Those were Neil Gaiman’s words to Comic Riffs one year ago, as news spread of Harvey Pekar’s passing at age 70 and his fellow creators mourned the man and celebrated his legacy. Gaiman, like others, was reflecting on how the legendary Bard of Cleveland helped change the appreciation for, and perceptions of, the graphic novel, the drawn memoir, the autobiographical comic narrative.
Pekar died July 12, 2010. His widow and fellow creator, Joyce Brabner, will appear at this month’s San Diego Comic Con, in part to discuss their works and future projects.
In Harvey’s memory, Comic Riffs is republishing these creators’ reflections from one year ago today.
As Dean Haspiel said: “This normal guy found the extraordinary in the ordinary and [in doing so] showed how extraordinary he truly was.”
“Most of all, Harvey was a model for me as a comics creator. Through reading his work and working with him, I learned to appreciate the strangeness of real life and the little details of daily existence. As a writer, his unflinching honesty and refusal to engage in sentimentality are qualities which I continue to try to emulate.”
“I think probably the most important thing about American Splendor, in all its incarnations, is that there were very few people in the earlier days of comics prepared to put their work where their mouth was. It was all very well a medium for adults by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. ... But before [Harvey], there wasn’t much to show. You had the power fantasies of 14-year-olds and the 19-year-old tits-and-drugs fantasies. ... Harvey believed there was no limit to how good comics could be. To chronicle his life from these tiny wonderful moments of magic and of heartbreak -- and the most important thing was that he did it.
“The most important thing Harvey did was create the work -- that above everything else. The larger-than-life personality, the David Letterman appearances -- it was all done as a way to promote the comic. It was done intentionally.
“I discovered Harvey somewhere around 1993 or 1994, when I picked up an American Splendor. I probably discovered him through R. Crumb, whom I had loved since as a kid. You come for Crumb -- you stay for Harvey.”
“My relations with Harvey were always very rewarding. He was great to work with. Of course he was a fine writer, one of the best and most honest of his generation. I’ve heard him compared to Charles Bukowski, of course. But I think he was even more like an American Chekov.
“I met him originally because of my writing him a fan letter. He already knew my work as a cartoonist. In his reply to my letter, he asked me to work with him. I didn’t customarily collaborate but I respected his work and so I agreed. He was good to work with. He wanted my ‘realistic’ style. He was very thoughtful and knew what he wanted. He chose his artists because he liked their work, and he gave us almost complete freedom to interpret his stories, without, of course, changing any of his words.
“[’Our Cancer Year’] was difficult if no other reason than for the sheer volume of work that I had to do. Except for Harvey and Joyce I knew none of the people. ...I worked with Joyce more than with Harvey, who was still pretty debilitated from the treatment. The form in which I got the story from her was different from the way Harvey did it before this project. He gave me panel breakdowns with dialog in panels on sheets of paper. She gave it to me as a movie script or play. ... I was completely immersed with the project for [close] to a year I think, averaging a page a day most of the time with very few breaks from the drawing board. So it was trying, difficult and rewarding. Generally I was proud of our (Joyce, Harvey, my and publisher 4 Walls 8 Windows) effort and pleased with the reception.”
Harvey is often [rightly] credited with helping to encourage artists to look to themselves and their daily lives. It was through his observations on the world in which he lived that he helped to inspire and reinvigorate comics. It is worth remembering that when American Splendor began, the graphic-novel movement in America was virtually nonexistent. There were some works in the underground scene, but the chronicling of everyday lives. There was a seamless transition [from his work to] the honest biographical comics that were proliferating in the ‘80s and early ‘90s-- to fictional graphic novels. ...
And there’s ‘Our Cancer Year.’ He was always interested in the minutiae of everyday life and in sending the message through his work that minutiae was worth writing about. So when something truly big came along, he tried to write it with the same honesty and granularity -- about going to the grocery store and back. He showed that momentous events and grand struggles do happen to ordinary people. ...
And then there’s the underground sensibility of his comics. The thing that was appealing for [underground] cartoonists was that he is the iconoclast’s iconoclast. He was just a bit grumpy and dissatisfied and was just being himself for the most part. He was aware there was a degree of shtick, a kind of theater, but he honestly did feel that way.”
“The thing I think most remarkable about Harvey Pekar is how from the very beginning, American Splendor embodied this complete, even radical idea of what made compelling and worthwhile comics. While what we now call literary comics in North America went through what seemed like years of weaning themselves away from genre elements step by agonizing step, Pekar broke cleanly away from everybody with straight autobiography, stories about activities as ordinary as drinking a glass of water, dissections of class and race and personal identity, all set in his beloved Cleveland.
“He was a heck of a writer. Working with multiple artists couldn’t have been easy, but his voice came through whether he was working with established Hall of Famers like Frank Stack and Robert Crumb or some of the younger artists he worked with more recently, like Dean Haspiel or Ed Piskor. I’m told he was extremely easy to work with, very encouraging when the results were to his liking. His artists always championed him when his name came up. ...
“American Splendor was a stealth primer on Midwestern values. The very act of putting out such comics was in many ways an extended, rambling commentary on our culture of fame, an ongoing argument that there was a place for someone like Harvey to be recognized for all the things he did well, the file clerk as celebrity.”
“Harvey is easily one of the most influential comic book writers of the past four decades. Autobiographical “slice of life” comics are fairly common today, but American Splendor was really the first of its kind.
“I met Harvey seven years ago when working on an American Splendor exhibition to coincide with the release of the film, and we hit it off really well once he found out I’d grown up near Cleveland. We talked about comics a little bit, but most of our conversations ended up about sports and weather, the same things everyone from Northeast Ohio talk about when they run into each other away from home. No matter
how much critical success or commercial success Harvey found, he was always just a regular guy from Cleveland, first and foremost.”
“I admire Harvey’s willingness to be himself in his art, on TV, and yes, on the record. Cartooning, particularly art comix, is full of phonies drawing phony, fake work. If more of us were like him, our profession would be more relevant to the reading public.”
“He was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold.
“When I was a kid, comics were superheroes for kids. ... When I came across American Splendor, it blew my mind. I saw that comics can be about anything. They can be about your mundane life. I don’t know how he was able to truly sustain that and use it. I think it heightened the experience that he was only the [constant] as the artists changed. ... American Splendor taught me to have a keen eye on my friends and neighbors and family and to reallly listen to what people were saying because there was narrative gold to mine. ...
“American Splendor helped legitimize the form because it became literary. With its [idiosyncratic] grammar and spelling it was trying to capture real people. ...
“It took him a few years to give me a chance. Slowly things grew and we had a working relationship. ... He was really a sweet guy. He could get upset and paranoid, but I had a good friend. ...
“He taught us there are many versions of the truth. I was sadden and shocked [to hear of his death], but his entire life is in comic book form. ... I heard while at a Jewish funeral that the kindest thing you can do is to pick up the shovel and spread the dirt across the grave to put them to sleep. Well, you’ll hear more stories and people will talk about Harvey Pekar. That’s a way to help ‘spread the dirt.’ This normal guy found the extraordinary in the ordinary and [in doing so] showed how extraordinary he truly was.”