Writer Harvey Pekar was found dead this morning at his home in Cleveland. He immortalized that city in his work, which critics compared to that of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.

The cause of death is not yet known, but Pekar suffered from prostate cancer, among other ailments. He was 70 years old.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: He was a shlub, as ordinary as a pair of old twill pants - the sort of thing he usually wore. But Harvey Pekar translated his life into art: comic books, plays, an opera, even a movie.


M: (as Harvey) So it's a few months later, and I'm working my flunky file clerk gig at the VA hospital. My voice still ain't back yet.

ULABY: (as Nurse) Thank you, Harvey dear.

M: (as Harvey) Things seem like they can't get any worse.

ULABY: The 2003 film "American Splendor" adapted Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic series of the same name. It revealed a darkly prosaic life: yelling at old ladies in the supermarket, losing his keys, and feeling rejected and alone.


M: I don't mind it if I show myself being cheap or being, you know, unreasonable sometimes. At least I haven't killed anybody.

ULABY: Harvey Pekar, on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2005.

He started writing "American Splendor" in 1976 - convinced, he said, that every life holds interest, even one defined by chronic underemployment, grouchiness, collecting old records, and trading postcards with a tiny group of followers, lovers and haters.


M: People say, get a life. Well, I mean, that was part of my life. You know, it was a social connection. Other than that, I really didn't have too much. I would just get up and go to work, and come home.


M: (as Joyce Brabner) Dear Mr. Pekar...

ULABY: One of Harvey Pekar's correspondents was a woman - played by Hope Davis in the movie - who taught writing to prisoners.


M: (as Joyce Brabner) I try to help them build an interior life and make art out of their monotonous, suffocating routine.

ULABY: Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar got married on their third date. Their shared story became creative fodder - his struggle with cancer, her political activism - and it inspired a new generation of graphic novelists.

GLEN WELDON: He was huge.

ULABY: Glen Weldon writes on comic books for NPR's website, and he says Pekar never drew his own comics. Instead, the writer collaborated with artists, including the legendary underground figure R. Crumb.

WELDON: He's lumped in with Crumb all the time because Crumb was his, really, first illustrator, but he shares none of Crumb's love of excess or kinkiness. He's a very practical, prosaic guy who gets angry about everyday things. He gets angry about the way that workers are treated in Cleveland. He gets angry about local government.

ULABY: It was anger that got Harvey Pekar kicked off as a regular on "The Late Show with David Letterman." He yelled at the host about the corporate malfeasance of NBC's owner, General Electric.

Letterman retaliated on air.


M: So what?

M: You're not coming back.

M: Dave, I was a file clerk before I knew you.

M: You're a dork, Harvey. Relax.


ULABY: Pekar's refusal to compromise, his intractability meant he never got rich. His priorities were different.


M: I'm trying to get every man involved in art, into experimental music or painting or novel writing.

ULABY: Or graphic novel writing. What mattered most to Harvey Pekar was that people appreciate their own latent abilities, the power of the everyday. Ordinary life, he liked to say, is pretty complex stuff.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.



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