American comics creator Harvey Pekar died this week. The man who chronicled his survival of lymphatic cancer in Our Cancer Year was found dead at the age of 70 in his Cleveland Heights home by his wife and sometime collaborator Joyce Brabner. At this writing the exact cause of death has not been determined, though the writer had reportedly recently been diagnosed with a second bout of cancer and was also suffering from high blood pressure. The latter, for anybody familiar with his stressed out, urban working guy persona, is certainly believable.
Pekar first started making himself known in the 1970s, initially in a series of short comix illustrated by underground legend R. Crumb that were included in Crumb’s funnybooks, though he ultimately smartly parlayed his friendship with the fellow Clevelander into American Splendor, the comic of slice-of-life stories “from off the streets of Cleveland.” Hooking up with other artists (Gregory Budgett and Gary Dumm, initially), the writer produced an oeuvre that opened up the possibilities of American comics by ironically honing in on the smaller details of ordinary American life. Where Crumb and his peers in the underground were going for the provocative and the outlandish; where mainstream American comics were still locked in on pulpish soap operas, Pekar was depicting the comedy and anxiety of living in the actual workaday world, minutely examining the dividing line between the cosmic and the ordinary.
Over time, his comics were regularly collected into book form and brought him a quirky kind of American quasi-fame: a short-term run as a ranting guest on David Letterman, a critically successful indie film. None of this seemed to change Pekar’s POV, the vision of a struggling proletarian hipster who knew that his work deserved to be seen by more people — but who also knew enough about his fellow Americans to recognize that if they did actually come to grips with Splendor many of ‘em wouldn’t have known what to make of it. This was a man, after all, who loved and collected jazz vinyl. Mass appreciation was just not in the cards.
For those who value graphic art storytelling, for those who appreciate comics for all their possibilities, however, Harvey Pekar is a major figure. His comics could be funny, cranky, touching, poetic — everything the man himself appeared to be. That we won’t be getting any more fresh glimpses of the splendor that is Pekar’s America seems particularly unfortunate in these struggling times.
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