Feature

Harvey Pekar, 1939–2010

The comic-book writer who bared his soul

Not many comic-book writers have their work compared to the fiction of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, but then, not many comic-book writers turned out work like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor series. From his perch at a file clerk’s desk at a Cleveland veterans’ hospital, Pekar kept up a running commentary on the frustrations, absurdities, and occasional epiphanies of what he called “the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about.” Or as the artist R. Crumb, his sometime collaborator, put it, Pekar’s material was “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.” Many critics credited Pekar with pushing the limits of his genre and bringing a deep if often melancholy humanity to an art form that traditionally focused more on the world of fantasy.  

Pekar started out as an underachiever, said the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Born in Cleveland to Jewish immigrants from Poland, he dropped out of Case Western Reserve University “when the pressure of required math classes proved too much to bear.” After a hitch in the Navy, he worked a series of menial jobs before landing his job at the veterans’ hospital, where he remained until his retirement, in 2001. There he began collecting the stories he would tell in American Splendor, which began to take shape when Pekar befriended Crumb, “the seminal underground comic-book artist,” while Crumb was working in Cleveland.

Pekar “forged a distinct authorial voice,” said the Los Angeles Times, fusing “caustic and frequently self-lacerating wit, Rust Belt stoicism, casual bohemianism, and shrewd observations about quotidian human existence.” Any experience was fair game, including his bout with lymphoma, chronicled in Our Cancer Year. His outlook, “shaped by the 1960s counterculture,” sometimes landed him in trouble. A regular in the 1980s on David Letterman’s late-night talk show, he was banned for a decade for criticizing General Electric, at the time the parent company of Letterman’s network. He was memorably portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the 2003 film about his life, named, appropriately enough, American Splendor.

Married three times, Pekar settled down for good when he married the writer Joyce Brabner, in 1983, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He documented their romance in an issue of American Splendor, subtitled: “Harvey’s Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage to a Sweetie From Delaware and How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship.”

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