“Harvey, Harvey,” talk show host David Letterman said. “This is very bad manners.”
“I don’t care, man,” replied Pekar.
It was 1987 and it was live on television. Making his eighth and most certainly final appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman,” and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “On strike against NBC,” Harvey Pekar had just called out Letterman for being a corporate shill. Then he began to list the wrongdoings of NBC’s parent company GE.
“This is very, very inappropriate,” said Letterman.
Clearly Pekar didn’t care. Yet clearly he also cared profoundly—so much so that he felt compelled to say something.
But who was this guy, this chutzpadik, who would say such things? And why was he on TV anyway?
This was man Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer and everyman Poet Laureate. Pekar was just some guy from Cleveland. Just some guy from Cleveland who wrote comic books that captured the beauty, heartbreak and humor of everyday life. Some guy from Cleveland the New York Times compared to Chekhov.
Pekar’s own life was ostensibly unremarkable, yet it was the subject of his work—most notably the comic book series “American Splendor”—and a commercially and critically successful biopic. And it’s fitting that Harvey Pekar narrated the film, in which Paul Giamatti portrayed him, in his own unique, scratchy voice. For like his work, the film was Pekar’s story—he just had other people illustrate it. He was a man, an American everyman, who had no one else to speak for him, and who said what he thought. In that respect he was like a radio caller, just callin’ it as he saw it. But of course he was quite unlike the voice of the masses. For Pekar’s work succeeded because his thoughts were more insightful and touching than others’, including not just talk radio callers, but most people far more successful than him.
Born in Cleveland to Jewish immigrants from Bialystok, Poland, Harvey Pekar’s life might not perhaps seem fertile subject for comics. He worked as a file clerk at a hospital. He was depressed and neurotic. He was misanthropic. He was often lonely. He was almost always broke, fretting about work and money. Yet, davka, Pekar made himself and his life the subject of his work. And with less narcissism and more charm than most of today’s navel-gazing bloggers and essayists, he made his unremarkable life resonate. Pekar took feelings and experiences from his own very particular and rather peculiar world to illustrate the universal.
Pekar believed that the relentless repetitiousness of the everyday shaped lives more than any extraordinary major event. “It’s the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about,” he explained. So that’s what he wrote about. He chronicled the minutiae of his life with honesty and humor. The result, said the comic book artist Robert Crumb, who collaborated with Pekar, was work “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.”
In “American Splendor” Pekar offered insights into his life, the life of a regular guy, as he worked at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, and chronicled his relationship with his wife. He simultaneously kvetched about and questioned the meaning of existence, like an irascible Aristotle. His work marked by keen cultural observation and social criticism, Pekar was an outsider artist.
Often as the children of immigrants, American Jews have had a huge, formative influence on comic books, as anyone who has read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” can attest. So Pekar came in a long line of Jewish comic book writers from Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee to Al Jaffee and Art Spiegelman.
Pekar addressed his Jewishness in his work, perhaps most notably in his first posthumous book titled “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me.” In the collaboration with illustrator JT Waldman, he described his Jewish childhood as the son of Yiddish speaking immigrant parents, born in Cleveland in 1939. His mother, a Marxist, and father, an Orthodox Jew, owned a grocery sore. Both were ardent Zionists and in the aftermath of World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, Pekar grew up in an environment in which Zionism was unimpeachable.
But—and this might come as no surprise to David Letterman—Pekar was a contrary child. He challenged his father’s religious beliefs and parents’ politics. He described being expelled from Hebrew school, when a teacher screamed, “Harvey, there’s a thin line between genius and crazy—and you’ve crossed it.”
In his book on Israel, Pekar covered Jewish history and lamented the current state of affairs in the Middle East. But for Pekar Israel was almost as imagined as it was to any early Zionist, for he never visited the place. The closest he came was the Israeli consulate in Chicago. There, when Pekar suggested he might like to work on a kibbutz, an official told him, “They wouldn’t take you, and if they did, they’d throw you out.”
For in many ways Pekar was the anti-Israeli. In the eyes of many of its leaders the Zionist project was designed to rehabilitate and strengthen the weak, downtrodden Jew. Zionist leaders believed Jews in the Diaspora to be disconnected from the land and physicality, and to live overly intellectual, ethereal existences in the land of others. Whereas the new Jew in a Jewish homeland would be strong, independent and in control of her own destiny. This was reflected in the Hebrew names that Zionists took, such as Barak meaning “lightning,” Arad “bronze,” Peled “steel” or Oz “strength.”
But Pekar is antithetical to this image of a new Jew. He was downtrodden; we all are. Or, as Pekar himself put it vis-à-vis the Israeli consular official: “What the guy was saying was that I was a loser, and Israel had no time to rehabilitate shmucks.”
But however much Pekar may have refused to drink what he saw as his parents’ Zionist Kool-Aid, he was clearly preoccupied and gravely concerned with Israel, which he questioned. And of course, as we’re reminded every Passover, good Jews ask questions. Pekar sees this disagreeability as a Jewish tradition as important as any other. “I guess we’ve always been a thickheaded people who enjoy disagreeing with one another,” he said.
Pekar had three marriages, the third of which was the luckiest. And although his work avoided schmaltz like the plague, his third marriage is a cute-meet worthy of a Nora Ephron film. A comic book store worker from Delaware named Joyce Brabner wrote to Pekar asking for an issue of “American Splendor.” He replied, sent a copy, and the two started an epistolary relationship. In time, she visited him in Cleveland. And on their third date they were married. After the wedding, the next issue of “American Splendor” was subtitled “Harvey’s Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage to a Sweetie from Delaware and How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship.”
The marriage did endure, however, and Joyce worked alongside Pekar. When he suffered with lymphoma in the 1990s, the couple co-wrote a graphic novel titled “Our Cancer Year.” Sadly, it was not his only year with cancer, and Pekar fell to the disease in July 2010, at the age of 70. “Life is about women, gigs, an’ bein’ creative,” he wrote for his own tombstone.
Life in Pekar’s work was also about humor and sadness and the complex symbiotic relationship between the two. “The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV,” he said, and perhaps viewers of Letterman might agree. “It’s the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there’s no routine and everything is unexpected. That’s what I want to write about.”
And that’s exactly what Harvey Pekar did write about. “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoevsky’s,” no less than the New York Times Book Review wrote in 1989. “And it’s easy to see why.”