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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

I'm slowly trying to get back into the blogging swing of things, and while about a month has passed since Harvey Pekar died, I didn't want to just let that go by unremarked here. My interest in comics came about partly because I started to forge my cultural identity in the 80s -- which seemed, to my teenaged jaded eyes, like a cultural wasteland. Movies and TV were generally abysmally stupid, the music that got played on the radio was usually godawful, the contemporary novel seemed to be in the doldrums, and the fine art world wasn't a huge part of my consciousness, outside of the NEA performance art kerfuffles. The place where interesting things seemed to be happening was comics. For a variety of reasons, in the 80s comics were detaching themselves from the juvenile subject matter that had long defined them in the U.S. -- a whole crowd of cartoonists were creating work outside of the superhero genre, and sometimes outside of anything that could comfortably be typified as a "genre" at all.

Pekar, whose work I discovered in the 80s, probably took comics further than anyone else beyond the zone of fantasy and escapism. His great subject was everyday life -- not romanticized or blown up to heroic proportions, but presented warts and all. You could say his work had an ethical relation to the warts. Neurosis, boredom, impotence -- it was all perfectly acceptable subject matter, and in fact it demanded to be subject matter, since so much art just sweeps that stuff under the rug. Pekar really opened my eyes to what comics were capable of, and for that I owe a debt of gratitude.

There have been several good obits posted on Pekar -- for some shorter appreciations, you could read Phil Nugent:

I remember reading an article about Pekar in 1983--in The Village Voice, as it happens--and sending away for copies of all the issues of American Splendor that were still available. They came a few weeks later and I read them all in one gulp, but I know that the "story" that made the biggest impact on me was the one that began with Harvey waking up on a cold morning, alone in bed between marriages, thinking about how much his life sucked, consoling himself a little by masturbating, picking out which of his worn-out, sorry-looking duds he was going to wear, getting dressed, and going to work, his actions accompanied by one pissed-off thought balloon after another. That was Pekar making, as bluntly as possible, the point that he was put on earth to make, the same point that Arthur Miller once managed to inflate to cosmic proportions by reducing it to four simple words: attention must be paid.

Or Jeet Heer:

Harvey was stubborn and willful, hard qualities to live with as at least two of his three wives would attest. Yet it was his very prickliness which made him a successful cultural revolutionary, a man who through sheer force of will helped transform a children’s medium, the comic book, and turn it into the graphic novel, a venue for literate, adult storytelling. As Harvey often noted, he was born in Cleveland in 1939, just a year after two other Cleveland Jewish boys launched Superman upon the world. Harvey saw his own intensely realistic stories as a response to the type of fantasies found in superhero comics: He liked to call himself Schlepperman, an ordinary Joe who struggled not to save the world but to get through the working day.

The most definitive obit I've read was by Tom Spurgeon, at the Comics Reporter.

And there's a nice selection of panels at John Glenn Taylor's blog.

Pekar had some minor celebrity as an oddball guest on David Letterman's show. He got himself booted from the guest list by refusing to be a performing monkey -- or at least by committing the cardinal sin of being a monkey with a political opinion. I don't think Letterman has ever looked like more of a shmuck; for my money, Pekar provided some of the most memorable moments of live television I've ever seen.

His work was also adapted into a film, "American Splendor," that to my mind lost a bit of the meandering, quotidian fundamentals of Pekar's comics -- though it featured a very good performance from Paul Giamatti, as Pekar. Here's a clip:

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