Monday, 12 July 2010

Harvey Pekar - RIP

Bloody hell... for the 3rd time in as many months I find myself typing a post with the words 'RIP' in the title, and this is the second comic related one.

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!

RIP Harvey.


'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:



Dan said...

I liked this post, Piley.

After our recent chats about comics, some of Harvey's work was going to be my next purchase. Indeed, this evening I watched the movie of American Splendor and am now even more enthused to read his stuff.

With regards to the Letterman stuff, I was reminded of the time Bill Hicks's entire set was cut from the show because some of the content was deemed too risky for the advertisers. Letterman made a full apology a few months back and invited Hicks's mother on to the show. Perhaps he'll do the same for Harvey?

A fascinatingly grumpy man - I look forward to discovering all of his work.

Heff said...

You may not believe this, but I actually saw the ORIGINAL AIRING of that David Letterman show !!

That brought back instant memories, because I thought Harley was WEIRD !

Heff said...

Uhh... "Harvey".

Sorry. I've eaten too much cheese popcorn, and can't type very well right now !

Piley said...

Nice one Dan, thanks. Good to hear you dug out the movie this evening as a tip of the hat to the man. It's a cracker isn't it? Right up there with Ghost World for me.

Be interesting to see what Letterman has to say about the passing of Harvey.

Hope you enjoy his work Dan, although I'd steer clear of the 'cancer' book at the start, it's heavy stuff, and not the ideal introduction to the man (essential reading later on though)

Hi Heff - I can just imagine how that show must have looked all those years ago - he was certainly always himself! Gave Letterman a good run for his money there too!


Mondo said...

Criminally I've never heard of him but will correct that - where would you recommend starting?

Piley said...

Mondo it's a bit of a Marmite thing, you'll either love it or hate it, however the collection they put out to go with the release of the film (the cover is the film poster) contains some of his very best work, I was reading it again last night and a some of the strips are so thought provoking, and the honesty in them is impressive. There is always plenty of Pekar downstairs at Gosh, maybe have a crafty flick?


Anonymous said...

A great tribute P. You of course introduced me to Harvey's work with that stack of photo copied comic strips you gave me. I really enjoyed them,, i'm re reading them at present, i could relate to them , they were about life. Not the "nice lovely" life that some seem to live but real life. Downs and moans and plain common sense at times. I enjoyed the movie too and i would really like to get his collected works , some one really should put that out all in one bundle. I'm often accused of being grouchy and over thinking life (hello dear lol)and i could relate to where Harvey was coming from.I felt he and Crumb made a particularly good pair. Good stuff P and thank you for introducing us.


Artog said...

Like Wilson I was vaguely aware of American Splendour but obviously now I'm going to have to check it out. And that's a great clip, I can't think of a popular show on British telly where that kind of thing might happen. We're so lame.

Piley said...

Thanks Carl. Funny enough, whenever Harvey's comics got stick it was because they were deemed "too mundane" "too depressing" etc etc. Yet that’s what I liked about his stuff. It was real life, real life is sometimes mundane and depressing too, I could relate to much of his stuff... his worries, his fears. I loved the fact that he opened up to the reader, and shared what he was thinking. These thoughts didn't always put Harvey in a particularly good light, but he never tried to pretend he was anything other than himself - warts n all. He was certainly a clever and intelligent man, and a deep thinker. I'm sad that there will never be any more new comics from him. They were always irregular, but it was always a treat when I found a new one put aside for me in the comic shop.


Piley said...

Hi Artog, sorry, your comment must have popped in whilst I was replying to Carl!

Well worth trying out, and the collection printed to acompany the film is certainly a great one to try. A lot of his best stuff is collected into that volume.

Be interested in what you think of it, if you give it a go.


Cocktails said...

Oh, dammit another writer to look out for!

I've seen the movie about and thought it looked interesting, so I'll definitely add the film to the list now too.

Did you think that Ghostworld was that great? I enjoyed it (and you could tell that it was grounded very much in the book), but I think that the comic just had the edge over it now I've re-watched it. I think some things just resonate more for me in paper form.

Piley said...

hi cocktails.. Give the film a peep first, it's really quirky.

Ghostworld - I think I was just SO relieved that they didn't completely screw it up! They kept the intelligence of the book, which I was most pleased with. I was worried they might just shoehorn it into some shite 'teen flick' but they really stuck to the indie feel. I also loved the extensions to the book, particularly the fleshing out of the Seymour character. But Clowes was on set making sure it all kept to his thinking, which must of helped too. It's a film I can keep digging out and always enjoy, and that is very rare for a comic adaptation!

Have you tried David Boring? Another storming Clowes epic!


Cocktails said...

No, I haven't read David Boring yet - but I certainly will!

And while we're on the subject of comics and films I've also added Crumb to my lovefilm list. I haven't seen it since it came out and well, I just have to share his brothers 'novel' way of cleansing the body with Mr C...

Piley said...

would you believe I lent my copy of Crumb the Movie to our Dan only today?!! It's still one of the most disturbing (yet also funny) docs I've seen. Yes indeed, I won't spoilt it for Dan just in case he hasn't watched it yet!

The weird thing is Robert was always just inches away from his brothers... he just somehow managed to keep it together. Great film, and ever since I lent it out I'm buzzing to watch it again!

Martin said...

Bizarrely I was reading about Harvey's death on the internet somewhere and i thought to myself, this sounds like the type of thing ol' Piley would be into. Lo and behold 5 minutes later I have a look at your blog and you've done this bit (yes I know it took me a long while to leave a comment). Like Mondo I have to say that I've never heard of him but if past experience of your blog is anything to go by I'm sure curiosity will get the better of me sooner or later and I shall feel compelled to investigate something. After your Daniel Clowes bit I ended up ordering 'Like a velvet glove cast in iron' off Amazon (based mainly on the Amazon reviews). Haven't had time to read it yet as I'm still reading 'The Watchmen'. Are you on commission for all this stuff you recommend, cos if you're not, then you should be.

Piley said...

I'm sure you'd get some pleasure (if that's the right word!) out of Harvey's look at life, although he was very much a 'glass half empty' kinda guy! Bless him.

Wow 'Velvet Glove' is going in at the deep end!! I really love it, but it's maybe harder work than Wilson, Ghost World or David Boring. If you are ever feeling flush, maybe read one of these beforehand, to ease yourself in! (don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's rubbish! far from it!).