Farewell to HARVEY PEKAR
Back in the early 1980s, comic book writer Harvey Pekar started making regular appearances on Late Night on David Letterman (this is when Dave was on NBC after Johnny Carson). Right off the bat, Pekar was a real character. With his sandpaper voice, grouchy demeanor and seemingly limitless anger, Pekar played up his shot at minor celebrity status, and became a Letterman favorite. Unfortunately, he didn’t appear as often on Dave’s show when he went to CBS.
It turns out, Pekar had captured enough people’s imaginations in the 80s to build an audience, even if it was a cult audience. This all revolved around a comic book, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, which Pekar had been self-publishing every year since 1976. Magazine-sized, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was something unusual in the comics of the time. It wasn’t about superheroes, and it wasn’t as off the wall as the underground comics that had come into vogue in the 1960s and 70s. However, there was a connection to those old days. Pekar was a friend of underground icon R. Crumb, who illustrated a lot of those early AMERICAN SPLENDOR strips.
What AMERICAN SPLENDOR was about, was Pekar’s life. The everyday, hum-drum, steady momentum of one man’s existence. From silly one-page strips, to observations of his job a file clerk at a veteran’s hospital and his marriage, and various odd people he met along the way, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was a fascinating, often very funny, peephole into Pekar’s life. No costumes, no super powers, and yet it was riveting just the same.
The Letterman appearances increased the profile of the comic, and Ballantine Books put out some collections of the “Best Of” strips. Along the way, Pekar became a respected member of the comics community, and an equally respected jazz scholar. He adopted a daughter, struggled with bouts of cancer, and for awhile there AMERICAN SPLENDOR was bought by DC Comics and put out in regular comic book format (and more than once a year).
There was a AMERICAN SPLENDOR stage play at one point, and in 2003, Paul Giamatti starred in a movie version of AMERICAN SPLENDOR, which got a lot of critical praise and featured not only Giamatti played Pekar, but scenes of Pekar himself,. The movie was as unusual as its comic book source, and was a festival favorite.
Pekar died today at age 70. There are no details yet of his cause of death, but he had been “suffering from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression.”
Pekar was a big influence on me, and ever since the first time I saw him on Letterman’s show, I was hooked and followed his career regularly. A new AMERICAN SPLENDOR comic was always a good thing, and his comics and graphic novels (including titles like OUR MOVIE YEAR, and OUR CANCER YEAR) deserve a wider audience.
He’ll be missed.