“Harvey was one of the most compassionate and empathetic human beings I’ve ever met. He had a huge brain and an even bigger soul. And he was hilarious. He was a great artist, a true American poet and there is no one to replace him.”
— Paul Giamatti, to PopEater
How many more psychic blows can the city of Cleveland take?
First, the ongoing economic mess — the steady departure of businesses from the Rust Belt over the decades and the accompanying population decline, to the point where the city on the lake now has fewer people than Fresno.
Then, there’s the sports world. The Indians, whose resurgence in the mid-’90s was a major source of civic pride, have returned to suckdom. The Browns 2.0 have been mired in a sewage plant-deep pile of shit since they were formed 11 years ago, while the original Browns have won a Super Bowl and seem to contend every year.
And, of course, this past Thursday’s “Decision” by Akron product LeBron to bolt the cold of Cleveland, and the possibility of Cavs’ management never, ever being able to put together a winning team around him, for the Heat and the booty calls of Miami and the siren song of a possible championship.
(Every stud athlete has an ego monster inside — that’s part of the package — but I never had him pegged for a raging, 100-foot, ego-tripping ‘Zilla until now. There was no problem with him actually leaving Cleveland; athletes leave cities all the time — it’s the way he did it, and to a down-on-its-luck city that revered him, that was so, so wrong.)
And now, a blow just as cruel, if not crueler: word of the loss of a native son whose very existence screamed CLEVELAND through and through.
Harvey Pekar, creator and star of the greatest underground comic of them all, “American Splendor,” subject of one of my all-time favorite films — a man who achieved greatness through just plain living an everyday life — was found dead by his wife, Joyce Brabner, in their Cleveland Heights bedroom early Monday morning at the age of 70.
Again, how much more can the city take?
It’s interesting to note that Cleveland, where two young Jewish guys created the greatest comic book hero of all, was also where a middle-aged Jewish guy created the unlikeliest comic book hero of all: himself.
In the early ’70s, Pekar was a balding, rumpled, chronically depressed, highly neurotic, pissed-off-at-the-world schlub working a mundane job — file clerk at the local VA hospital — and writing freelance album reviews for jazz publications. (Harvey was among the last of a seemingly lost breed: the self-educated, blue-collar intellectual.)
It was around that time that he approached a longtime friend with an idea for a book about his day-to-day life. It was no everyday friend — it was Robert Crumb; the two had bonded over jazz records a decade before, after Crumb moved to Cleveland to draw cards for American Greetings.
That led to Crumb contributing to Pekar’s first “American Splendor” book in 1976. Many other artists — Gary Dumm, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Joe Sacco, Drew Friedman, even Alan Moore, and Brabner tried her hand, too — contributed art to various stories.
And that was part of the charm — each artist brought a different perspective and interpretation of Harvey, something that was highlighted in the 2003 “American Splendor” movie. But the star was clearly the guy who wasn’t doing the drawing. Despite the influx of name artists in an ad hoc repertory company of comics, Harvey was the main attraction, with his beloved Cleveland providing the backdrop. It was his life and his story; the artists were his caretakers, a job they took seriously.
I first encountered “American Splendor” in 1984 in a long-gone comic book store in New Haven. With its banner “From off the streets of Cleveland comes …,” its rough-hewn art and cover scenes depicting slices of life, it was like nothing I had seen before. Underground comics to me, at the time, were either Crumb and an older, hippie/boho generation; or the hip, young, punk/retro-influenced, Harvey Kurtzman acolytes coming out of the Lower East Side of Manhattan: John Holmstrom, Peter Bagge and J.D. King, as well as the pointed — barbed is more like it — pointillism of Drew Friedman. This didn’t fall into either category. This was underground art, but it was also real life. And it was everyday life in the true sense. Sometimes the stories didn’t have a moral or a point other than they happened.
For the next decade and a half, Pekar formed my personal holy trinity of underground comics, along with Bagge and his “Neat Stuff” and “Hate” books, and David Boswell’s “Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman,” and gave me a reason to go to comic book shops that I haven’t had since.
Pekar found poetry in the repetitive rhythms of everyday life that many of us would find numbing and soul-sucking. He found beauty, serenity and contemplation as he wheeled carts of color-coded file folders down interminable hallways. He found wisdom in the words of a round, elderly, black co-worker named Mr. Boats. He found maturity the more he distanced himself from the meathead greaser he was in his high school years (occasionally seen in flashbacks). He found coolness in the nerdiest of nerds: a big, bespectacled co-worker named Toby Radloff, who went on to be an MTV star briefly. He found explosive bouts of angst and gloom and despair in the most mundane and seemingly innocuous things.
And he also found love at last. Joyce Brabner was a fan and a comic book store co-owner in Delaware in the ’80s who, when her partner sold the last copy of “Splendor” No. 6 before she could read it, wrote Harvey personally to get a copy. They began corresponding, she came out to see him, and by the third date she was Mrs. Pekar No. 3, as well as one of the co-stars of his subsequent books. And nowhere was their love more on display than their 1994 book “Our Cancer Year,” based on Harvey’s 1990 battle with lymphoma.
(I got to meet Harvey once in the late ’80s, around 1989, quite by chance on my part. I took the train into Manhattan for the day, and I read somewhere along the way that he was going to be doing an in-store at a comics shop on St. Mark’s. I didn’t come in for long; it was around the time they were getting ready to go. I shook his hand, told him I was just in from New Haven for the day and accidentally found out about it and just wanted to let him know I appreciated his work. He was nice and very receptive. Joyce, a dour sort, just gave me a withering, who-the-fuck-are-you look, after which I just left, wondering what the fuck I did to her.)
And he left no wart unprobed. There was nothing airbrushed about his work or his life. He was unsparingly critical of himself above all, though he had no problem turning the glare of harsh spotlights on others as well. His battles with Dave Letterman on “Late Night” were the stuff of legend (not to mention a cover story in a later book).
And sometimes miracles happen. The good guys win, even if they fret about it all the way.
As an unabashed fan, I was worried when I learned there was to be a feature film of “American Splendor” (though probably nowhere near as anxious as our hero himself); after all, devoted fans get a little proprietary about these things. However, I’d heard Paul Giamatti was signed on to play Pekar, and that, in my mind, sounded right — schlubby, balding, neurotic, very expressive eyes — so I was a little more at ease; it seemed the filmmakers at least found someone with the right tone to pull it off.
And as a fan, as well as the entertainment editor at the New Haven Register, I got to live in geek heaven for a week or so. I lined up a story on the movie version of one of my favorite comics, and could give it a great visual ride because I had back issues to use along with the publicity stills. And since Giamatti was from New Haven (and the son of the late Yale president, National League president and baseball commissioner, Bart Giamatti), and this was to be a big starring turn, and since he’s still tied closely to his hometown, I was able to line up a phoner with him pretty easily.
This was one of those rare journalistic labors of love when everything clicked. First, the movie was killer, far beyond any expectations I had; directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini created the perfect cinematic complement to the book: cartoons morphed into real-life scenes, lots of jazz as background music … and the real-life Harvey, Joyce and Toby interacted with counterparts Giamatti, Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander. (And Harvey butted in with his own commentary from time to time as well as well.) And in the midst of the visual gimmickry, absolutely nothing was lost from the story; by contrast, their adept touches heightened the effects of the story.
Giamatti and I ended up having a very good phoner, about 35-40 minutes. And as if I should ever have doubted it, he became Harvey. It was his role of a lifetime, and how he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar is still beyond me — hell, with all the awards the film won elsewhere, including the grand prize at Sundance, how it only got one Oscar nomination at all, for adapted screenplay, is beyond me, too. And I dragged myself down to the late, lamented York Square Cinema the morning of the opening, after a 55-hour work week and a 6-10 a.m. radio show, to meet Giamatti at a special screening of the film for Yalies. I introduced myself; he raved about my Monks T-shirt. Again, geek heaven, only in an added dimension.
But the important thing was that someone — someones — did Harvey Pekar and his life and his story justice. The right people turned an underground celebration of the joys and pains of everyday life into something bigger, grander. And it was wonderful.
Somewhere in this house, packed away in moving boxes for the past year, are a small Harvey Pekar bobblehead with Giamatti’s autograph on the underside of the base — swag from the screening — my back issues of “American Splendor” and my copy of the DVD. Not that I need the props to conjure my memories, but we do like our little security blankets.
But if Harvey Pekar could manage to live a fuller life than he ever could have imagined without any sense of security at all, I guess I can memorialize him without the help of a few tchotchkes. He probably would argue this, shrug it off with his usual self-depreciation, but he was a brilliant example of how even the most everyday, anonymous people in the world are just as important as the people who hog all the wealth and all the attention.
UPDATE 7/20: God, harmonic convergence is a wonderful thing sometimes, and it’s wild how the psychic friends network works.
I did something I very rarely do — stopped at a bar on a Monday night. The coffee shops had closed, I had wrapped up a long and heavy-duty conversation with a friend back East, and I didn’t want to go home. And the Landmark’s closed for summer vacation, so I ended up at Livingstone’s, where I got into a good conversation with Crystal, the bartender, between customers.
At some point, the Travel Channel was showing surfers on Lake Erie in Cleveland, which steered the conversation to the city. I told her about Harvey, and the “American Splendor” comics and movie. And damned if five minutes later, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” came on — with the host in Cleveland, getting a tour of the city and its eats from Harvey himself, with an appearance along the way by Toby. God, it warmed my heart at the same time it was breaking it. Another affirmation that there are few coincidences in life …
Tags: Alan Moore, American Splendor, Anthony Bourdain, Cleveland, comic books, David Boswell, David Letterman, Drew Friedman, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray, Harvey Kurtzman, Harvey Pekar, Hate, Hope Davis, J.D. King, Joe Sacco, Joe Zabel, John Holmstrom, Joyce Brabner, Judah Friedlander, Latre Night, Mr. Boats, Neat Stuff, No Reservations, Our Cancer Year, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bagge, Reid Fleming World's Toughest Milkman, Robert Crumb, Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman, Sundance, Toby Radloff