[Marxism] Harry Pekar

John A Imani johnaimani at earthlink.net
Sun Jul 18 10:19:32 MDT 2010

By a friend of mine:
Mr. Pekar
by Gary Phillips
I came to Harvey Pekar's work late in the game.  Well, actually, somewhere in my stacks of unorganized comic books dating back to the '60s, I have a couple of his then self-published American Splendors.  But it wasn't until this century I finally dug what he was doing.  Pekar, who died last Monday at 70, was the cranky everyman who turned his neuroses and obsessions, and living in Cleveland as a Veterans Administration hospital file clerk, into low brow art.  As depicted in the quasi-feature film American Splendor with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar, he meets underground cartoonist Robert Crumb in the mid '70s while both were at a garage sale rummaging for old jazz records. 

Crumb, played by James Urbaniak who among other pursuits, is the voice of Dr. Rusty Venture in the Venture Brothers cartoon, Adult Swim's send up of Jonny Quest, listens to Pekar's stories and encouraged him to immortalize them in cheap comics, offering to draw those tales.  Pekar paid out of pocket to irregularly publish his comic book starting in 1976. 

He kept at it, apparently not initially typing scripts but roughing out the pages using stick figures and writing the dialogue and captions on his penciled panels to give to the artist.  He got to be a big deal in Cleveland, home of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two teenaged pals who created Superman decades before. As depicted in the film, a cult following grew and he became a sometimes guest on David Letterman's TV show until he bit the proverbial hand that fed -- and made fun of -- him.

"I was a file clerk before I was on your show, and I'll be a file clerk afterward," or words to that effect, Pekar growled at Letterman in their last joust.

Like I said, I came to appreciate his stuff later on though a little before the film came out.  Here was a guy when he was a kid was beat up by black kids in his changing Cleveland neighborhood. But who as an adult wrote a three-part American Splendor published by Dark Horse Comics about a friend at the VA, black Vietnam vet Robert McNeill, and his harrowing times as a GI.  In a New York Times piece on him, it's mentioned Pekar was kicked out of the Navy due to his given his anxieties preventing him from passing inspections.  Yet he cowboyed up and on one of his Letterman appearances, wore a t-shirt in support of striking union members at NBC.

>From writing about the history of the Beats to adventures trying to fix a leaking toilet, recounting his battle with cancer in graphic novel form to dealing with his bucket of a car, Harvey Pekar did his thing as a storyteller.  Simply splendid.


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