Another Reason for Cleveland to Cry
Like my daddy used to say: “All the great men in the world are dying and I don’t feel so hot myself.” Harvey Pekar died this morning. Harvey Pekar embodied the city of Cleveland. He was a working-class file clerk for the VA who explored the quotidian through his comic, American Splendor. He was a schlub and a nudnik, but we loved him for his unflinching honesty.
I first became aware of Harvey in the late-80’s when he appeared on the David Letterman show. You never knew what to expect when Harvey showed up. He often appeared agitated and uncomfortable. You were never sure if it was real or an act, but it was funny while it lasted. Harvey was eventually banned from from the show for continually badmouthing NBC and its corporate sponsor, General Electric.
“American Splendor” came about through Pekar’s friendship with R. Crumb. The two met in 1962 when Crumb was working for American Greetings in Cleveland. They shared a love of jazz. When Harvey saw what Crumb was doing in his comics, he realized the potential for the form. But, it took Harvey over a decade to get around to actually doing anything about it. Crumb illustrated the first edition of “American Splendor” in 1976. Harvey couldn’t draw, so he relied on a number of illustrators to carry out his vision.
“The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV. It’s the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there’s no routine and everything is unexpected. That’s what I want to write about.”
American Splendor was later adapted as a movie starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. It received critical acclaim and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2003 Academy Awards. It didn’t win an Oscar, but it did receive the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m always shook up and nervous and I’ve got the hospital record to prove it,” he said that night. “I wake up every morning in a cold sweat, regardless of how well things went the day before. And put that I said that in a somewhat but not completely tongue-in-cheek way.”
As Andrew D. Arnold put it in his Time magazine review of American Splendor: Portrait of the Artist in His Declining Years, “Pekar is like the Lenny Bruce of comix. Often funny, sometimes poignant, but always truthful in a medium that mostly specializes in fiction.”
Harvey Pekar was truly an American original.