Before an entire Seinfeld episode took place in a Chinese restaurant, before Larry David counted shrimp, Harvey Pekar stood in line at the supermarket behind old Jewish ladies and grumbled about how they drove him frickin’ nuts. (Before you brand him an anti-Semite, his own momma was an old Jewish lady.) He presented this irksome predicament, and countless others, in the form of self-published autobiographical “Underground” comics that refused to romanticize the human condition. Pekar told his stories straight up, shining the light of truth on both himself and his subjects. But his tales transcended realism. It was his eye, the moments he chose to relay, and his ear, the curmudgeonly-yet-poetic funny-smart way he relayed them. Pekar and the artists who drew his scripts, mined mundanity for magic under the American Splendor bannerfrom 1976 until his death in 2010 at the age of 70. Along the way, he produced a body of work that did as much as anything else to prove comics can be both art and literature. I was lucky enough to jam with Pekar throughout his last three years, as editor on the Pekar Project webcomics series and the upcoming graphic novel Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland.
Already a jazz critic, Pekar, a lifelong Clevelander, got the notion to write comics in 1962 when he met Robert Crumb, in town doing art for American Greetings. They were both obsessive record collectors, and during a trading session, Crumb whipped out The Big Yum Yum Book, a comic he’d written and drawn but not yet published. Pekar was dumfounded. The art was visionary and virtuoso, and the story smart and adult! With the transformative zetz of saying “Shazam!” for the first time, Pekar first uttered his classic mantra: “Man, you can do anything with words and pictures.” A few years later, Pekar ran into Crumb, and showed him some scripts he’d written, including the aforementioned supermarket scene. Crumb was so moved by the freshness and intelligence of Pekar’s approach, he asked to bring home the stories to draw. Thus began Pekar’s comics career.
Chances are you’ve heard of Pekar either from his notorious ’80s guest spots on Letterman where, to Dave’s dismay, our man wore an “On Strike Against NBC” T-shirt and railed against GE, the network’s parent company. Pekar was relentlessly righteous, a one-man proto-OWS.
Or, you first encountered him by way of the American Splendor film, now an indie classic, in which Paul Giamatti played Pekar and Pekar played himself. It was a unique biopic/documentary hybrid with a killer cast: Hope Davis as Pekar’s wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner, Judah Friedlander as the White Castle-lovin’ Toby “Genuine Nerd” Radloff, and James Urbaniak as Crumb.
You’d think either of those “big mainstream breaks” woulda made Pekar rich and famous, but no. Although his work was ever-appreciated and relatively in demand, he never made enough dough from comics (which became something of a recurring theme in his work) to leave his day gig as file clerk at a VA Hospital. Not only did he never lead a perk-filled Hollywood existence, but no one was more thankful for anything anyone gave him, ever. On a trip to Cleveland for his 70th birthday in 2009, the Pekar Project team went to dinner at Sokolowski’s, a Polish restaurant he took Anthony Bourdain to on the Travel Channel show No Reservations. Pekar couldn’t get over the fact that the restaurant wouldn’t let him pay. At 70, after the movie, awards, and Hall of Fame status, just being treated to a meal was mind-blowing to him. If he lived longer, I bet that dinner woulda wound up in a comic, though I’d have begged him, to no avail, to not include the “clams and chocolate cake” incident.
The biggest treat of working with Pekar was witnessing moments get morphed into comics. When we started the Pekar Project, two minutes into our first telephone brainstorm, Pekar blurted, “So what kinda Jew are you?”
“Uh, my last name is from Austria-Hungary. Vienna, I think....”
“‘Vienna!’” he literally shouted, “Man, saying you’re from Vienna is like saying you’re from Manhattan, but really you’re from from Yonkers. I bet you’re a Galitzianer.” He ripped into a lecture on Austro-Hungarian history and geography. The next day, he called, “I got a story for you. So, I’m talking to you...” Pekar proceeded to recite our banter from the day before. That conversation became a strip, called “Legendary Vienna” on the Pekar Project, illustrated by Joseph Remnant.
And it was Remnant that Pekar picked to draw perhaps his most definitive work, gathered here in Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. The script was done and 20 pages were drawn before Pekar died, so he got to see the book’s beginning and was thrilled with Remnant’s work. When he’d get pages in the mail, he’d go, “Man, Joseph’s somethin’!” Both a history of Cleveland and a portrait of Pekar, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a tribute to the ordinary greatness of both. Our Man, Pekar’s inimitable voice, relays key moments and characters from the city’s history, intertwined with Pekar’s own ups and downs.
My favorite parts in Cleveland are small ones, like him talking about his wife Joyce’s garden, that he had just started to appreciate: “Maybe next year there’ll be more vegetables—onions that I can put on cheese and tomato sandwiches, potatoes that I can fry.... Man, wouldn’t I love to bust off an ear of corn, go into the house, boil it, and sprinkle some salt and butter on it? That’d make me feel like Orville Redenbacher.”
I miss those “Pekar moments” that made you feel like yer in an American Splendor DVD extra. One day he called all worked up after getting art in the mail, “I dunno what the hell’s wrong with Rick Parker! He keeps drawing me in underwear. He’d better cut the crap and put some pants on me!” Hilarious and ironic, from the man lauded for letting it all hang out. I laughed so hard on the phone, loving how he could be so angry, yet still see the humor in any situation.
I last spoke with Pekar three days before he died. He was thrilled Roger Ebert, an early booster of American Splendor and a friend, “tweetered” about “Muncie, Indiana,” a Pekar Project story illustrated by Remnant. Yes, legendary Luddite Harvey Pekar knew what Twitter was, or “Tweeter” as he’d say, making me LOL. I actually got him to tweet. To be precise, we’d talk, and I’d go, “That’s a tweet!” (i.e. “You can try to teach me how to use the internet man, but I’m tellin ya, it ain’t gonna stick” #realpekartweets) “I just live my life, and I sort of walk into stories,” Pekar once said. I’m blessed to have walked into his.
One last story before I go: Pekar’s widow Joyce Brabner spearheaded a successful Kickstarter campaign to build a Harvey Pekar memorial statue in Cleveland. So that’s going to happen this year.