RIP, Harvey Pekar
There was probably no better face for this column than Harvey.
He was a most unlikely artist and writer, thrown into underground fame after a jazz-soaked meeting with subversive cartoonist R. Crumb. His life was misery and cynicism, tossed with a bit of incredulity and awe.
He battled lymphoma cancer in 1990 and wrote an inspired comic about it. His life and ongoing comic American Splendor was made into a highly-praised movie. Every comic artist had their own take on his silly putty face, and his infamous appearances on the early days of Late Night with David Letterman are the stuff of talk show legend (NBC actually banned him for awhile).
He knew how to take the smallest detail and warp it until the thing became a tangled knot of dirty art.
Pekar worked as a VA Hospital file clerk, a job he continued even after becoming famous. He and his wife took in a foster daughter after entering their late fifties. He was a frequent commentator on the radio, on TV, in articles, and more recently again as an author with Vertigo Comics who revived American Splendor and paired his signature gravel voice with some of the freshest artists at work today.
What made Pekar tick? What was it that he had to say that would inspire such a following and yet leave the figure in relative obscurity by the rest of the popular culture world?
In some sense, he was able to take the mundane and make it the Odyssey. His verse was filled with repressed midwest outrage (Ohio is still part of the midwest, isn’t it?) and self-loathing combed with comedy. More than that, he created and saw published biographies about unsung heroes, beat poets, and even his clear match in Studs Terkel.
In physical appearance, he was disheveled and wild. In drawings, he became sublime and frequently disturbing. He was an ordinary man mostly discarded by society because of his unappealing face and voice — ironically the epitome of the American everyman.
He will be missed — something Harvey Pekar probably would have complained about.