“Harvey Pekar didn’t invent autobiographical or nonfiction comics, but it sure seems like he did. He certainly supplied the category with much of its current literary form; powered the popularity of contemporary nonfiction comics with his writing, inventive collaborative process and outsized personality; and has served as one of the form’s exemplars and most creative practitioners right up to this day. His early self-published comics collected stories of his daily life as a hospital file clerk in Cleveland and by the early 1980s—at a time when American comics were dominated commercially and creatively by the superhero genre—he was at the center of a movement focused on prosaic, naturalistically rendered autobiographical small press comics.”
As the article notes, these ultra-personal, “non-fiction” comics were instrumental in attracting many new readers to the comic genre and for that alone Mr. Pekar’s work was noteworthy and important.
Being a rustbelt native myself, I’ve always felt a special affinity for Pekar’s heartfelt, honest and perceptive depictions and descriptions of life and clerical misadventures in the cold, decaying urban landscape of Cleveland. Pekar was extremely adept at articulating the complex mixture of pride and dismay embedded in the psyche of many Americans born in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and I think it’s this specific skill that has made American Splendor stand out in the way that it does.
He was also a respected, prolific jazz critic. I’ll never forget how excited I was one afternoon opening my Miles Davis in Europe CD only to then notice the words: “New Liner Notes by Harvey Pekar.” His words provided a perfect contextual compliment to the sounds of Miles and company while I lounged around my house enjoying the day.
America mourns a true original.
(image 1 courtesy of Vertigo Comics, portrait courtesy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer)
Thanks to my colleague Jacqueline Rice for sending me the Publisher’s Weekly article and suggesting this post.