Underground Comics Writer Harvey Pekar Has Died

 Comic book author and perpetual curmudgeon Harvey Pekar has passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 70. Pekar was the creator of American Splendor comics, which was a chronicle of his own Polish Jewish working class roots in the city of Cleveland, as well as a graphic witness to the everyday experience of the urban laborer. He was a writer of wide going and eclectic tastes, but was most intrigued with the bittersweet humor of everyday life, which he approached with a style that was a cross between W.C. Fields in all of that comedian’s world weariness and the verbal scrappiness of the street brawler that he was in his youth. From ruminations on standing behind elderly coupon clippers in supermarket check out counters to battles with clogged toilets to the daily frustrations of bureaucratic interactions in his long time gig as a file clerk at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Cleveland; Pekar’s story of his world was told in an unfailing cranky style, but never without rich humor, the target of which was often himself.

Pekar was born in 1939 to a family of Jewish immigrants who fled Poland to escape from the growing brutalities of fascism. In an autobiographical work The Quitter that was published by the DC Comics imprint Vertigo in 2005, he offered a narrative of his youth which was one marked by a number of occupations and interests as retail clerk and stock boy in his family store, amateur athlete and street tough, navy reject, autodidactic literary scholar, and jazz critic, which was a passion that remained with him until the end of his days. In every role, Pekar was dogged by deep anxiety, which only began to break up with the appearance of the first American Splendor story, which was illustrated by the underground comics star Robert Crumb in 1972. Among the many other artists who drew his stories were classic underground talents like Frank Stack and Spain Rodriguez, and in more recent years, Chester Brown and Dean Haspiel. Pekar also caught a major break organizationally with his marriage to his wife Joyce Brabner in 1983. Brabner worked mightily to promote Pekar’s work in mainstream bookstore circuits. The efforts paid off when the first anthology of Splendor won the prestigious American Book Award in 1987.

 Pekar’s comics received a good deal of national attention through a series of appearances on the David Letterman show, which terminated when Pekar insisted on highlighting the NBC Writer’s strike issues during a broadcast interview on Letterman’s program in 1987. Pekar’s comments left the host sputtering about Pekar’s “lack of politeness” when Harvey attempted to raise the issue of General Electric’s union busting and nuclear energy speculation. Letterman was clearly taken aback by Pekar’s personal rejection of pop culture’s “fifteen minutes of fame” and his insistence on a discussion of the issues of a section of NBC’s contracted labor. Pekar went as far as wearing a solidarity T shirt in support of the strikers while on camera. When the show closed out that evening, it ended with none of the usual glitzy hand shaking phoniness and embraces that most late night talk shows entail. It would be several years before he was invited back onto the program. But sometimes one has to do what one has to do. Though it was no doubt frustrating from a professional standpoint to his long suffering spouse Brabner, Pekar had a real story and struggle to detail, and he wasn’t about to abandon it for the sake of some momentary glory.

The man’s perennial complaint was that his comics didn’t sell widely enough, or enable him to retire from his job at the Veterans Administration Hospital. His financial picture brightened up considerably when his description of his struggle with lymphoma Our Cancer Year was published by the New York Press and won the comics industry Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Original Work in 1994. From that point, public interest in his career as a comic book artist moved from strength to strength, and saw promontories such as the release of the bio pic American Splendor in 2003. The movie featured not only the actor  Paul Giamatti as Pekar, but footage of the artist himself, his wife Joyce Brabner, and their daughter Danielle Batay, who was adopted in 1998. Real life Vets Admin co-worker Toby Radloff also appeared in the film.

One of the ironies of United States cultural life is that it continues to underrate the comic book and the comic strip as art forms, in much the same way it continues to underrate jazz, the blues, and hip hop. All of these disciplines are forms indigenous to the Americas, and all of them have sprung largely out of the everyday experience of the working class in this country. So it is hardly surprising that most of the disparaging commentaries emanate from apologists who can never see the flatness of the endless parade of upper middle class angst that of late passes for highbrow entertainment in this country.

The importance of Harvey Pekar is that in his effort, working class expression had an untiring champion of its consciousness in music and graphic art, and working class sensibility in all of its beauty and all of its backwardness. In Pekar, there is an example of what it took one man to be a tough minded critic of capitalism who also had the courage to let his art find itself. You’ll not find any “socialist realism” in the comics canon that Harvey Pekar leaves behind him. But what you will find is heat lightning: there’s a political storm coming that will be led by the workers on their own behalf. None of us know precisely when it’s going to hit, but hit it will. There are working class voices in the comic book world that will come down the path Harvey Pekar chose, but there will never be anyone else quite like him, with all his rich sense of history and humorous distance.

He will be dearly missed.


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