Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar: a great man is dead

"I’m saddened to learn of the death today of Harvey Pekar, age seventy, author for thirty-four years of the comic book American Splendor..."

So. "Here's our guy..." In the post title I have labeled him a "great man," a personal title as full of sad irony as the title of his long-running series. "Great" is an adjective I am hard pressed to use to seriously describe anyone, but I will always be ready to admit that there was something special about Harvey Pekar. He was a man inherently outside the mainstream: ugly, neurotic, anti-social, "curmudgeonly," and probably smelly too. (Don't believe that last: I never met him.) He was a guy many probably felt sorry for, and whom others laughed at, as with his infamous appearances on Letterman. I, for my part, felt there was no other route but kinship.

I never met him, as I said, yet I still feel like I know him -- a peculiar side effect of autobiography, especially the quotidian variety (Harvey, you taught me that word) Pekar's work typified. He was a man I wanted to meet. I was going to -- at some book-warming event, or a kind of gallery showing -- but plans fell through that night and I ended up reading one of his comics instead. Maybe it was for the best... we'll never know. As it is he will always occupy a tender, endearing place with me, alongside other grumpy, seemingly unapproachable people.

And he was unapproachable, at least in his stories, at least to some. Man... you think Pekar himself was ugly... his writing is what nice guys call "vigorous" or "full of 'local color'" or "true to life," while craftily avoiding words like "boring" and "stiff," never mind "finely-crafted" or, simply, "gorgeous." His writing style and his character are both hard to like, but certainly they are equally hard to hate -- probably because they are so true, so full of sincerity. There are no intentional lies between the pages of American Splendor -- just an ordinary guy attempting earnestly to tell it like it is.

About his real life -- the parts never put on paper -- I can say nothing absolutely. Working with him was probably not always easy: his unswerving attitude towards his stuff caused some head butting with his artist collaborators throughout his career. His tendency to leave his work uncut and unedited, for example, peeved both artist (Gary Dumm, one of Pekar's long-time collaborators once complained to us, "There's no room for the art!") and reader ("Hey, mac, you got anything shorter, maybe?"). But in the end, Dumm, the artist found him to be "without fail a generous and helpful friend to me..." And Abe, the reader, is in the midst of accounting for himself.

Don't believe the news anchors: "Cleveland is my hometown." Chicago was taken -- Miami, too. Pekar was -- is -- the real king of Cleveland. He deserves more recognition, from both the comparatively highbrow, and the people "from off the streets of Cleveland" -- as American Splendor was originally subtitled. As it is, we'll simply have to pretend that the Harvey Award is in honor of him as well as the late, great Harvey Kurtzman. And we'll have to hope that the four or five of his books in every local library will reach dolefully empty hands and will maybe spark a tinder in just the right imagination. And hopefully someone can be conjured up to say: "This is our guy! I'm immensely proud of him." Oh, hell -- it's already done.

May he rest in peace.

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