Had he still been alive, Harvey Pekar would have turned 74 today. In this piece, originally published in 2010, Honest author Bogdan Tiganov reveals what he most admires about the late comic book writer.
I remember when I first watched the American Splendor film. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny, dry and realistic as it turned out to be. I wasn’t expecting anything and it blew me away. So I went and immediately bought the American Splendor graphic novel which turned out to be superior to the film. Here were stories of Harvey Pekar’s day to day life, of his work colleagues, obsessions, neurotic thoughts and behaviour, Harvey relentlessly grappling with working life. Here was somebody who put everything into publishing his own comic book, who became an underground hero and who continued to work the same dull job for the rest of his life. This was no celebrity, no fifteen-minute wannabe, you got no laugh a minute catchphrase.
From waiting in a queue at a supermarket to having a bath or walking to work, Harvey Pekar’s stories are shockingly unassuming, devoid of any pretension or melodrama. The trick lies in the use of narration. Harvey Pekar himself plays a starring role in a lot of his shorts, talking directly to the reader, almost interacting. He tells it like it is, in bare, uncomplicated language, making it easy for the reader to relate. We laugh along to Harvey Pekar’s insightful commentary. He highlights the interesting in the mundane and we love him for that. But the real skill lies in the composition of his stories. Harvey Pekar had a talent for getting to the crux of the story without appearing to. And, to be fair, he was incredibly fortunate to work with some of the finest comic book artists around, including the legendary Robert Crumb.
Harvey Pekar revolutionised comics. He thought comics usually deal with superheroes, with extraordinary events - so what if comics were to deal with the inspirational or not so inspirational characters that surround us wherever we are or work? His writing was insightful but not over the top. Never patronising. It didn’t try to be intellectual or navel-gazing. Harvey Pekar the man was what you got.
And how many writers write a book on dealing with and living with cancer? How many open up their life (family, friends, colleagues, relationships, fears) to the world? This is my life, it’s nothing special but it’s okay. Harvey Pekar wasn’t aiming for superstardom and he never overstepped the mark. He struggled like the everyman without finding an immediate, superficial answer.
Sadly, Harvey Pekar passed away this week. Long live Harvey Pekar, a hero of mine. I will dearly miss his friendly, amusing and finely crafted work.