Harvey Pekar: An Appreciation

The pop culture world (and especially the world of comics) will be a little less angry today, as the indie community mourns the passing of Harvey Pekar, who died early this morning (July 12) at his home in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 70. Pekar was best known as the creator of “American Splendor,” an autobiographical graphic novel that jump-started the wave of writers using the forum of comics as a place for confessions and memoirs. If you’ve never read “American Splendor” (or seen the excellent film adaptation), it’s an unblinking look at Pekar’s life as a file clerk and his general exhaustion with the universe. It is simultaneously hyper-real and absurd, sweet and jagged, depressing and inspiring — all of which described Pekar pretty well.

Many people would consider Pekar a misanthrope, but somebody who truly hated humanity would not have so much love and appreciation in his heart for so many things. For one thing, he had a great deal of enthusiasm for his home city of Cleveland (take note, LeBron) and was dismayed and saddened by it’s continuous downward spiral. But his adoration for the city came through, especially on a 2007 episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” during which Pekar spoke lovingly of his favorite library and the signature foods of Cleveland.

I had the opportunity to interview Pekar very briefly back in 2005. I was working at Spin magazine as an editorial assistant, and it was up to me to put together the monthly “Contributors” page (which highlighted the writers and photographers who had done work for that particular issue). Pekar had written a comic strip called “Rock, Roll ’n’ Randle,” an earnest little two-pager about the early days of rock and roll in Cleveland that paid tribute to local DJ Bill Randle (the pair later bonded over their shared love of jazz). It was a promotional thing for Pekar’s new graphic novel “The Quitter,” which is an excellent little slice of teenage angst that told the story of a young Pekar and his commitment to quitting things when they got hard. Interviews for this “Contributors” column tended to be sort of a pain in the ass, as the writers rarely had anything interesting to say and the photographers always begged off, citing time commitments (man, how I hated talking to photographers). Whenever we’d get a “celebrity” writer, it would be even worse. But Pekar didn’t come across as a guy who was put out by having to talk to some kid about the comic he wrote, but rather as a dude who was grateful for the opportunity. He was especially complimentary of collaborator Dean Haspiel, who drew “Rock, Roll ’n’ Randle” as well as “The Quitter” and “American Splendor.” He seemed genuinely flattered that a guy with Haspiel’s talent was willing to work with him.

Pekar got his start as a jazz critic (according to “Rock, Roll ’n’ Randle,” he began weighing in on music in 1959) and was always an enthusiast of the form. In his honor, check out Miles Davis’ “Fantasy,” a posthumously constructed tune care of producer Easy Mo Bee that spoke to Davis’ interest in hip-hop before his death in 1991. It should serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t take great artists for granted. You’ll be missed, Harvey.