A lot of people know that Harvey Pekar, who died on Monday at the age of 70, was an important figure in American comics; not nearly as many people know why, exactly. He was arguably less famous for his writing than for the culture that accrued around it: his appearances on David Letterman’s show in the late ’80s (which ended which he was ballsy enough to air grievances about NBC’s owner General Electric), and especially the 2003 movie American Splendor, which starred Paul Giamatti as Pekar (and featured an appearance by the man himself). Pekar wasn’t American comics’ first memoirist, but he may have been their most beloved: a curmudgeonly, thoughtful, blunt institution who found the material for his work in very different parts of his life than most other writers who draw their work from their lives.
For the second half of his life, Pekar wrote comics with very few interruptions. In the last few years, he worked on books of comics about Macedonia, the Beat writers, Students for a Democratic Society, and other non-fiction topics. The cornerstone of his work, though, is his autobiographical series American Splendor, especially the original, magazine-sized version that he self-published from 1976 until the early ’90s. Pekar wrote but didn’t draw his comics; his published memories and perceptions, even of himself, were always refracted through other people’s visions, and he got to work with some superb artists. Fortunate enough to have some of his early stories drawn by the already-famous Robert Crumb (a friend from jazz-collecting circles), he eventually attracted a Who’s Who of collaborators, including Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Jim Woodring and Alan Moore (who drew a one-pager that Pekar wrote).
American Splendor initially arose out of the underground comix scene that was already fragmenting in the mid-’70s. As a movement, the undergrounds were obsessed with smashing taboos, but Pekar wasn’t nearly as interested in shocking bourgeois America as he was in documenting and examining the quotidian moments of his own life. Rather than revolting against the perception of comics as kids’ entertainment, Pekar simply provided a genuinely grown-up alternative, and inspired several generations of budding cartoonists to think about the thematic possibilities of the medium. He could be funny as anything, too. The cover of American Splendor #10 shows his then-new wife Joyce Brabner giving Pekar the stink-eye as he washes dishes and thinks “Poor dishwashing has always been my Achilles heel. If I could upgrade my dishwashing skills, I could really disarm my enemies.”
Pekar never stopped hustling. While he worked as a file clerk at the Cleveland VA hospital that served as the background for many of the early American Splendor stories, he had a sideline peddling jazz records, and in his later years, he ended a lot of his stories by pointing out that he really needed to make some money. He never stopped drawing on his personal experiences for his stories, either. When he spent a year fighting lymphoma, he, Brabner and artist Frank Stack turned the experience into a book, Our Cancer Year; he wrote comics about going on TV, about having a movie made of his comics about his life, about editors calling him to commission the very strips that depict the commissioning conversation. At his best, he was a remarkably brave writer, who turned himself into a person of significance by insisting that there’s no such thing as an insignificant life, or even an insignificant moment.