The first story of the first collection of the comic book “American Splendor” is four pages long and consists of 48 nearly identical panels drawn by artist R. Crumb. Each panel features a man in a gray suit with combed-over hair standing against a white background directly addressing the reader about the peculiarities of his name. His name is the same as the author’s: Harvey Pekar.
The story, entitled “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” is about the fact that while the name “Harvey Pekar” might sound unusual, it isn’t, at least according to the Cleveland phone book. First, it had two Harvey Pekars, then a third. Later, one Harvey Pekar died. He was survived by his son: Harvey Pekar.
Then, that Harvey Pekar died too. The piece ends with three panels: In the first, Harvey speculates “What kind of people are these? Where do they come from, what do they do? What’s in a name?” In the second, he asks, “Who is Harvey Pekar?” In the third, he stares silently at the reader, an inscrutable expression on his face.
By the time that Harvey Pekar died last week at the age of 70, readers of his comics had a pretty good idea he was. For more than 30 years, Pekar invited the readers of “American Splendor” into his life to share in his triumphs and failures, to revel in his small successes and to bemoan his (as he saw them) enormous failures.
In turning his decidedly unheroic life into the subject of a comic book, Pekar became a true innovator not only in the world of comics but in a certain discipline of obsessive autobiography that transcended any single medium. Today, we could very accurately describe “American Splendor” as the original comic book blog.
When word of Pekar’s death spread online, social network sites lit up with remembrances of the author. Most were positive, but there was one exception that wound up getting passed around. “A poet dies, no one cares,” this person wrote. “Some asshole comic book guy dies and the world pauses to reflect.”
What this person, who had surely never read Pekar’s work, didn’t grasp, was that Pekar was a poet, one of the comics’ first. His ability to speak eloquently, honestly, and with a total lack of sentimentality about the world around him would have made his voice worth listening to however he chose to express himself. In comics, it made him not only a talent but a pioneer.
Around the time that first “American Splendor” collection appeared, Pekar began appearing as a frequent guest on “Late Night With David Letterman.” In his first interview, Letterman asked why he chose to write about the world around him in comic books, instead of in a series of essays or some other form. “It’s a wonderful medium,” Pekar told Letterman, “as good as an artistic medium as any other…it’s considered a chump medium because it’s always been aimed at a lowest common denominator audience. But the potential of it hasn’t been explored to any extent.”
Pekar explored that potential, and pushed comics into places no one before had. His Cleveland, a land of bureaucratic Veterans’ Hospitals filled with eccentric co-workers and grocery stores populated by cranky old Jewish ladies, was about as far from Superman’s Metropolis as you could get. And stories — and Pekar doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his gifts as a storyteller — didn’t just break with the conventions of subject but form as well. A single panel repeated over and over for four pages with minimal changes and minimal movement? That broke every rule of comic book style in the book.
How Pekar became that rule breaker was well chronicled in the popular film adaptation of “American Splendor” from 2003. The son of Jewish Polish immigrants, Pekar was born, raised and lived his whole life in Cleveland, where, in 1962, he met a young cartoonist named Robert Crumb, a recent transplant to the area working for a greeting card company.
Both men loved comics and were avid collectors of jazz records. In the “American Splendor” movie, Pekar compared his love of collecting to a prospector’s hunt for elusive gold in films like “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” sifting through hundreds of pounds of junk to find that diamond in the rough.
Pekar’s fans could relate. He was inspired by Crumb’s early underground comics to try and make his own; since his artwork was little more than crude stick figures with word balloons, he enlisted Crumb and roster of other artists to illustrate his stories.
The comics became an underground success and earned Pekar a slew of national accolades, but he still worked his “dead-end” job as a file clerk in a Cleveland Veterans’ Hospital until he retired — right around the time filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman shot their version of “American Splendor.” (They were even onhand to shoot Pekar’s retirement party.)
The film was a critical and commercial success in 2003 — it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and made over $6 million at the American box office — but Pekar’s death now makes the film even more resonant. The film remains a dry and funny comedy, but everything about it now seems more bittersweet. Given Pekar’s work, that feels appropriate.
Mortality hangs over everything the cinematic Pekar’s does — in early scenes, we watch him fretting over his spastic vocal chords and grimly viewing a chart at the hospital with the word “DECEASED” stamped in big red letters across it. Studying Crumb’s first batch of comics, he enviously tells the artist, “When you croak, you’re gonna leave something behind.”
Some of Pekar’s already profound observations in the film — read by the real Harvey, who narrates scenes in which he’s portrayed by Paul Giamatti — are now rendered heartbreakingly moving. I was particularly affected by this passage: “Life seems so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of in the end. But hey man, every day’s a brand new deal, right? Just keep on working and something’s bound to turn up.”
Toward the end of the “American Splendor” film, Pekar faces yet another reminder of his mortality: a fierce battle with cancer. One night, his loyal wife Joyce (Hope Davis) wakes to find him frantic with anxiety. He asks her, “Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will the character keep going, or will he just fade away?” With Pekar gone, the character can’t keep going. But he’ll never fade away. Even if there is one less Harvey Pekar in the phone book.