Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar, the creator of alternative comic book American Splendor, died a couple of weeks ago. As he described it:

I was sort of on a mission with American Splendor. I wanted to try to prove that comics could do things. I wanted to expand them beyond superheroes and talking animals. And I knew that was going to take a long time. But I just started writing an autobiography about my quotidian life. Because I think everybody's life is interesting, and I just kept on going at it.

I grew up with those superhero and talking animal comics (some of them excellent), and only discovered Pekar's work later. He did slice-of-life pieces, something like Anton Chekhov's serious stories and plays, or Eric Rohmer's films, or many a good documentary. (As I write this, 49 Up is playing on PBS, and it really captures the shape of a life.) But Pekar's work was more akin in tone to that of Woody Allen, Spalding Gray, or Larry David - neurotic, obsessive, philosophical, self-doubting, but also self-reflective and occasionally profound. Oh, and also infused with a wry, dark sense of humor.

Pekar also described American Splendor as:

...An autobiography written as it's happening. The theme is about staying alive. Getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe. And it's a losing battle. But I can't let go. I've tried, but I can't.

Cartoonist Seth explained Harvey's contribution this way:

The underground cartoonists were a generation — a group of artists who knocked down the walls between art and commerce, shattering the traditional shape and meaning of a comic book. Later, the 'alternative' cartoonists came along — or whatever you wish to call my generation of cartoonists — who wanted to produce comics as a legitimate art medium. But in-between these two generations there was Harvey. A generation of one. Probably the first person who wanted to use the comics medium seriously as a writer. Certainly the first person to toss every genre element out the window and try to capture something of the genuine experience of living: not just some technique of real life glossed onto a story — not satire, or sick humor or everyday melodrama — but the genuine desire to transmit from one person to another just what life feels like.

A friend of my dad's, when asked what she did for a living, would give her occupation, but said she always wanted to add (and sometimes did, almost in protest), "Oh, but there's so much more!" Her life outside of work was far more rich and interesting and reflective of who she was, and she didn't want to be defined by her day job. Harvey Pekar worked as a file clerk for the V.A., not a glamorous gig (although surely it did some good). And his work life did make it into his comics. But his life was so much more besides. There was his love of jazz, and his keen eye for everyday interactions, frustrations and triumphs. There were his experiences with his wife Joyce, and his struggles with cancer, all chronicled in his comics. Many of his pieces focus on just a single conversation, some exchange that Pekar thought was funny or telling.

There have been a number of good remembrances. Fresh Air re-ran parts of two Pekar interviews. He was also on The Treatment before the film American Splendor came out. (My local station KCRW did a cool Pekar special re-run, but won't post the audio online, unfortunately.)

"Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book legend, dies at age 70" from the Cleveland Plain Dealer features video of two of his Letterman appearances.

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast has nice piece on Pekar (and Steinbrenner). There's also:

Jeet Heer, National Post: "The legacy of the every-man’s hero"

Anthony Bordain: "The Original (Goodbye Splendor)"

Richard Greenwald, In These Times: "Losing Another Working-Class Hero: Graphic Novelist Harvey Pekar Dies at 70"

Lisa Hix, Collector's Weekly: "Harvey Pekar: The Splendor of an Ordinary Life"

T. Holder, Comics Comics: "Another Side of Splendor"

Leave Me Alone!, the Harvey Pekar opera.

(I'm sure there are many more good pieces I missed.)

Finally, Roy Edroso wrote a nice remembrance:

Crumb, who can be very astute about these things, said Pekar's work could be "so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic," which is only almost right, because the mundane is exotic, always, if you know how to look at it. Pekar knew.


libhom said...

It's weird finding out about Pekar after his death. I doubt Ghostworld or Fun Home would have happened without him.

Batocchio said...

I agree. At the very least, he made it much easier. He changed the boundaries of the medium.