I spent a lot of time thinking about Harvey Pekar yesterday, especially after receiving a few media queries about him, and the more I did, the more I realize I might owe my life in comics to him. I had forgotten this, to be honest. So I thought I would write down a few things, if only to help myself remember and honor him a bit.
I realize I let Harvey the Celebrity overshadow Harvey the Writer for much of the last decade of his life.
At the start of the 1990s, Harvey Pekar was near the top of my list of comics obsessions, after maybe Dan Clowes, Chester Brown and Charles Burns. During high school in the 1980s, I slowly became aware of non-mainstream comics, and American Splendor was a revelation, a different way that one could speak through comics (you mean, Swamp Thing isn't as good as it gets?!). It was one of a few comics (Yummy Fur was the other earth-quaking force, followed within a year or so by Eightball) that really rekindled my interest in the medium when other adolescent concerns could have pushed me away, in which case I would likely be a crappy journalist, probably covering the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the High Desert League or something like that.
When I was in high school in the late-1980s, I dutifully recorded Pekar's Letterman appearances on my parents' VCR because I couldn't stay up late enough to watch them 'live', and would rush home to watch them after school the next day (insanely enough, I'm pretty sure I would learn about these appearances via the then-weekly newspaper, Comics Buyer's Guide). Pekar never disappointed on Letterman, he was like Toto ripping the curtain down on the Wizard of Television. He was punk rock.
To my increasingly cynical yet culture-starved mind, Pekar was as formative an influence as Burroughs, Bukowski, Salinger, the Velvet Underground or the Pixies have been to so many impressionable young men. He was infinitely sensible in the way he questioned and poked and called bullshit on the people and world around him. His attitude was justified. Once discovered, I quickly snatched up all the Splendors I could find by driving around to all the comic book shops in greater Orange County, CA. I can't remember the first issue I bought new but still have my complete set of the original magazine-sized series, even though I've collected the material in book form numerous times over.
Pekar made me appreciate R. Crumb. Up to that point, I'd found Crumb's work a bit impenetrable — all I'd really seen was a few random ZAPs and miscellaneous undergrounds, and I found them way too hippy. I would learn. But in American Splendor, Crumb's work stood out for its craft, its clarity, it's passion, and the way he really made Pekar's voice SING. His style embodied Pekar's voice almost as well as his own. He turned Pekar's scripts into pure comics, into something that would have been inferior in any other medium. I'm not sure you can say that about most of Pekar's collaborations. It's no newsflash to say that none of Pekar's collaborators were as good as Crumb, but worth pointing out that almost as few were as good as Pekar. It must have been tough finding cartoonists who could keep up with him.
Despite what Crumb clearly brought to the table, the fact is that it took Pekar's writing to connect with me first, not the other way around, and I'm grateful for it. I think there are some jokes made in the Splendor film at Harvey's expense about how Crumb subverted his scripts, like in "American Splendor Assaults the Media" where he depicts Harvey as a semi-crazed, middle-aged shut-in ranting at the reader, panel after panel. But I think what makes all of their collaborations work so well is the fact that Crumb is as sympathetic a collaborator as Pekar ever had. It's not just the fact that Crumb draws better than everybody else, he knew what to draw. Just as Pekar knew what to write. Take any Mr. Boats strip. Their mutual understanding of each other helped me appreciate each as artists and voices and intertwines them in my memory; since I now think of Crumb as the greatest artist in the world, that's a big thing for me.
At a Comic-Con in 1991, two years before I started working at Fantagraphics, there was a special performance of a stage production of American Splendor that included a signing with Harvey and the cast (which was headlined by a then not-so-famous Dan Castellaneta, now best known as Homer Simpson). I made a point to get there early, and when I got to the front of the line to get autographs, for sale was a limited-edition Doubleday collection of the series that included a signed plate by Harvey and the entire cast. I bought the first copy, it was #2 of 50. The remaining 50 were gone in minutes. Score!
Around the same time, I had begun to submit samples to anthologies like Duplex Planet and Real Stuff. I dreamed of drawing a comic for Pekar. One day while re-reading an issue of Splendor I paused on a panel of somebody calling Harvey on the phone, looking at a note that had his number written on it. I thought, "no way" – there was no way it could actually be Harvey's real home phone number, but I was compelled to dial it, anyway. A woman I soon realized was Harvey's wife Joyce answered, and asked who I was and why I was calling. I couldn't believe it, but explained truthfully, it was kind of a lark but I really was a huge fan and would love to send Harvey some of my own comics.
She then told me that Harvey had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was very ill. My heart sunk – could I be a bigger asshole? But Joyce was very kind to not tell me to fuck off and suggested that even though Harvey couldn't talk on the phone, he really enjoyed hearing from his fans via letters and, especially, audio recordings. Within a few days I'd recorded Harvey a "letter" onto audiocassette – something I think I've otherwise only ever done in the throes of teenage romance – and sent him a package. I have absolutely no recollection of what I said. It took awhile for a very kind but semi-formal reply, but that was perfectly understandable, given his soon-to-be public bout with lymphatic cancer.
All of this is to say that, funnily enough, I never did get to know Harvey, and somewhere along the way I stopped minding. Oh, I met him a few times in later years, and talked to him on the phone a few times, but it was always discouraging. I knew him well enough through his comics. The few times I talked to him he was either too concerned with complaining about something Fantagraphics-related once he realized what I did for a living, or was simply dismissive. I never mentioned that I was that kid who sent that tape way back when; I can only imagine the volume of "get well soons" he received during those years. I am content knowing that I got chewed out on the phone by him once or twice in my capacity as editor for The Complete Crumb series, because he saw that series as actively diluting his own books and was pretty unhappy about them being included there. Yes, he was cranky. But it was still pretty cool.
As the years passed, after Our Cancer Year, I mostly lost touch with his work save for specific collaborators that I thought really understood how to tell Harvey's stories, like Joe Sacco or David Collier. As he began publishing with Dark Horse and Vertigo (?!?!), things became a bit too slick for comfort, and the collaborations felt less meaningful to me. It felt too much like "American Splendor" was trying to become a brand. Edited by Vertigo. I never held it against him, he was trying to make a buck and lord knows that isn't easy in this racket. The film opened up opportunities for him that are not easy to pass up. As a parent, especially, I can relate. But I wasn't crazy about the film, either, and all of these things led me to take the ubiquitousness of Pekar's celebrity and myriad new projects for granted, and overshadow the big presence he'd once been in my life, pre-celebrity. I honestly wish I had paid attention more now, because it took his passing yesterday to remind me of all of this. R.I.P., Harvey Pekar. The streets of Cleveland are for the worse. And thank you, Joyce, for taking my call.
Time to re-read those back issues.