Harvey was more than occasional collaborator, he was a genuine hero of mine, and I am royally pissed with the rules of the Universe, wherein he gets sick and dies. So in between my regular duties this week (finishing a Simpsons script, editing two new indie projects and teaching at my school), I’m spending two posts going on about late great Harvey Pekar. Today is part one:
I first came across him as a teenager with issue #5 of his American Splendor (seen above) from 1980. That’s a scan of my copy, complete with Scotch tape over the place where I tore it some years ago.
Torn comics are loved comics.
I bought it because of my then-current drug of choice, Robert Crumb, with a cover and fifteen more pages inside by the underground master. With Mr. Fritz the Cat on board, how could whatever this was, not be worth it?
And it was, from the moment I picked it up.
It starts by dryly advertising sickness, old age, unfunny jokes, and a decrepit Jewish guy under a banner promising the splendor of Cleveland. That’s crack-flavored Kool-Aid to my sense of humor.
But check out this bitchin’ back cover.
That’s the first Harvey Pekar story I ever read: Advice on how to avoid the sniffles while riding in an elevator – with a ending that strongly hints it WILL be continued next issue. At this point I’m berserk with joy, because I’m rocking a belief that this whole magazine is going to be some sort of wry put-on about boy’s own adventure stories…giving us “TALES OF THE STUNNINGLY MUNDANE”.
But it wasn’t quite that, even if it seemed to many that it was. There was far more tickingin the brain of Pekar than that one-off joke. Inside were comics on the history of Cleveland neighborhoods, memories of a holocaust survivor, tales of manners and lending money, and the existential terror of hypochondria, all sprinkled together with these tiny comic snapshots that stick to one’s memory as the days trip by.
The art by Crumb was all you could ask for, and the other two thirds of the book had it’s own treasures…from the slick, photo referenced (but baroque) Gerry Shamray:
This stuff was like nothing I had every read in a comic book, or seen as entertainment anywhere, and I was junkie-hooked for life.
I mean, we did have “realism” in the comics at the time….
Not just with superheroes, but also with the gritty, true-life “undergrounds”.
Nothing existed like American Splendor. It was part comedy, part Haiku, part journalism, and part self loathing confessional, all from the unlikely point of view of a V.A. Hospital file clerk in Ohio.
And over the years, we got Harvey’s view on the history of Jazz, obsessive compulsive disorder, race relations, more existentialist fear, cancer survival, marriage and parenthood, growing fame and fortune, brutal honesty, and the occasional knee slapping joke.
Harvey was a greater influence on my work that most people would guess, and if you read this webcomic (from just a few weeks ago), you’ll see what I’m talking about.
That particular webcomic got a very positive response, and I kept telling folks I hadn’t done much to deserve their praise…I simply transcribed a true story as honestly and as straightforwardly as possible, hoping to tug at your basic humanity a little.
In other words, I just stole Harvey’s act.
COMING UP IN PART TWO:
As I was writing this column, it occurred to me that the truly best way to tell the story of meeting and eventually working with Harvey Pekar, is in comic form… So I’m drawing it as we speak, and it will be ready for Saturday Morning with Bun Toons. Hope to see you there.
In the meantime, here’s some pages from a couple of the stories we did together for the last run of American Splendor at Vertigo. There was vague talk of doing a graphic novel together recently, or maybe something else, but it never got worked out, I figured I’d have time when my schedule cleared up, and I’d talk to Harvey about it in another month or so…
I should not have waited to call him back.
Words cannot describe the fun it is to get to work with one of your lifelong heroes. Literally a dream come true.
HARVEY PEKAR FUN EXTRAS:
Back in the 80s, Harvey had a fan on the Letterman staff who booked our hero to appear a dozen times or so on Dave’s old NBC show. Harvey generally behaved in a very entertaining manner for a while, but as the bookings continued, he started to become quixotically obsessive about “outing” NBC as a front for the Pentagon war machine. Promise me you’ll head over to youtube, and watch this delightful battle of egos from the early days of colour TV and sound transmission. It’s a big part of why Harvey Pekar was the subject of a magnificent Hollywood movie about his life a half dozen years back. The Letterman appearances introduced him to a larger audience, and it made for phenomenally entertaining comics and TV.
See you Friday for a new and shocking HOVERBOY FRIDAY, and on Saturday for HARVEY PEKAR: CRABBY MAN-CHILD OF DESTINY! The Unauthorized Webcomic.