The notion that a comic book could revolve around a short-tempered, obsessive-compulsive file clerk from Cleveland may sound strange at first, but that is the basis of the autobiographical American Splendor graphic novel series by Harvey Pekar (who passed away last night at age 70).
Born Harvey Lawrence Pekar on October 8, 1939 in Cleveland, Ohio, Pekar was of Jewish-Polish descent and was (by his own admittance) an angry, hot-headed teen that often butted heads with his parents.
He eventually wrote about this early period of his life in the 2005 graphic novel The Quitter, the title of which references his decision to drop out of college; his failed stint with the Navy; and the numerous, minimum-wage jobs that Pekar worked prior to his job as a file clerk at a Cleveland Veteran’s Hospital in 1966 – a job he kept until his retirement in 2001.
A connoisseur of Jazz Music and an avid record collector, Pekar began his professional writing career as a music critic just a few years after he settled comfortably into his career as a file clerk. Inspired by the early work of his new acquaintance – the then unknown, avant-garde illustrator Robert Crumb – Pekar began writing his American Splendor comic book series in 1972.
Pekar began publishing his autobiographical series – which literally detailed the every-day experiences of his ordinary life – annually in 1976. Despite receiving immense critical praise and numerous accolades ( which included the American Book Award and the Peabody Award), Pekar was the sole financier of his American Splendor series and spent several years unable to profit from his writing.
He spent most of the ’90s attempting to sell the rights to a movie adaptation of the series. Those efforts eventually paid off and resulted in the 2003 Sudance Festival Award-winning American Splendor film (see below), which starred Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar and Hope Davis as his third wife, Joyce Brabner.
Pekar was the sort of painfully honest, self-deprecatory personality that even your average stand-up comedian would blush at. Through his American Splendor books, Pekar addressed pretty much every aspect of his life – his generally grumpy, slovenly nature; his occasionally sexist attitudes towards women; mostly, his struggles to cope with every-day life. In 1994, he and Joyce Brabner even collaborated on the graphic novel Our Cancer Year, which chronicled the graphic details of Pekar’s bout of lympathic cancer during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Several years and numerous cancer relapses later, Pekar finally passed away in the early hours of July 12, 2010. He was an immensely influential writer, whose work in the comic books medium has been cited as an inspiration by the likes of Alan Moore – among numerous other, professional writers. I’ve always felt a strong connection to Pekar’s work on a personal level as well, and am but one of many who is surely mourning the loss of one of the comic book medium’s true innovators and most brilliant contributors.
R.I.P. Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)