Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Goodbye, Harvey

This post isn't about Chicago or theatre (though American Splendor was adapted for the stage in a production starring Dan Castellanata in the 1980's), but please read it anyway. You should know about Harvey, and might want to check his work out.

Harvey Pekar, a comic book writer best known for American Splendor, a series based on his own life, was found dead by his wife Joyce shortly before 1 AM Monday morning. Pekar was also a jazz writer of renown, writing reviews, liner notes, and pieces for anthologies. (He also wrote at least one jazz-related comic.) He and his wife lived a few blocks from the house where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, and he was a friend.

We weren't close, and I'd mostly lost touch with him and Joyce, but I hung out in the man's living room (overflowing with books and records, of course) and wanted to share a few memories.

I met Harvey and Joyce through Danielle, their foster daughter. We went to camp together (I was 13 at the time, she was a few years younger), and I ended up spending time with the then-new family. We discussed theatre, politics, music and more. They gave me copies of several issues of the comics--which let me tell you, is heady stuff for a 13 year old to read. That kind of insight into life cuts pretty deep at any age, much less when you're a mixed-up, still-sorta-closeted, unsure of how to live out your intense artistic ambitions early-adolescent. Conversations with them had the rare combination of validating my right to hold and express artistic and political opinions (not often something granted to 13 year olds by non-relatives) with challenging me to actually understand and support them. It was exasperating at times, but it helped open my mind.

And of course there was the undeniable, possibly shallow thrill of being friends with a nationally recognized artist. I got to introduce my Uncle Lou, for whom Harvey's comics and especially his jazz writing were touchstones, to him. And for a small group of in the know people, Harvey Pekar was the coolest Cleveland celebrity one could know (Drew Carey be damned).

And of course there was the movie--the 2003 film version of American Splendor, which combined interviews with Harvey and Joyce, fictional scenes in which they were played by Paul Giamatti (some of his best work ever, his lack of an Oscar nomination was shameful) and Hope Davis, and animated sequences to tell the story of his life and work. It was shot in Cleveland, and used a bunch of local actors. Harvey and Joyce generously put my name in the front of the line to audition to be an extra. I was never able to, due to school scheduling issues, but my mother (my ride to the audition) ended up getting called twice--and now appears for 7 seconds in the background of an Oscar nominee for best screenplay. (And for once the film version of a comic book completely lives up to the source material--it's well-acted, well-adapted, funny, creative, and moving. Rent it.)

And of course he meant a lot to Cleveland, especially Cleveland Heights. Cleveland gets a lot of flak (some of it deserved and some of it from me), but his stories showed the city in a much deeper light than the "mistake on the lake" taunts that get slung at it. There's a lot of beauty in Cleveland, and especially Cleveland Heights. And just about everyone in town seemed to have met him at least once, and they all liked him.

So rest in peace, Harvey. You were a brilliant man, a good soul, and a great artist. It was a pleasure to know you as well as I did, and I wish I'd done a better job at staying in contact. My city was better for having you in it, and I'm fortunate for having read your work. You went way too soon, but I hope that more people will get to know your work now. My infinite sympathies to Joyce, Danielle, and all of your family and friends. Thank you.

If any of you have memories of Harvey personally, or were touched by his work, please put them below.


Jack said...


Harvey dropped off a few boxes of LPs during the summer you hung out at his house.


Zev Valancy said...

I'd forgotten that! He was certainly valuable to my musical education as well. (Joyce gave me plenty of old theatre books she didn't need, which were also great to have.)

Anonymous said...

I like the fact that he was consistently, and ardently, a champion of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. The interviews I read always mention him saying he would rather be at his home in CH than touring to promote his latest work. May the springtime sun shine on him always.

Jay said...

I like the fact that he was consistently, and ardently, a champion of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. The interviews I read always mention him saying he would rather be at his home in CH than touring to promote his latest work. May the springtime sun shine on him always.

Lou said...

Very nice rememberance. It was great for me to be able to meet him just one time and talk a bit about jazz and particularly about one of our favorite authors. It is really sad that he is gone.

Actually there are several music related comics he did. Certainly there was the Albert Ayler strip, but also some blues related ones that I recall (T-Bone Walker.) I wish he had done a whole series of them actually.

mpjedi2 said...

You wanted my thoughts as a comic book guy:


There's some other stuff in there, but I feel like I said what I needed to about a great artist.

Monica Reida said...

It was actually interesting for me, when I was in eighth grade (which was also when I was 13), to read the American Splendor comics and realize, as a comic book reader, that comics could be more than just about superheroes, that they could be about everyday life. There was something about Harvey Pekar's writing that managed to tell the story without making it seem too unrealistic, but keeping it interesting and lively. I actually think that reading American Splendor helped shape my current tastes in comics.

Also, American Splendor introduced me to the work of R. Crumb, which isn't bad.

Lou said...

Before Harvey, people didn't really do comic books about real life. For this reason alone Pekar was a trailblazer. After he opened up this area, tons of comic book writers and illustrators began to describe their real lives in graphic form. What was so great about his comics were they took place in many places where I grew up and hung out (Coventry Rd, Irv’s Deli, University Circle, Tommy’s etc.) . it was even possible to figure out where he lived by reading closely enough different strips.
The only down side of his work was the uneven nature of the actual art. Some of his collaborators were excellent (obviously R Crumb comes to mind, but also Gary Dumm) and others were only passable. I found the art in “Our Cancer Year” to be particularly dreadful; the dialogue was obviously cut and pasted in some places and some of the panels are particularly rough. There are strips in which Harvey is barely recognizable.
I would hope someday that his work is reissued in chronological order and in complete form.