Comics

Harvey Pekar Was A Person In Your Neighborhood

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported this morning that Harvey Pekar, file clerk, writer, Bard of Cleveland Heights, wildly incongruous biopic subject and comics’ most beloved schlub, has passed away at the age of 70.

American Splendor, the indie book Pekar wrote (and got some of the biggest names in comics to illustrate, over the years) was hugely influential.  But it was something else, too — something that few Big Important Things That Change History tend to be: It was, and remains, funny.

He reveled in the small, frustrating, prosaic details of life — of life in Cleveland, in particular — and set them down with blunt honesty. He was vocally, vigorously unpretentious. Fame disgusted him (his attitude toward the money it brought was more nuanced), but he knew talent when he saw it; his collaborators say the man they knew was kinder and more soft-spoken than the prickly, aggrieved persona that got him regular guest spots on Letterman in the '80s.

But man, those guest spots. Even the later, kind of uncomfortable ones are a frickin' hoot. They were how many of us of a certain age were first exposed to him, and they led us straight to his books, which were simply, unmistakably ... HIM.  More of that guy we’d seen goading a giggling Dave: darkly funny, deeply conflicted, politically pugnacious and, mostly, honest.

Comic version of Harvey Pekar

hide captionA portrait of the artist as an ordinary man.

Random House Publishing Group

But back to his work: He showed that comics could talk to their readers without shouting.  He showed a generation of writers that simply having access to the medium’s unlimited special effects budget didn’t mean they had to use it.  His comics were about people, not icons — people frustrated by their jobs, their spouses, their municipal government.

Speaking of: Cleveland’s own Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster created Superman, a character whose demigod status neatly encapsulated their desire to transcend their humble origins. Pekar, on the other hand, created a character — himself — who embraced Cleveland, even when he was railing against it.

To him, humble beginnings weren’t a something you transcend. They were the stuff you wrote about.

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