Harvey Pekar dead: American Splendor comic writer was 70

The comic book writer's autobiographical "American Splendor" was made into a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti.
By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar, 70, the writer whose autobiographical comic book series "American Splendor" chronicled his life as a filing clerk, record collector, freelance jazz critic and one of life's all-around misfits, was found dead July 12 at his home near Cleveland.

No cause of death was reported, but a police captain in suburban Cleveland Heights told the Associated Press that an autopsy was planned. The AP reported that Mr. Pekar had prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression.

The largely autobiographical comic series portrayed Mr. Pekar -- inevitably dressed in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants -- as a rumpled, depressed filing clerk in a Veterans Administration hospital. He filled the stories with wry observations about his frustrations with work and human relationships and what Mr. Pekar called "the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about."

"The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV," Mr. Pekar once said. "It's the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there's no routine and everything is unexpected. That's what I want to write about."

Mr. Pekar's comic vignettes were often of the mundane: pushing a girlfriend's car out of the snow, helping friends move a mildewed couch into an apartment, arguing with an editor and selling used records to his co-workers. Other strips featured Mr. Pekar engaging in dark, interior monologues against a winter sky.

The series developed a devoted following that extended beyond the usual comic book audience. It was made into a film in 2003 starring Paul Giamatti as Mr. Pekar and was adapted for the stage in 1987 as "From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes . . . American Splendor -- The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar."

A great believer in the comics medium, Mr. Pekar also used the form for music essays that graced CD jazz reissues and a New York Times op-art piece about the decline of the Cleveland economy.

From 1986 to 1988, Mr. Pekar was a frequent guest on "Late Night With David Letterman," including one appearance in which Mr. Pekar antagonized Letterman for not endorsing a strike against General Electric, the parent company of NBC. Letterman's show was on NBC at the time, and Mr. Pekar was reportedly angered by what he considered GE's business conflicts as an arms manufacturer and media conglomerate.

The tirade prompted Letterman, somewhat jokingly, to apologize to the people of Cleveland.

Mr. Pekar was absent from the show for several years but was invited back in 1993.

"We had a fight, a falling out, a misunderstanding -- all that's behind us," Letterman said on the air. "I'm genuinely happy to see you back."

"Really?" said Mr. Pekar, with apparent skepticism.

Meeting R. Crumb

Harvey Lawrence Pekar was born Oct. 8, 1939, in Cleveland. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, a Talmudic scholar, supported the family as a neighborhood grocer, and the family lived above his store.

Mr. Pekar attended what became Case Western Reserve University, served in the Navy in the late 1950s and worked a series of menial jobs before taking what would become a 30-year job as a filing clerk at a VA hospital in Cleveland.

In the early 1960s, he befriended cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was working in Cleveland for the American Greetings card company. Crumb and Mr. Pekar had a mutual love of jazz, although Crumb preferred 1920s hot jazz and Mr. Pekar's taste ran to swing and modern jazz. After Crumb's success as an underground cartoonist -- named R. Crumb -- Mr. Pekar approached him with stick-figure story boards. Crumb offered to illustrate Mr. Pekar's work and also put him in touch with other illustrators.

Mr. Pekar self-published the first "American Splendor" comic in 1976 and did the book at a rate of one a year. In addition to Crumb, the many illustrators he collaborated with included Gary Dumm, Richard Corben, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Hernandez, Bill Griffith, Drew Friedman and Joe Sacco.

"At that time I was single and I was spending thousands of dollars on rare records, so I thought I'd put out a comic," Mr. Pekar told the Sydney Morning Herald. "And so I lost money on that instead."

He later added in one of his comics, "So what if I lose a couple thousand a year? At least, I'll be doing something creative."

One of Mr. Pekar's fans was Joyce Brabner, a Delaware writer, teacher and civic activist. She started a correspondence with Mr. Pekar and became his third wife in 1983. On their first date, Brabner suffered through a home-cooked meal that caused her to vomit profusely.

"That's when I saw my future husband," she told the Akron Beacon Journal, "with his pants rolled up, mopping the floor and offering me all sorts of herbal teas he bought simply because we discussed that over the phone, and that's all I needed to know about the kind of husband he would be."

Mr. Pekar proposed to Brabner on their third date. Besides his wife, a complete list of survivors could not be determined.

After a diagnosis of lymphoma curtailed his writing in 1990, Mr. Pekar collaborated with Brabner on "Our Cancer Year" (1994), a novel-length comic that recounted their experiences while he was in chemotherapy.

The film "American Splendor," directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, blended drama, documentary and animation as interviews as Mr. Pekar and Brabner appeared in the film alongside their dramatic impersonators, Giamatti and Hope Davis.

A memorable moment in the movie occurs when Brabner, played by Davis, meets Mr. Pekar for the first time at the airport after a lengthy correspondence. She tries to imagine what he looks like and conjures up four images of him by four different illustrators.

When the film was released, Mr. Pekar speculated in a comic strip that he might "become a beloved man of the people."

However, he added, "of course I don't think I have it made by any means. I'm too insecure, obsessive and paranoid for all that."

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