Two fucking weeks.
That’s how long it’s taken me to get my head together enough to write something about the life, work — and passing — of a guy I never knew, but who had a more profound impact on my existence than most people I’ve known really well. I can count the actual heroes in my life on one hand (and don’t worry, Dad, if you’re ever reading this — you’re one of them). Now I can count them on four fingers.
In the overall scheme of things, Harvey Pekar could probably be truthfully described as neurotic, obsessive, unkempt, curmudgeonly, disheveled, fatalistic, compulsive, and manic.
He could also be described as unflinchingly honest, enormously talented, creative, humane, brave, hyperintelligent, unpretentious, and in possession of more out-and-out integrity than the next hundred, the next thousand, the next million people you’re likely to meet — combined.
Chances are the character “attributes” I listed first could just as easily be laid at the doorstep of you, me, or anyone else when our time comes to shake off this mortal coil. Those in the second list? Not so much.
In a world full of showbiz phonies and jive Hollywood fast-talkers, Harvey Pekar never sold out. Not to David Letterman. Not to HBO. Not to Time Warner. Not to anyone.
Presented with one opportunity after another to turn his groundbreaking autobiographical comic series American Splendor into some kind of cash-cow, he hesitated. Not that he was opposed to finally, after decades of toiling in near-obscurity (despite the fact that dozens of his stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb, for crying out loud!), making a buck off his work. Far from it. Providing security to his wife Joyce and his adopted daughter Danielle was high on his list of things to do. But not if he had to compromise the essential integrity of his work in any way, shape, or form.
When American Splendor finally did make the leap from the printed page to the silver screen in 2003, it was exactly the type of film those of us who had followed Harvey’s work for years had hoped for — it was honest, insightful, intelligent, and innovative. Just as wed’ always known it could and should be, but maybe better than we’d dared hope. We should have had more faith in Harvey. If it was anything ever in danger of being anything less, he never would have had anything to do with it.
He shook off the easy trappings of fame not out of some high-and-mighty sense of self-importance, but because that whole scene just never even interested him. Even at the height of his Hollywood flavor-of-the-monthness, he’d rather be at home listening to an old jazz LP than be the center of attention at Sundance or Tribeca. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care.
For my part, I first encountered Pekar’s work in my late teens, still a hopeless comic book addict but well past being interested in the four-color “adventures” of men in tights and women in even-less-than-tights. The sheer banality of Harvey’s work, focused as it was on the most absolutely mundane aspects of his life as a VA hospital file clerk, hit me like a sledgehammer blow to the head. Here was reality in all its unvarnished non-glory — comics really could be about anything at all, as I’d been telling everyone for so long.
My favorite stories were those concerned with the quiet dramas that make up the average person’s life — the small setbacks that feel for all the world like monumental defeats, and the even smaller victories that feel like — well, like just that. Stories like “Rip-Off Chick, ” “A Semi-Bummer Weekend,” “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In The Supermarket,” and my personal favorite, “Stetson Shoes,” were in so many ways about nothing at all — yet they somehow managed to encompass almost all the ups and downs of human existence into their pictures and word balloons.
Harvey Pekar didn’t lead a life markedly different from you, me, or anyone else we might know. He didn’t possess some mystical sense of clarity that allowed him to see things in some amazingly profound way. He just had the balls, and the writing skill, to look at himself, and those around him, with honesty, wit, and a fair degree of compassion. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t faultless, and often he wasn’t fair. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to live, or even to be around for an extended period of time. But he was the genuine article. He had something to say about his life, the lives of those he knew, and the society we live in, and he said it. He said it with the simple unrestrained eloquence of an equal. He never thought of himself as being “above” those around him, or as even being in any special or remarkable.
And that’s what was most remarkable about him. He was our voice, and our mirror — our best friend and our fiercest critic. He was , in the words of the front-page, top-of-the-fold article about his death in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, our “bard of the banal.” He was us, and we were him.
He was Harvey Pekar. An everyman. A working stiff. A regular schmuck. And we’ll never see his like again. Mr. Boats. Toby Radloff, Joyce, Danielle — there were so many great characters in Harvey’s stories, but he was always the heart and soul, even in the tales that didn’t feature him. He was the voice. Our voice. Our guide through our own world. That voice is gone now, and the world itself seems to be missing its voice-over interpreter.
Harvey was only 70 when he died, although let’s be honest — it seems like he’s been 70, or older, for along time now. Youthful vigor was never one of his strong suits, even though in his later years, between his regular American Splendor series and his historical graphic novels, his work output was more prolific than ever. And those later years weren’t easy for Harvey. After retirement from the VA, he was lost without his work routine, He slipped into manic depression and received electroshock “therapy.” Cancer, which almost took his life a decade earlier (as detailed in the superb Our Cancer Year graphic novel co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) made a return appearance. And his blood pressure was off the charts. So I can’t say that I was completely surprised by his death — but I was still shocked by it. I saw it coming, but still wasn’t ready.
Who are we kidding? I’m still not ready.
I don’t know what happens when we die, although all available evidence seems to suggest we end up as worm food and that’s it. I do, however, know a thing or two about life here on Earth — and I know that it was better two weeks ago, when Harvey Pekar was still a part of it.