Long Live Harvey Pekar—An American Splendor and then some

July 13th, 2010 by Jeff Newelt

Me & Harv. When you work with Pekar you wind up in his work.

Me & Pekar. When you work with him, you wind up in his work. Art by Joseph Remnant.

Maybe it’s because Harvey Pekar was such an everyman, because he wrote about everyday trials and tribulations of everyday people, of himself and the other lives he chronicled in American Splendor and here in The Pekar Project; maybe it’s because of this universal identifiability that a wave of sadness, like a collective family member passed, swept across social and regular media when news spread of Harvey’s death on July 12, 2010.

Multiple Facebook walls, including my own, became instant vigils, tribes huddled around a YouTube video instead of a campfire. Twitter mourners howled like dogs at the moon, but in 140 characters and with links to blogs, videos, drawings. And the media from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post and Harvey’s hometown Cleveland Plain Dealer all posted remembrances of our beloved curmudgeon who, of course, was never really a curmudgeon, but a cool cat to the end.

I’m going to write a more personal in-depth appreciation of what it was like working with Harvey, and we’re going to do a number of tributes on the Pekar Project in the coming days. In the meantime, members of the extended Pekar Project family have written moving tributes including Dean Haspiel (artist of The Quitter), Brian Heater (editor, Daily Cross Hatch and chronicler of the Pekar 70th Birthday Cleveland Expedition), Josh Neufeld (frequent Pekar collaborator, creator of A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge), Joseph Remnant (Pekar Project artist), Michael Malice (subject of Pekar’s Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story),
Sean Pryor (Pekar Project, Royal Flush artist), and Tara Seibel (Pekar Project artist.)

There are still more Pekar Project stories to come, including three more installments of Pekar’s epic encounter with Doug Rushkoff illustrated by Sean Pryor, a 15-page story about garbage drawn by Rick Parker, a guest strip drawn by Vanessa Davis, and more. Joseph Remnant is busy illustrating Harvey Pekar’s CLEVELAND a 120-page graphic novel to come from ZIP Comics in 2011. Also, the current, July 2010, issue of JUXTAPOZ contains a 13-page art-filled feature interview with Harvey on the Pekar Project.

Harvey let his readers know he had so many issues; he was anxious, obsessive, pessimistic. But one issue he never had was self-consciousness; he was 100 percent himself. Harvey was Harvey unrepentantly, and this relentlessly being himself inspired others consciously and unconsciously, even when he exposed his foibles and fuck-ups or especially when doing just that, to be more themselves.

Part of me curses G-d, didn’t Harvey deserve a break? Like wanting Charlie Brown to finally kick that fucking football out from Lucy’s hands, I wanted Harvey to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labors. The next best thing and how we can honor Harvey is for you to read his stories, and of course, buy his graphic novels. If you are an artist, you may want to draw a tribute Harvey Head to be added to our gallery of 100+ Harvey Heads that we created for his 70th Birthday (email jahfurry at gmail.com for specs).

Rick Parker, Joseph Remnant, Jeff Newelt, Tara Seibel, Harvey Pekar, Sean Pryor. Photo by Seth Kushner

The Pekar Project band, from top left: Rick Parker, Joseph Remnant, Jeff Newelt, Tara Seibel, Harvey Pekar, Sean Pryor. Photo by Seth Kushner

Co-creating this Pekar Project has been one of my greatest joys and proudest achievements, and on behalf of Rick Parker, Joseph Remnant, Tara Seibel, Sean Pryor, SMITH Magazine, and myself, our condolences to all of Harvey’s family & friends and especially to his wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner.

—Jeff Newelt, Pekar Project editor

17 Responses

  1. Josh Neufeld

    Articulate and beautiful, Jeff. I’m so happy that you and Harvey found one another before the end. I loved the Pekar tweets! You complemented each other perfectly, and you were instrumental in eliciting some prime late-career Pekar scripts. Kudos!

  2. James Jajac

    To hear people honoring his legacy softens the blow somewhat. It is really touching.Thanks for writing this Jeff!

  3. Larry Blumenfeld

    Beautiful, man. Here’s my own tribute:
    http://www.artsjournal.com/listengood/2010/07/splendorous-american-harvey-pe.html#more

  4. Jen-sized - Bourdain on Pekar’s Cleveland.

    [...] you’ve finished reading that, go here. Be sure to click every [...]

  5. DJ Lanphier

    Nice Jeff. Ah… my heart hurts. Be well. Am putting on some Oscar Petersen to soften the blow…

  6. Ronnie

    I agree with Josh Neufeld. .”articulate and beautiful”.
    Jeff, I am glad that your talented group of friends is
    consoling each other and honoring a unique and
    great talent .

    I know that through all of you his legacy will continue.

  7. David Pinkowitz

    Amen, Jeff.

  8. Dean Haspiel

    You did Harvey proud, Jeff, and brought AMERICAN SPLENDOR 2.0 to the masses with your nifty band, THE PEKAR PROJECT. Alas, a memoir-writer can’t write his end. It’s up to us to make that happen and you’re the guy to put it all together.

  9. Bobbi

    Jeff….Beautiful tribute….he will live on through his works and through people like you.

  10. Rick Parker

    When I first heard the sad news yesterday, a saying came to mind. It was what E.M. Stanton reportedly said about Lincoln right after he died: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

  11. Steve Beck

    There have been many tributes in the last 24 hours to comic book legend Harvey Pekar, who died yesterday at age 70. I just want to share my thoughts on this great man who profoundly affected me through his work.

    I was at work when I heard the news. It was so fitting; so many of his stories dealt with the trials and tribulations he experienced at work. My brother sent me the email: “Harvey Pekar dead.” I immediately thought of a panel from Pekar’s “The Harvey Pekar Name Story”. Harvey is talking about the deaths of two unrelated individuals who shared his name. “Although I’d met neither man, I was filled with sadness. ‘What were they like’, I thought. It seemed that our lives had been linked in some indefinable way.”

    Today, I am filled with sadness. I’d like to think I new who Harvey Pekar was from his comics, and it was because of this knowledge that I felt our lives had been linked in a definable way. I first heard of him not from his comics, but his jazz criticism. When I was in college, I took a course in jazz history. I already knew a fair amount about the subject, having been interested in jazz since I was 15 when I first heard Charlie Parker Plays the Cole Porter Songbook. My teacher even joked that I could substitute teach the class, which made me feel good. The textbook we used for this course, a book which I still own, was Jazz Styles by Mark C. Gridley. Gridley was from the Cleveland area and new Pekar. He generously sprinkled Harvey’s observations throughout the book. Reading them, I was immediately intrigued by this man who seemed to articulate his observations so clearly. They alluded to the technique of the player without being technical. Its funny, but I had this picture of Pekar at the time as being a bespectacled, professorial type. I figured he’d be clad in a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe and analyzing jazz in his study.

    For whatever reason, I did not seek out more information about him despite the influence he was starting to have on me. Around the same time (ca. 1998), my oldest brother (a jazz guitarist who studied with Pat Martino) introduced me to the film Crumb. I loved it. Crumb’s artwork was incredible, and I could relate to his interest in music (especially old jazz and blues), his relationship with his brothers (I have 3, and we all had a similar social upbringing to the Crumbs), and his insecurities with women (although I can’t relate to other thoughts he has about them). Again, despite this, at the time I didn’t seek out Crumb’s comics and therefore did not see any of his collaborations with Pekar.

    Fast forward to 2000. I graduated from college summa cum laude with a degree in philosophy; however, I had no idea what I wanted to do, didn’t have a car, and was still living with my parents. In the summer time back in school I worked a temp job filing closed insurance claims in a warehouse. It was the only job I could get because my dad worked at the post office down the street and could give me a lift in the morning. So here I am, a college graduate with an unsellable degree, and what was I going to do? The insurance company where I worked as a temp was hiring, so I told them I’d take the job. However, when it came time for me to start, I chickened out and didn’t show up. By that point, I was really getting into jazz guitar, and part of the reason I didn’t show was that the job would involve a lot of typing, and I was afraid I’d get some repetitive injury that would permanently impair my ability to play. Because of this dilemma and my own neurosis, I was out of work 30 months between 2000 and 2003. In that year, I finally landed a job at (guess where?) the same insurance company. That was a horrible experience. I moved from filing claims to working as a claims analyst. My job was to obtain the appropriate medical information in order to approve or deny a claim, and then manage that claim for its life. In other words, do what I could to either deny a claim or get someone back to work as soon as possible. It was ethically reprehensible.

    At this point, I discovered Pekar’s comics. I had since read Crumb’s stuff, I heard about the movie, and thought “This has to be about the same Harvey Pekar who is referenced in Jazz Styles. Nobody else could have that name.” And as I read, I was so emotionally fulfilled by the fact that here existed a person who seemed to experience what I did. Like Harvey, I quit a lot of things I started, and had long periods of unemployment or unhappy employment after getting out of school. I could also relate to the fact that he was interested in sports early in life, but then found the arts. When I first read his story “My Mentor” (about how he became interested in jazz), for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone anymore. I guess that’s the most profound impact he had on me; that someone else out there went through what I did and not only survived, but rose out of the ashes like a phoenix and reinvented himself.

    I also related to his working class background. Pekar seemed to articulate a very specific class consciousness, one in which he simultaneously sought respectability from the traditionally upper class world of the intelligentsia while simultaneously wishing to avoid pretentiousness and shame at his blue collar background. He was a working class intellectual, a real working class hero, and I very strongly related to that.

    He was also the consummate non-conformist in an era when non-conformity has been co-opted by record producers and the fashion industry. That’s what his rants against G.E. and his story about Revenge of the Nerds were all about. As a guy to with a day job, he couldn’t relate to people in the ivory tower. However, as an intellectual, he couldn’t quite relate to people who would typically occupy that day job. His observations about American society in the years since Vietnam and Watergate will go down as one of the great chronicles of the last half-century of our culture.
    Eventually, I was fortunate enough to find a job that I really liked, and have been there now for 5 years. I got a car and even had a chance to take my first flight (at the age of 30; Harvey’s was at age 29). But I still read Harvey’s comics. They will always speak to me.

    I wish I had the chance to meet Harvey. There was so much I would have liked to ask him about jazz history, music history, music harmony, abstract expressionism, and politics. I guess as a way of paying tribute, I want to relate a final story to you, something that happened to me this morning. I went to CVS to get some food for my cat, and I figured I’d go next door to the Dunkin Donuts to get a bagel for my girlfriend. As I returned to my car with my bagel in hand, I noticed a guy standing outside of a PPL van from which he was blasting an early Stan Getz record. I approached him and he asked me how I was doing this morning. “Is that Stan Getz?” I asked. He smiled, extended his hand to shake mine, and replied “But of course.”

    Thanks Harvey. Thanks for being honest with yourself. Thanks for being a good human being, and for teaching me through your art.

    Thanks for validating me.

  12. Cleveland Visitor

    I’d love to see a compilation of original illustrated stories written/ drawn by people who knew Harvey either as co-workers or acquaintances

  13. Nicolas

    Such sad news. Harvey changed the way that I think about comic books. It’s no surprise that so many obituaries on the net read as though they’ve lost a personal friend. ‘American Splendor’ spoke to our inner lives.

    Thanks for your wonderful website. I hope to contribute a ‘Harvey head’ sometime soon! I will be running a series of blogs about Harvey in the next couple of weeks: http://tinyurl.com/2vzdd7e

  14. Carole

    Jeff,
    This was lovely, and much in the same vein as my own blog tribute - http://heightslibrary.org/wordpress/arcanerat/?p=245#more-245. Those of us who had the priviledge of spending time with Harvey came to know the man behind the image. He was, indeed, “100 per cent himself” and yet there were aspects to his character that weren’t necessarily apparent when you first met him. He was at our library on an almost daily basis, and I will miss him terribly.

    I look forward to what will continue to emerge from the Pekar Project. Thanks for carrying the torch in these sad times.

    Carole

  15. The Splendid Harvey Pekar « korzacsol

    [...] who created his autobiographical comics book series  ‘American Splendor’. Now that he is gone to the eternal land of comics “Splendor” all his admirers will  miss him very [...]

  16. I heard the news today

    Someone that was so true to life is now remembered forever as a legend. A friend came past today to tell me the news. He said that he saw Harvey on the television the other night and indicated he might be in town for a writers conference..he then went on to say that he might have died..I twas hoping that the former may be true but I said I would check it on the net. A few hours later, after a sleep, I thought I’d check it, hopefully he was in town but the truth was he had passed. Your tribute and other words are comforting to remember an everyday person like you or I. Thanks for a life well drawn and immortalised on film.. I may never met him but I am proud to have had him in my life

  17. Splendid American: A Eulogy for Harvey Pekar « The Lesser of Two Equals

    [...] Central or Muncie, Indiana. It’s certainly worth checking out, if only for the fact that according to its creator the project still has several unpublished Pekar stories to bring to life – a posthumous offering [...]

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