Harvey Pekar, anti-hero of comic book culture, dies

 

THE GREAT anti-hero of American comic book culture, Harvey Pekar, has died at his home in Cleveland, Ohio, aged 70.

The cause of death remains unconfirmed but the celebrated writer had suffered from a number of illnesses including prostate cancer, lymphoma, asthma and clinical depression.

As an antidote to the all-American heroes of publishing titans Marvel and DC Comics, Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendorbooks portrayed him as an all- American loser: self-loathing, antisocial and misanthropic.

Pekar’s warts ’n’ all realism and black humour struck a chord with comic-book readers hungry for a graphic depiction of the struggle of everyday life.

Details of his failing sex life, inability to socialise or his ongoing battle with technology were delivered on the pages of American Splendorwith a brutal yet satisfying honesty. Most of the stories were set in Pekar’s native Cleveland where he worked as a file clerk in a Veterans’ Administration medical centre – the perfect setting for the lows and lows of the comic.

Despite garnering increased profile and fame throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he continued to work there until his retirement in 2001. He also continued to write occasionally as a jazz critic for JazzTimesand other publications.

A chance encounter with fellow jazz enthusiast and controversial counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb in the early 1960s reinvigorated Pekar’s childhood interest in comic books. He was excited by Crumb’s startlingly original and outrageous style. He decided this was the perfect medium to document his own life.

However, the bohemian underground world in which Crumb and his associates were immersed was a million miles from Pekar’s drab blue-collar existence and it took him the best part of a decade to finally find his voice.

Crumb went on to illustrate some of the first issues of American Splendorin the mid-1970s. These books represent one of the greatest writer-illustrator collaborations in comic book history.

Pekar worked with some of the most notable 20th-century cartoonists throughout his career, from 1960s biker cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, to his third wife and political satirist Joyce Brabner and famous contemporary graphic novel icons such as Alan Moore.

In 2005, DC Comics imprint Vertigo released Pekar’s autobiographical hardback, The Quitter. The first American Splendor Anthologyreceived the American Book Award in 1987.

Pekar’s success led him somehow to a series of ill-fated appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, where his antagonistic behaviour appeared to visibly irritate the host. During a 1988 appearance, Letterman interrupted Pekar’s rant against General Electric – then the corporate owner of NBC – and said to musical director Paul Shaffer: “I’m just praying for a terrorist”.

American Splendorwas adapted into an acclaimed film starring Paul Giamatti in 2003. Pekar himself worked closely on the project and even starred in a series of real-time segments of the movie.

“Harvey was one of the most compassionate and empathetic human beings I’ve ever met,” Giamatti said. “He had a huge brain and an even bigger soul – and he was hilarious. He was a great artist, a true American poet and there is no one to replace him.”

The film introduced Pekar to a new generation of admirers and inspired comparisons to great American comedy auteurs such as Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.