Yesterday I heard the sad news that Harvey Pekar has died at the age of 70. I’ve been a fan of Harvey since I was 18 years old and I happened across an issue of American Splendor in a comic book shop. At the time I was getting in to Love and Rockets so I wondered what this similarly magazine sized black and white comic was all about. I was blown away and bought all of the rest of the series as it came out. In fact, earlier this year I had just completed my run of the original series by getting issues 1, 2 and 3 on eBay for the freaky low price of $25. I followed Harvey when he was on David Letterman but unlike most folks I was actually versed in his work when we was on.
There is one story of his that I particularly love and think about often. As I was bagging the collection recently I ran back across it in issue #13. The title escapes me and I’m away from my collection but it is the story where Harvey goes in to work on a snowy day and because of the blizzard work is very slow so he reads I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi and muses on differences between the Singer brothers. I used to work rotating shifts as quality control in a chemical factory and during the holidays my work was very much like that. Just enough work we had to come in but lots of time to read and relax while still getting paid. In some ways, that’s the most magical moments a bookish working stiff can ever achieve. In this one story, I felt as close to Harvey as I ever have.
Recently at Heroes Con in Charlotte I chatted with Ed Piskor and Chris Samnee. With both of them, all I talked about was their work with Pekar. I bought a copy of The Beats: A Graphic History from Ed’s table. My deepest Pekar regret is that years ago he was at Dragon*Con as a guest. There was a point where I walked near his table. He had no one around him and I wanted to go tell him how much I appreciated his work but something about the look on his face scared me off and I just never did it. I know the lessons of the Butthole Surfers: “It’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done” but I failed anyway. I always wish I had, even just to tell him that his work meant something to me. Take these chances when they arrive kids, because they often won’t arrive again.
A lot of things I see about Harvey refer to him as a curmudgeon or a misanthrope. The one thing that I take away from his work – and I’m talking about lots of it over the last 35 years – is that Harvey loved people. Note how many American Splendor stories are in fact someone else relating their story. Harvey talked to that person, asked them about themselves, cared enough to remember and then write it up. That’s not a thing you do from a hatred of humanity, that’s an act of love. If anything, although many stories are about Harvey being cranky at circumstance or failing at the little things it always seemed like most of the anger was at himself. People he loved.
I will miss this guy very much. I’m glad he achieved a level of success over his career. He still remains one of my creative idols, for a guy in 1976 who wanted to put out a comic and couldn’t see any reason not to so he did it. These are the people who informed my feelings about podcasting and new media – people like Harvey who did what they wanted to on their plan when it was very difficult. I’m glad that he got a little time of retirement from his day job and was able to just write for a few years. I loved and love his work, and eventually will own and read every bit of it. He was one of the true heroes of American letters and thankfully some of that adulation came while Harvey was still around to appreciate it.
I’m trying not to be sad about Harvey dying in 2010 but happy that he didn’t die of cancer in 1990. He had a gift of 20 years given to him, and he used those 20 years well. May we all do as well with the gifts we are given. Goodbye Harvey. Rest in peace.