Ordinary Life Was Hard Enough For Harvey Pekar

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Harvey Pekar died this week. He was a frequent guest on Weekend Edition over the years, and he was well-known to millions of fans through the comics and graphic novels he wrote.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Harvey Pekar died this week. He was a frequent guest on this program over the years, and was well known to millions of fans through the comics and graphic novels that he wrote. The best known was certainly "American Splendor," which was made into a movie.

Mr. Pekar died Monday at his home in Cleveland. He was 70 years old. His last appearance on our show was late last year in a report by Karen Schaefer. She has this remembrance.

KAREN SCHAEFER: Sitting in his cluttered Cleveland living room, surrounded by stacks of jazz records, Harvey Pekar remembered how he started writing, about his crummy job as a file clerk, his co-workers, and the people he met on the streets of Cleveland.

The medium he chose was comics, but he pretty much discounted the superhero approach as a kid.

HARVEY PEKAR: I'm just the opposite, using myself as the protagonist and trying to deal with problems that most people deal with in everyday life, like starting your car up on a cold winter day.

SCHAEFER: Or being diagnosed with cancer. Pekar co-wrote the graphic novel "Our Cancer Year," published in 1994, with his wife Joyce Brabner, who became his biggest booster.

JOYCE BRABNER: You know, one of my jobs is making Harvey famous - you know, publicizing, promoting him, making deals, finding people who want to make movies.

SCHAEFER: The 2003 movie "American Splendor" did make Harvey Pekar famous. The film portrays his relationship with Brabner, which was also a frequent subject in his writing. In person, they were almost as un-self-conscious as Pekar depicted them on the page. Ms. BRABNER: So Harvey, who's the powerful person in house?

PEKAR: You.

BRABNER: Why am I more powerful than you?

PEKAR: You won't quit insisting on what you want, and I don't have the stamina to keep refusing you or fighting you. I mean you just crush me to Earth.

BRABNER: How does it work to your advantage, Harv? You know, before you play the victim, how does it work to your advantage?

PEKAR: Well, you're competent in a whole lot of different areas, and I'm not.

SCHAEFER: One of Pekar's last projects was writing the libretto for an autobiographical jazz opera called "Leave Me Alone." Producer Paul Shick says while Pekar presented one face to the public - a nervous, dyspeptic stumbler - in private he was kind, gentle and funny.

PAUL SHICK, Host:

We were at a fundraiser and I introduced him to the hostess. And they were serving, you know, shrimp and fine cheese and everything. And he says: You got any Hostess cupcakes? To the hostess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHICK: So he didn't have a lot of respect for pretense.

SCHAEFER: Harvey Pekar said he knew how hard it is just to live ordinary life. He hoped his comics would give people a chance to step back and see their lives from the outside.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer.

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