Thursday, July 15, 2010

Remembering Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar passed away on Monday. He was 70, suffering from prostate cancer, and reported to be in ill health. And yet he seemed as vibrant and subversive as ever when Gabriel and I saw him speak at UCLA a couple of months ago. He discussed his career as a writer and as a file clerk, his brief forays into fame which never seemed to quite stick, and his politics. Age had obviously not mellowed him one bit.

"Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures". I often think of this statement when I start a new project. I've never been able to find exactly where Harvey said it, but even if it's apocryphal I think it expresses a truism about comics and about the human condition. Humans are storytelling animals, visual animals; they crave both words and pictures. Comics, good comics, can create a special kind of magic when these come together. Harvey believed life to be chaotic, virtually unmanageable, but by telling his story in the decades-long run of  American Splendor he made it seem like something more. He made it seem funny, and tragic, and miraculous. He made you feel like a hero just for getting through the day. Robert Crumb once said that Harvey worked with material "so staggeringly mundane that it verges on the exotic". That's true, but it was something more than merely exotic. It made you feel something when you read it. Our Cancer Year, written with his wife Joyce Brabner, left me a sobbing wreck. Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, left me shaking my head in wonderment at the variety of human experience. These books accomplished the one thing that all good literature holds in common: they left me just a little bit different from what I was before I had read them.

I wish I had met Harvey. He taught me a lot about what it means to tell a story with both words and pictures, and about following your own artistic vision. He showed me how one person can be a blue collar drone, an iconoclastic writer, an accomplished jazz critic, and a family man.  In short, Harvey Pekar was a true American. And he will be missed.

Special thanks to Gabriel Hardman for the use of his sketch commemorating Harvey's controversial appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.


  1. A loving tribute, Corinna. I will ts a copy of it in Joyce's mailbox.

  2. I was so saddened by his death. "Cancer Year" was one of my fave comics.

  3. Thank you JaneandJohn!

    Sonia, me too. Harvey Pekar has been a huge influence on my work, but I could never match what he has achieved in books like that.

  4. Artists who make us aware of the art that is all around us all the time, like Harvey, contribute so much. His name and memory will probably fade relatively quickly, but his influence will never completely leave our culture, I don't think.

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