One of my favourite, favourite comic writers died earlier today, Harvey Pekar, aged 70. I already blogged about Harvey and his career a couple of years back (here), so forgive me if some of this post ends up being a little similar.
Harvey was an acquired taste, and a grouchy one at that! you either loved his stuff or hated it, and I loved it! He started making comics after being introduced to local underground artist Robert Crumb in the 1960s. Harvey was intrigued with Crumb's comics, and he decided to try and create some of his own... only problem was, Harvey couldn't draw! He created his strips using stick figures, showed them to Crumb, who loved them and drew them for him. Harvey's very own comic American Splendor was born soon after, and over the years many more artists would provide the drawings for his strips. I loved the fact that for many years he was getting them all printed himself, stapling them together in his front room, and distributing them from home. I think I'd be right in saying that Harvey never really made any money out of comics for almost 20 years, and rarely re-couped the cost of each issue. But this is no way reflects on the quality of his work, it's intelligent and often profound stuff. It's just in the 70's and 80's in particular, there was simply no market for what Harvey did - real life comics for real life adults. He had pretty much invented the genre, and at that time, everyone assumed that comics were just 'superheros' and made for kids (which bar the odd exception was correct)
His strips were almost the equivalent of blogging in comic form, and in the 70s they would have been so completely different to what anyone else was doing. Harvey would simply log what was going on in his life, in his hometown of Cleveland, every day stuff, it all meant so much to Harvey. Sometimes these stories would whip over your head leaving you cold, but other times they would smash into your heart like a sledgehammer. Harvey was a real thinker, he'd sit and analyse stuff, worry about things, and put it all down.
Harvey was a unique guy for a comic book writer, because pretty much up until the last few years of his life, he continued to have a proper day job (he was a File Clerk in a hospital for almost 40 years until he retired in the early 2000's). Indeed, it was the day job that gave him so much of his material, it was almost like you couldn't have one without the other, although his relative lack of success meant he was always reliant on the income from his job. He was the most 'down to earth' guy you could meet, and as such his comics really spoke to the man on the street, because Harvey was that guy too. Even the 'tag-line' of American Splendor was "ordinary life is pretty complex stuff" (and as I confessed in my original post on Harvey, I may well have been somewhat inspired by this when I came up with the tag-line for this blog!)
In the 80s he became a rather unlikely star of the David Letterman show. Harvey had gone on as a guest in 1986, but his no nonsense chat went down a storm with the viewers, and he was invited back another 5 times in the next year or so. He became the resident grouch of the show, and would come on and moan about topical stories... but that was until he moaned about the wrong thing! In his last appearance he ranted live on air about General Electric, who he had a beef with at the time due to the money they were putting into manufacturing weapons. Trouble was General Electric were also the owners of NBC, who put out the Letterman show! It all got a bit heated and Harvey was banned for life! (although I think he did eventually go back once or twice a decade or two later).
In 1990 he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which he would eventually beat. His struggle with the disease became a powerful graphic novel 'Our Cancer Year' - a 'no-punches-pulled' depiction of the hell both he and his wife went through.
Just as Harvey was retiring, a film was made based on his many autobiographical comic strips. American Splendor the movie was a real joy, and Paul Giamatti captured our man perfectly. It's a really quirky film, and there are moments where the on-screen Harvey comes face to face with the real one!
Harvey had not released any comics lately, the last 4 issue 'mini-series' of American Splendor came out June - September 2008, but these were still as good as his early work. The guy just had a perfect eye for picking out human life. I wonder if Harvey continued working on any more strips after these comics? Perhaps he has left behind a series of unpublished 'stick figures', that may be brought to life as a final tribute?
At this moment it is unclear what Harvey died of today, although he was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Harvey may sadly be gone, but he leaves behind almost forty years of his life in comic strip form. I hope someone will now finally sort them out and do his work justice with a full chronological reprint of his work. He deserves to be kept on the shelf.
I'll be digging out a few of his books later tonight, and will have a good 'ol moan in honour of the man!
'that' appearance on David Letterman (it all gets going at around the 7 minute mark... is Harvey the most 'un-celeb' guest you've ever seen on a show like this??!):
Trailer for the wonderful American Splendor movie:
Trailer for the wonderful American Splendor movie: