publishing his comics, due partly to his illnesses, but they weren't selling any better than they had when he was doing all the work himself. Harvey's big breakthrough came in 2003, two years after he retired from his government job. The American Splendor movie was a critical success, amassing a series of awards, and Harvey and Joyce went to the Academy Awards—about which he said, "It's all bullshit."
Bullshit perhaps, but the movie provided him with a financial cushion that he hadn't had before. He continued to have health problems, but got a contract for an autobiographical "prequel"—The Quitter, from DC Comics. "I got all this money for the movie and everything like that. I felt like I owed Dean Haspiel something. He’d been responsible for me making thousands and thousands of dollars so I said, 'What, within reason, can I do to pay you back for doing this for me? So he said he wanted to illustrate a large-scale work of mine, so I said fine. He already had a connection with DC Comics, and the movie had made me a hotter item, and made one of my comic book collections a pretty good seller, so maybe editors weren’t as scared to take on selling my work as they used to be, knowing it would lead to financial ruin. Dean approached the people from DC; I didn’t have any connection with them at all. He started a dialogue between them and me that he was in, on too, and gradually hammered out the idea for the contents of The Quitter."
After The Quitter, DC published two more series of American Splendor, financing Harvey's ability to work with a wider array of cartoonists than the largely Cleveland-based or younger fledgling alternative cartoonists that he had worked with for most of his comics career. When DC didn't renew Splendor, Harvey turned to writing nonfiction comics on historical topics such as Macedonia, The Beats, and Students for a Democratic Society, as well as a jazz opera of all things. Over the past year, although he never used a computer, Harvey was breaking into Web comics with Smith Magazine's The Pekar Project.
At 70 years old, Harvey finally lost his battle with life—but he had beaten obsessive-compulsive behavior, two types of cancer, depression, and a failed hip joint. He survived a low-wage and low-prestige job, made a successful marriage (albeit on his third try), provided a home to a young girl in need, published a 30-year long autobiography, revolutionized the idea of what comic books could be, and generally lived a splendid American life—demonstrating to all of us that "a quotidian life" is worth both living and examining.
Mike Rhode is the editor of Harvey Pekar: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), and interviewed Pekar at the Small Press Expo in 2005.