What Harvey Pekar Meant To Me
Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)
Man. Pekar’s gone. That sucks. I never met him. But American Splendor was one of the first Undergrounds I ever read, if it can truly be called an Underground. It seemed to be, for me, being a part of the imported exotica from the USA that occasionally turned up on the shelves of Britain’s more leftfield comic and music emporia. It didn’t hit the shelves until 1976, well after the first wave of Undergrounds I suppose, but to me in the post-punk greyness of the early 1980s, when I found it, it seemed timely.
I’ll admit, I was attracted to that first issue I bought because of the pretty Crumb cover and initially was disappointed to find that not all the strips inside were actually drawn by Crumb. But I read it anyway and in those days, when the possibilities of comics stretched out like a highway before me, Pekar’s stuff indicated yet another route, a new way, perhaps not as scenic as the one I was heading down but certainly one I should stop off and explore. American Splendor seemed so far-off from life in London – unglamorous, gritty and very, very human. There was no escapism here and Pekar railed against such stuff. Alongside RAW and Weirdo, Pekar’s stories prepared me for my own spit ‘n’ angst-powered early career in comics.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that, with his grizzled realism and tender observations, Pekar was laying the cornerstone for a new type of comics or at least, planting signposts and staking out territory that would be ploughed by hundreds of younger writers and cartoonists inspired by his lead. Autobio, docucomix, journalistic sequential narrative, call it what you will, Pekar and his many collaborators pioneered the kind of sequential memoir that has become a significant part of today’s language of comics.
I liked the way he detailed the minutae of his life, the ephemera, the inconsequential. Except none of this stuff was inconsequential, not to him and in telling us about it, it became the same for the reader. He elevated the investigation of the microscopic, day-to-day elements of life to an art form. He was introspective, obsessive about strange details, woolly, warm, obstreperous and oddly heroic. He spotlit a small group of his fellow workers making them an eccentric supporting cast and, over time, we came to know them almost as well as Pekar himself. He’s like Bukowski in the sense that he had a certain amount of resolve – it’s just what he did, alongside the day job – unlike him in the sense that he was a genuine insider, not just an observer of blue collar mores but part of them. He’s like Carver in that he documented minor human conventions and rituals and in so doing hinted at some larger truth. He’s like neither in that he was, in comics, unique.
A lot of fellow British comic artists, who shall remain nameless, used to rib me about my liking for Pekar’s work when we were younger. They didn’t see why he was important. Well, feh. He seemed like an old punk rocker to me, dogged, principled, interested in why humankind throws up such aberrational behaviours as kindness, humility, generosity, sharing, collecting. He sure was weird and cantankerous and he sure was inspirational.
I think my favourite-ever Pekar comic is A Good Shit Is Best. Apart from the overall message being a useful thing to keep in mind, it’s one of the funniest short strips I’ve ever read. It’s the shrug in the last-but-one panel that does it. Genius.
He was an extraordinary character, a one-off, an original. Farewell, Harvey Pekar.
Update: Tom Spurgeon put up a page at The Comics Reporter of reaction around the Internet to the passing of Harvey Pekar.
Posted by: Nick Abadzis | permalink
Tags: harvey, meant, pekar