An American Splendor

Categories:  Features

Here’s our man, grinning ear to ear. It’s dusk. He’s leaning against a station wagon, the ancient rust-covered Innerbelt Bridge behind him, stretching off into an overcast downtown Cleveland. In front of him is a restaurant. A joint called Sokolowski’s University Inn. It’s a Polish place. Big, greasy portions of meat. An odd place to take a vegetarian like Pekar.

Once he steps foot inside this joint, however, the employees beam. They remember him well from the time he came in, camera crew in tow, to shoot the Cleveland episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. “Where’s Toby?” a man behind the counter bellows with a huge smile.

There are signed celebrity photos all over the counter. Lou Reed ate here once, apparently. But in this town they’ve got nothing on our man, smiling but quiet, hunched over small with a tray in hands, flannel shirt and gray windbreaker on his back. Harvey Pekar, the patron saint of Cleveland.

This is my favorite picture of Pekar. I’m a bit biased, of course. I did take the damn thing, fiddling in vain with lowlight setting, but trying above all to snap it off as quickly as possible, because it’s clear at that precise moment that this is the picture. The perfect culmination of a near-perfect weekend trip to celebrate the writer’s 70th birthday. Harvey Pekar and Cleveland. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Of course, we all knew the day would have to, eventually. But somehow, we went on as if he would be around forever. Three days ago, I got an e-mail from our mutual friend Jeff Newelt titled “The Sequel,” a proposed return to Cleveland later this year on the occasion, I suppose, of Pekar’s 71st. More than anything, however, it was an excuse to catch up with man we regretfully rarely saw.

There was also talk of our starting a podcast with Pekar. “From Off the Streets of Cleveland,” a tagline of sorts borrowed from the writer’s on-going American Splendor strip. It was a venture rooted in the same desires that drove us to the upper Midwest—an excuse to chat with Pekar. Or, perhaps, more appropriately, a chance to listen. We pushed it back, however, a few weeks in a row. Newelt said there was something about his voice. Something “fishy.”

I regret, of course, not talking to Pekar that one last time. Not that I had anything pressing to discuss with him, of course. That wasn’t ever the point. Pekar could talk at length about nearly any subject. Any while, as all of my interactions with the man could happily attest, the curmudgeonly persona he painted for himself with his strips never betrayed his truly warm persona, they did accurately capture his nature as a storyteller.

Pekar’s process, after all, particularly in his later years, largely consisted of his relating strips to artists via the phone. He told me once that he got a bit irked at one cartoonist’s tendency to consistently draw him on the phone, in his “shorts.” It was a portrayal, I imagine, that hit a little too close to home.

In the past decade or so, Pekar’s sequential discussions largely expanded outside of his own head, taking on topics much larger than his often mundane existence and the city he called home. In 2007, he published Macedonia, a stark look at the titular war-torn Balkan nation. I reviewed the book for this site, writing,

This concept—the comic book as a thesis—is Macedonia’s true power. It’s an exploration of the medium as a device for both education and intellectual engagement.

Days after the review published, I was at a party at my friend’s apartment in Manhattan. I got a call on the phone from an unknown number. It was Pekar. I had, by that point interviewed the writer twice, but can’t really say that I knew him particularly well. But his publicist had printed out a review and sent it to him, and he felt compelled to get me on the phone as soon as humanly possible.

Never before or since have I had a conversation with an artist so eager to discuss a review of his own work. If he felt you understood him, Harvey could talk to you forever—and no matter who you were, he always seemed genuinely amazed that you were eager to listen.

Part of this can no doubt be chalked up to where Pekar was when we first started interacting. The 2003 cinematic adaptation of American Splendor brought with it a level of recognition that not even his late-80s Letterman appearances had managed. That popularity largely moved copies of book like Our Cancer Year and American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, a trade paperback with a photo of Paul Giamatti—an ironic choice, perhaps, source material so far from the glitz and glamour or Hollywood (until the end, Pekar expressed sheer bafflement at the fact that anyone would want to turn his life into an honest to god motion picture).

He told me later that he knew that continuing American Splendor would ensure him a steady paychecks, but the man who truly turned autobiographical comics into an art form was ready to push the boundaries yet again. The mainstream buzz the Splendor movie afforded was on the wain by the late 00s, and his non-autobiographical graphic novels never generated the sales he’d hoped for. In an interview around that time, he described Macedonia to me as, “a book of ideas.” And in that respect, it was similar to much of his later output, Ego & Hubris, Students for a Democratic Society, The Beats.

He was a man brimming with ideas up until the end—far more than he was ever capable of committing to paper. Even with American Splendor, his graphic novels, and the more recent online initiative The Pekar Project, the man always seemed to possess more thoughts and stories than he knew what to do with.

That, no doubt, is a large part of the reason why, as we walked down the streets of Cleveland Heights on that aforementioned weekend, people in all directions shouted, “Harv!”

It was part of a walking tour guided by Pekar and his artist and close friend, Tara Seibel. And Pekar was more than happy to play tour guide. To him, every shop, every street, and every corner was a story, tales he was, as always, more than eager to impart. This was a man in his element in every sense of the word.

I hope he knew how happy—honored, really—we were to listen. And I hope he knows now, wherever he is, that the stories will live in on in the books and memories he left behind. And, of course, in those streets he called home.

I’m sure he would be genuinely placed and customarily baffled by the outpouring of praise at his passing, from comics fans on Twitter to journalists writing for The New York Times. I hope sincerely that the response from so many smart and articulate mourners helps yet another generation discover Harvey’s stuff, from those first issues of American Splendor to last week’s Pekar Project strip. Most of all, I hope those who skipped his less widely celebrated work of recent years give those books another look.

The comic as a conduit for limitless ideas. The comic as a catalyst for serious discussion. “Spider-man fans just don’t have a lot time for that stuff,” he told me once, his delivery as dry as ever. These were the passions of the Pekar I knew. As always, the writer was convinced that sequential art was a medium with limitless potential. As he once famously put it, “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” It was a mantra that drove his life until his last breath. He lived his life as an advocate for—and scholar of—an art form that would have no doubt gotten him laughed off of nearly every college campus in those early days.

And look at where we are now, in a world where the death of an underground cartoonist is regarded with the same reverence in mainstream publications as that of a novelist or poet. That, in part, is his legacy. Harvey Pekar, the world is listening.

–Brian Heater

2 Comments to “An American Splendor”

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