PEKAR, HARVEY LAWRENCE (8 October 1939-12 July 2010) was a comic book writer and critic. Born in Cleveland to Saul and Dora Pekar, Jewish immigrants from Poland, he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957. After briefly attending WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY he eventually found steady work as a file clerk at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Cleveland from 1965 until his retirement in 2001. Influenced by the Beats, he began his writing career as a critic of jazz records for Downbeat and Jazz Review in the late 1950s. Although he never went back to college, educating himself remained a priority describing himself as a “working-class intellectual” (New York Times 11 May 1986).

Pekar first conceived of writing his own comic book after seeing work done by Robert Crumb, his friend and an influential underground “comix” cartoonist, later stating “It dawned on me that comics were not an intrinsically limited medium” (New York Times 12 July 2010). When Pekar began “in the 1970s, mainstream comics were infantile and conformist, while underground "comix" were tethered to the counterculture” (Guardian 18 July 2010). Pekar felt he could push the limits of the medium proclaiming “comics are words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures” (Comics Reporter 13 July 2010). Crumb was so impressed by comic strips Pekar created about his daily life that he encouraged him to publish and offered to illustrate. Crumb was joined by other illustrators, Gary Dumm and Greg Budgett, and Pekar began self-publishing the influential American Splendor: From Off the Streets of Cleveland in 1976. His aim was “to write literature that pushes people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them” (Comics Journal 14 July 2010). He described American Splendor as an “autobiography written as it's happening. The theme is about staying alive. Getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet” (Telegraph 13 July 2010). Pekar met his third wife Joyce Brabner in 1983, with whom he later adopted a daughter Danielle. His stories about the mundane, sometimes sublime, reality of his everyday life resonated with readers becoming an underground cult hit.

The first anthology of American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar was published in 1986 and brought Pekar's work to a wider audience, winning the American Book Award in 1987. The New York Times reviewed the anthology asserting that his stories about “the cosmic and the ordinary…are hilarious in their surrealism” and display “a desire to make comics as esthetically rigorous and rich in thought and feeling as the best literature” (New York Times 11 May 1986). The review declared “it is easy to see why” his work “has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s” (New York Times 11 May 1986). Acclaim would only grow over the years with comic book critic Robert Boyd stating Pekar’s work resonated with a “keen sense of being working class” and his “concept of doing realistic short stories and vignettes was a radical move. Basing them on episodes from his own life was unheard of” (Comics Reporter 13 July 2010). The Comics Journal editor Tim Hodler alleged that Pekar’s “comics are works of criticism, disguised as stories” and credited Pekar with capturing “the voices--in expertly rendered, Twain-esque dialect -- of people too often overlooked by artists” (Comics Reporter 13 July 2010). Pekar always “expressed a deep skepticism toward power, privilege and intellectual conformity” and nowhere was that clearer than his appearances on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman (Los Angeles Times 13 July 2010).

After several guest appearances in the late 1980s, Pekar tired of getting the ironic Letterman his laughs. He decided to get serious criticizing NBC’s parent company General Electric, an arms manufacturer, for owning a broadcasting company and accused Letterman of looking “like a shill for GE” (Plain Dealer 15 May 2015). It was Pekar’s “honesty and ability to see through the facile pretense of mainstream America represented by the likes of Letterman that endeared him to so many” (Guardian 15 July 2010). Despite rumors that he was banned from the show Pekar was invited back but was unable to appear once due to having to cover a coworker’s shift and later because of health problems.

Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1990 and he along with Brabner chronicled their experience successfully treating the disease in Our Cancer Year (1994). A film adaptation of American Splendor was released in 2003 starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner; both Pekar and Brabner appeared as themselves in the film. It was filmed on location in Cleveland and LAKEWOOD and won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize. Pekar would later write about his youth in the graphic novel The Quitter (2005) before focusing on social history: Students for a Democratic Society (2008), Studs Terkel’s Working (2009), The Beats (2009), and the posthumously released Harvey Pekar's Cleveland (2012). Pekar died in his CLEVELAND HEIGHTS home at the age of 70 “of an accidental overdose of two anti-depressant medicines” (Plain Dealer 19 October 2010). Pekar’s memory is kept alive around Cleveland; he had his statue unveiled at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public library in 2012, the local park where he used to write in COVENTRY VILLAGE was renamed after him and fans leave pens at his grave site in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY in honor of the late writer.

Kevin Pope

Joanna Connors, The Plain Dealer. 2010. Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book legend, dies at age 70. July 12.

William Grimes, The New York Times. 2010. Harvey Pekar, ‘American Splendor’ Creator, Dies at 70. July 12. Accessed October 28, 2018.

Pekar, Harvey. 2005. The Quitter. New York: DC Comics.


Article Categories