Harvey Pekar, 1939–2010


I was stunned today to hear that Harvey Pekar died. Though I hadn’t worked with Harvey in a couple of years, my history with him goes back to 1994. That was when I wrote him out of the blue, sending him samples of my work and "demanding" he give me a chance to illustrate one of his stories in American Splendor. I was shocked a couple of weeks later when he called me up — and agreed to give me a story to draw! That first one-pager started a 15+-year relationship that gave me much more than just some publication credits.

Besides the many stories of his I worked on, I got the opportunity to really know Harvey and his wife Joyce and foster daughter Danielle. I guess I can’t say he was a friend, per se, but he was much, much more than just a collaborator. That was the thing about Harvey: there was no distinction between his comics and his life. So just as I got to contribute to his incredible, unprecedented undertaking of documenting a life in comics, I got to be part of that actual life. Whether it was random phone calls to ask me what I thought of a new artist he was working with, or the many times I saw him when he came to New York, or the time he wrote me as a character into one of the stories we worked on, I felt honored to be folded into the world of Harvey Pekar and American Splendor.

Most of all, Harvey was a model for me as a comics creator. Through reading his work and working with him, I learned to appreciate the strangeness of real life and the little details of daily existence. As a writer, his unflinching honesty and refusal to engage in sentimentality are qualities which I continue to try to emulate. Obviously, my own attempts at autobiography (which pale next to his best work) were directly influenced by my association with Harvey. And just as Harvey branched out from autobiography to biography and to history, my path in nonfiction comics has led me to "comics journalism."

Above all, I will miss Harvey the man. His intensity and insight made every conversation with him an adventure. Beneath his curmudgeonly exterior was a loyal, supportive, and approachable human being — the same guy who started self-publishing his stories back in 1976 because he had something to say, and found a unique way to say it.

I can’t believe that this distinctive spirit no longer inhabits the planet.

0 thoughts on “Harvey Pekar, 1939–2010

  1. I heard this today and I couldn’t believe it. I immediately thought of you. I’m very sorry to hear this. He will be deeply missed.

  2. RIP Harvey
    My condolences go out to you on the loss of your friend & collaborator.
    I know that my son Jeff aka JahFurry is terribly sad and I’m glad
    that he has friends like you to reach out to . I know that you will all
    have many Harvey tales to tell. so sorry…. from momma of jahfurry

    1. Re: RIP Harvey
      What a sweet mom! I’ve been so happy over the last few years that Harvey found Jeff, and vice-versa. Thanks to the Harvey Pekar tweets and the Pekar Project, not to mention the wonderful 70th birthday celebration Jeff arranged, Harvey’s last few years were filled with fulfillment.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Josh. I just heard the news (from my parents, who knew him and Joyce) and seeing your tribute so soon after helps to soften it a little bit.
    I just realized that I was reading you in American Splendor long before I ever talked to you. It took me a while to make the connection, because I always thought about the artists in A.S. as existing totally in that world, like they were just manifestations of Harvey. And I’d been reading the comic since pretty much the very beginning, so it was actually kind of disorienting and upsetting whenever there was a new one (i.e. every few issues) – “Who’s this ‘Josh’ person? There was no Josh before! Harvey looks wrong!!” etc. But then your collaborations seemed so natural that I forgot you hadn’t always been in the book.

    1. I totally know what you mean, about the American Splendor artists “existing totally in that world, like they were just manifestations of Harvey.” I still marvel at my youthful hubris of reaching out to him and demanding to be part of that world. It was partly because I was at that point living in a very industrial part of Chicago; I think I really connected to Harvey’s Cleveland tales on a primal level — I felt I had EARNED a place among those A.S. artists. And then he actually agreed with me! Nuts.
      Glad you got over your hostility and eventually accepted me as one of the gang.

  4. RIP
    It meant a lot that you and Dino started working with the guy who, to me, seemed like an unapproachable living legend. You connected him with our generation, and I think gave his career a second life (esp when the movie happened). I’m saddened by the news & I’m really gonna miss him.

    1. Re: RIP
      Thanks, David. Same here. If there’s credit to give out for “reinvigorating” Harvey’s career, Dino gets the lion’s share.
      By the way, I know you worked on a few pieces with Harvey. Can you remind me of them so I can add them to my “comprehensive” list (http://www.joshcomix.com/and/pekar_artists)? And you did at least one piece with Joyce too, right? I remember REALLY liking that one…

      1. Re: RIP
        Thanks, Josh. And thanks for asking about my work with Harvey. I’m glad you’re making a “comprehensive” list. No small task (even if compehensive is in quotes).
        After the AS movie came out, I interviewed him for The Stranger (a weekly paper in Seattle) and drew the interview in comics form (a tabloid-sized one-pager). This is not a Pekar-scripted comic, but his words make up the bulk of the content.
        More recently, I collaborated with Sara Rosenbaum on a Pekar script for a two-pager about Pekar’s exposure to Yiddish in his youth. This appeared in Jewish Currents magazine, and is slated to appear in an upcoming book about the Yiddish language in America. Sara has just completed an article about Harvey that describes what it was like to work from his script.
        My story with Joyce was for Jeff Mason’s 9-11 benefit book. Originally I was going to draw Harvey’s contribution to the book, but Tony Millionaire REALLY wanted to work with Harvey. Their collaboration was great / better than I could have done. I worked with Joyce on a story called “Under the Peace Arch.” I felt like Joyce’s story, though heavy, was a good fit for me.

        1. Re: RIP
          Cool. I’ve seen all those pieces, including the excellent one you and Sara did, except maybe The Stranger interview. Do you remember the date it was published? I may be able to find it in their archives…

  5. Harvey Pekar
    Josh, That was sad news to read yesterday, even from the perspective of not personally knowing Harvey Pekar at all. But, over the years, from your experiences and personal connection to Harvey and your enthusiastic contribution as an artist, I had the privilege and enjoyment of being led into the compelling world of Harvey Pekar.
    I’m sorry for your loss. I found your tribute very moving. I also came away thinking that, for a man, whose distinctive personality “demanded” that his tales be told, Harvey Pekar was fortunate that you (and fellow artists) linked your curiosity, intelligence and humor to his own perceptions and that your appreciation, respect- and ultimately responsive talent- helped bring to many his unique “ordinary” life adventure.

    1. Re: Harvey Pekar
      Thanks, Anonymous! (You write like you know me! Who are you?) Anyway, I think you really hit on something there. There was an ineffable quality brought to the table by each of Harvey’s many collaborators, all of which helped to fill in that portrait. Tom Spurgeon wrote that Harvey appeared fully inked while everyone else seemed like a rough sketch, and I think that was in large part because of the multiplicities of representations that defined him: from the comics, to Paul Giamatti, to Harvey’s appearances in documentaries and on Letterman, to the theatrical productions, and on and on and on. It’s a fascinating thing to think about — and a true honor to have been part of.

    2. Re: Harvey Pekar
      BTW, just discovered this was from my mother-in-law Nancy Wilson. With JahFurry’s mom, that’s two awesome moms on one post

  6. That’s very sweet; thanks, Melissa. I recently read somewhere else that many people first came to American Splendor for R. Crumb, and stayed for Harvey. So the connections work both ways!

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