Harvey Pekar, Comic Book Author, 19392010


Harvey PekarHarvey Pekars downtrodden Everyman—waiting in line at the grocery store, watching the clock at work, grousing about most everything—was celebrated without much fanfare, for more than three decades, in his ongoing comic work, American Splendor, an annual comic series illustrated by such high-profile artists as Robert Crumb, Frank Stack, Dean Haspiel, Gary Dumm and Joe Sacco.

Pekar saw himself in the tradition of George Ade and Ring Lardner, who found humor and humanity in the vernacular speech and mundane preoccupations of average, working-class Americans. Until 2001, Pekar worked as a clerk in Cleveland’s VA hospital since 1966—a place rich in extraordinary characters in ordinary situations. Frankly autobiographical and frequently cranky, Pekar’s anti-hero, who made his first appearance in 1976, became a cult cause-célèbre. But even his American Book Award and his prickly appearances on Late Night with David Letterman didn’t much affect Harvey’s low-profile life in Cleveland.

The world discovered Harvey Pekar in 2003, through the fine acting of Paul Giamatti and appearances by Pekar himself in the film American Splendor, named Best Picture of 2003 by the L.A. Film Critics Association, the Seattle Film Critics Awards, and the National Society of Film Critics. Directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay (which was built around stories from Pekar’s comics), and the film received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was lauded at Cannes.

In 2008, Pekar collaborated with composer Dan Plonsey on a jazz opera, Leave Me Alone! Its premiere at Oberlin College that December was broadcast live on the Internet. Harvey and his wife were onstage—along with the singers portraying them—commenting on the action and on the absurdity of an opera about their humdrum life. Pekar took the occasion to deliver a heartfelt rant-cum-soliloquy about his anguish over the shrinking audience for jazz. Throughout his career, he had remained a passionate devotee of jazz, and a contributing critic to many national journals with his music and book reviews.

Even a casual conversation with Harvey was a heightened experience. The guy was opinionated and passionate; don’t waste his time with small-talk or trifles. He could be just as passionate about politics as he was buying a loaf of bread; every minute was a blip on life’s radar, followed by a big sigh.

Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Cleveland in 1939, Harvey Pekar toughed it out on the streets, and eventually became a working-class intellectual. The popularity and success of the stories in American Splendor—each issue carried the phrase “From off the streets of Cleveland”—launched a revolution in comics in the 1980s. When diagnosed with lymphoma in 1990, Pekar, with his wife Joyce Brabner, created the graphic nonfiction work My Cancer Year. Now graphic novels and nonfiction works are big business in publishing. It’s hard to imagine this, or Cleveland, without Harvey.

—Amy Sparks

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org