Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Harvey Pekar, one of my personal heroes. I knew he had been having health problems for a long time, but still the news of his death came as a bit of a shock. I was hoping that he would still be with us for quite a while.

Pekar’s American Splendor comics broadened the art of storytelling. He had a remarkable ability to find humor and poignance in every-day situations. His comics make “minimalist” short story writers look pathetic. One of the things I like about him is his willingness to talk about what it’s like to work in a mind-numbing, dead end job and about what it feels like to be poor. These are things that usually aren’t talked about in our culture.

I can’t quite recall how I first learned about Harvey Pekar. I dimly remember being aware of who he was back in the 1980’s, though I’m not sure exactly how. (I didn’t see any of his appearances on the Letterman show until years later.) When I lived in New York in the 1990’s, I would read jazz commentaries of his in the Village Voice. However, I didn’t really become deeply interested in his work until I saw the film, American Splendor, several years ago. I then plowed through a chunk of his comics as well as the books, Unsung Hero and Ego & Hubris. I realized in retrospect that the film had somewhat depoliticized him. It also glossed over some of the darker aspects of his writing.

I just finished reading The Quitter, and I was struck by Pekar’s unwillingness to romanticize or justify himself in any way. In one anecdote, for example, he admits he deserved to be fired from a job. He also recounts a humiliating incident that led to his being discharged from the Navy. There is something bracing about this kind of honesty.

Pekar will be missed.

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