Harvey Lawrence Pekar|
October 8, 1939
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
July 12, 2010 (age 70)
|Cause of death||Drug overdose|
|Occupation||Comic book writer, filing clerk, music and literary critic|
Our Cancer Year
(m. 1960; divorce 1972)
Helen Lark Hall
(m. 1977; divorce 1981)
(m. 1984; his death 2010)
|Children||(foster child) Danielle Batone|
Harvey Lawrence Pekar (//; October 8, 1939 – July 12, 2010) was an American underground comic book writer, music critic, and media personality, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor comic series. In 2003, the series inspired a well-received film adaptation of the same name.
Frequently described as the "poet laureate of Cleveland," Pekar "helped change the appreciation for, and perceptions of, the graphic novel, the drawn memoir, the autobiographical comic narrative." Pekar described his work as "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. Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe. And it's a losing battle. But I can't let go. I've tried, but I can't."
Harvey Pekar and his younger brother Allen were born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a Jewish family. Their parents were Saul and Dora Pekar, immigrants from Białystok, Poland. Saul Pekar was a Talmudic scholar who owned a grocery store on Kinsman Avenue, with the family living above the store. While Pekar said he wasn't close to his parents due to their dissimilar backgrounds and because they worked all the time, he still "marveled at how devoted they were to each other. They had so much love and admiration for one another."
Pekar said that he did not have friends for the first few years of his life. The neighborhood he lived in had once been all white but became mostly black by the 1940s. As one of the only white kids still living there Pekar was often beaten up. He later believed this instilled in him "a profound sense of inferiority." This experience, however, also taught him to eventually become a "respected street scrapper."
Harvey Pekar graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957, then attended Case Western Reserve University, where he dropped out after a year. He then served in the United States Navy, and after discharge returned to Cleveland where he worked odd jobs before being hired as file clerk at Cleveland's Veteran's Administration Hospital. He held this job even after becoming famous, refusing all promotions until he finally retired in 2001.
Pekar was married from 1960 to 1972 to his first wife, Karen Delaney. His second wife was Helen Lark Hall. Pekar's third wife was writer Joyce Brabner, with whom he collaborated on Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel autobiography of his harrowing yet successful treatment for lymphoma. He lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with Brabner and their foster daughter Danielle Batone.
Pekar's friendship with Robert Crumb eventually led to the creation of the self-published, autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. Crumb and Pekar became friends through their mutual love of jazz records when Crumb was living in Cleveland in the mid-1960s. Crumb's work in underground comics led Pekar to see the form's possibilities, saying, "Comics could do anything that film could do. And I wanted in on it." It took Pekar a decade to do so: "I theorized for maybe ten years about doing comics."
Around 1972, Pekar laid out some stories with crude stick figures and showed them to Crumb and another artist, Robert Armstrong. Impressed, they both offered to illustrate. Pekar & Crumb's one-pager "Crazy Ed" was published as the back cover of Crumb's The People's Comics (Golden Gate Publishing Company, 1972), becoming Pekar's first published work of comics. Including "Crazy Ed" and before the publication of American Splendor #1, Pekar wrote a number of other comic stories that were published in a variety of outlets:
The first issue of Pekar's self-published American Splendor series appeared in May 1976, with stories illustrated by the likes of Crumb, Dumm, Budgett, and Brian Bram. American Splendor documented Pekar's daily life in the aging neighborhoods of his native Cleveland. Pekar's best-known and longest-running collaborators include Crumb, Dumm, Budgett, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Frank Stack, Mark Zingarelli, and Joe Sacco. In the 2000s, he teamed regularly with artists Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. Other cartoonists who worked with him include Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Eddie Campbell, David Collier, Drew Friedman, Ho Che Anderson, Rick Geary, Ed Piskor, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, Brian Bram, and Alex Wald; as well as such non-traditional illustrators as Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, and comics writer Alan Moore.
Stories from the American Splendor comics have been collected in many books and anthologies.
A film adaptation of American Splendor was released in 2003, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. It featured Paul Giamatti as Pekar, as well as appearances by Pekar himself. Pekar wrote about the effects of the film in American Splendor: Our Movie Year.
In 2006, Pekar released a four-issue American Splendor miniseries through the DC Comics imprint Vertigo. This was collected in the American Splendor: Another Day paperback. In 2008 Vertigo released a second "season" of American Splendor that was collected in the American Splendor: Another Dollar paperback.
In addition to his autobiographical work on American Splendor, Pekar wrote a number of biographies. The first of these, American Splendor: Unsung Hero (2003), documented the Vietnam War experience of Robert McNeill, one of Pekar's African-American coworkers at Cleveland's VA hospital.
In January 2008 the biographical Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History was published by Hill & Wang.
In March 2009, he published The Beats, a history of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, illustrated by Ed Piskor. In May 2009 he published Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation.
In 2011, Abrams Comicarts published Yiddishkeit, co-ed by Pekar with Paul Buhle and Hershl Hartman. The book depicts aspects of Yiddish language and culture. Artists in this anthology include many of Pekar's previous collaborators.
Pekar's comic book success led to a guest appearance on Late Night with David Letterman on October 15, 1986. Pekar was invited back repeatedly and made five more appearances in quick succession. These appearances were notable for verbal altercations between Pekar and Letterman, particularly on the subject of General Electric's ownership of NBC. The most heated of these was in the August 31, 1988, episode of Late Night, in which Pekar accused Letterman of appearing to be a shill for General Electric and Letterman promised never to invite Pekar back on the show. However, Pekar did appear on Late Night again on April 20, 1993, and appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman in 1994.
Pekar was a prolific record collector as well as a freelance book and jazz critic, focusing on significant figures from jazz's golden age but also championing out-of-mainstream artists such as Birth, Scott Fields, Fred Frith and Joe Maneri. He reviewed literary fiction in the early 1990s in such periodicals as the Los Angeles Reader, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Woodward Review. Pekar won awards for his essays broadcast on public radio. He appeared in Alan Zweig's 2000 documentary film about record collecting, Vinyl. In August 2007, Pekar was featured on the Cleveland episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations with host Anthony Bourdain.
While American Splendor theater adaptations had previously occurred, in 2009, Pekar made his theatrical debut with Leave Me Alone!, a jazz opera for which Pekar wrote the libretto. Leave Me Alone! featured music by Dan Plonsey and was co-produced by Real Time Opera and Oberlin College, premiering at Finney Chapel on January 31, 2009.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on July 12, 2010, Pekar's wife found Pekar dead in their Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. No immediate cause was determined, but in October the Cuyahoga County coroner's office ruled it was an accidental overdose of antidepressants fluoxetine and bupropion. Pekar had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time and was about to undergo treatment. His headstone features one of his quotations as an epitaph: "Life is about women, gigs, an' bein' creative."
Some Pekar works were to be released posthumously, including two collaborations with Joyce Brabner, The Big Book Of Marriage and Harvey and Joyce Plumb the Depths of Depression, as well as a collection of the webcomics that ran as a part of The Pekar Project. Working with illustrator Summer McClinton, Pekar also finished a book on American Marxist Louis Proyect, tentatively called The Unrepentant Marxist, after Proyect's blog. In the works since 2008, the book was to be published by Random House. After a conflict between Proyect and Joyce Brabner, Brabner announced that she would hold the book back indefinitely. As of April 2014, those four titles have not been released.
In December 2010, the last story Pekar wrote — "Harvey Pekar Meets the Thing", in which Pekar has a conversation with Ben Grimm — was published in the Marvel Comics anthology Strange Tales II; the story was illustrated by Ty Templeton.
"I think probably the most important thing about American Splendor, in all its incarnations, is that there were very few people in the earlier days of comics prepared to put their work where their mouth was. Harvey believed there was no limit to how good comics could be. To chronicle his life from these tiny wonderful moments of magic and of heartbreak — and the most important thing was that he did it."
Frequently described as the "poet laureate of Cleveland," Pekar "helped change the appreciation for, and perceptions of, the graphic novel, the drawn memoir, the autobiographical comic narrative."
His American Splendor "remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics." In addition, Pekar was the first author to publicly distribute "memoir comic books." While it is common today for people to publicly write about their lives on blogs, social media platforms, and in graphic novels, "In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized."
He was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, and also suffered high blood pressure, asthma and clinical depression, which fueled his art but often made his life painful.
A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County coroner’s office said that no cause of death had yet been determined. Capt. Michael Cannon of the Cleveland Heights Police Department, which was summoned to Mr. Pekar's home by his wife, Joyce Brabner, told The Associated Press that Mr. Pekar had suffered from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression.