Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goodbye, Harvey

Photo: unknown photographer

On July 12, 2010, comic book pioneer and jazz writer Harvey Pekar died at age 70. Pekar is probably best remembered for his autobiographical comic book series American Splendor, which chronicled his day to day life as a VA Hospital file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio.

The first issue of American Splendor was published in 1976. For the next couple of decades, Pekar partnered with illustrators to tell his stories. Underground comics luminaries such as Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Spain Rodriguez, Gerry Shamray, and Frank Stack were regular Pekar collaborators.

Though recognition came slowly, by 2003 American Splendor had garnered enough attention to become a motion picture starring Paul Giamatti. Pekar also wrote jazz criticism, at least one play, and a variety of other comics work.

I was first introduced to American Splendor in the 1980s. I found Pekar just as my life was imitating his art: I spent my days on a loading dock while learning to become a painter and sculptor in the evenings. I identified deeply with Pekar’s struggle to balance his work as a filing clerk with his attempts to gain recognition as a writer.

Pekar’s work influenced me in other ways. He pioneered an autobiographical approach to comics and wove meaningful stories out of the mundane. Taken individually, his stories could be inconsequential. Taken collectively, they painted a rich and nuanced picture of his life. American Spledor showed me how a body of work creates a context that gives depth and meaning to the individual pieces within it. 

As a much younger man I wrote Pekar what was probably an annoyingly pretentious and earnest fan letter. Despite his curmudgeonly reputation, Pekar wrote a short but gracious reply. It was one of those small kindnesses that he probably forgot within minutes but I will always remember.

If nothing else, at least I was able to say thank you. Goodbye, Harvey. We’ll miss you.

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