Last week, the date of Harvey Pekar’s birth (October 8) passed again, for the fourth time since his death in 2010. This time, it would have been Pekar’s 75th birthday and many admirers, friends and fans the world over probably observed a quiet moment for our misanthropic comic book hero, who wrote with such courage and honesty about his life and the world as he saw it. Pekar is best known for American Splendor, which ran from 1976 until just before his death, with a few interruptions, but his later years were extremely prolific. “With any luck I’ll get a window of good health between the time I retire and the time I croak,” he said, and he made the most of his eight short years of retirement, offering up some of his greatest work.
I’ve written before about The Quitter, which is still my favourite single comic book of all time. (Manifest Destiny nipping at its heels, though.) Other work from this period includes a rare full-length story about someone else’s life, Ego and Hubris, a book of political history, Macedonia, a great series of American Splendor comics from a new distribution deal with Vertigo Comics, which included such classics as “Today I Am A Man” and “Grunting”, and a web-based series, The Pekar Project. Following his untimely death in 2010, two major works were published, the award-winning Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland in and Not the Israel My Parents Promised, both issued in 2012. Cleveland, illustrated by Joseph Remnant, one of the current generation of comics artists that Pekar was increasingly employing, is an undisputed Pekar classic, re-telling the history of his home city with style and wit and his usual lack of obvious sentimentality. The Israel book is an expansive and daring work, using quite advanced forms of comics storytelling to conjure up dramatic historical events, but ends on a touching and quiet moment of an aged Pekar where he spent most of his retirement: the public library.
Looking back over the sheer volume of work that he produced between his 2001 retirement and his 2010 death, one almost feels regretful that Pekar didn’t have more time on his hands in the previous years. The first post-retirement project was the American Splendor film, released in 2003 to wide acclaim, and then non-stop work after that. Imagine what he could have produced had he retired ten years earlier. But, of course, that wouldn’t have been Harvey Pekar. So much of his life and work revolved around routine and stability, not an uncommon thing for people with anxiety issues. Pekar’s job, as a file clerk at the VA hospital, was something any number of others could have done, but refused promotion and stayed in the position until he qualified for a pension, and then took it. He could have quit much earlier and almost certainly found a warm welcome in the comics community of the 1990s. (Whether that support would have taken a financial form sufficient to support Pekar and his family is another question: no one gets into comics for the money.) Instead, Harvey kept working his day job, kept observing and commenting on it, until he was finally free of the day-to-day.
Cancer was also an issue. Pekar spent much of the early 1990s struggling with lymphoma, which he and his remarkable partner Joyce Brabner turned into 1994’s Our Cancer Year. Having gone through a difficult health crisis, he seemed to fade back into his routine for the remainder of that decade. Tragically, Pekar’s cancer recurred in 2003, just as the American Splendor film was entering post-production, but this time the comics kept coming at a dizzying pace. Pekar was quite open about the number of medications he was on at the time, even detailing his morning routine of prozac, amphetamines and valium in one of his later stories. He wasn’t well, physically or emotionally, but still managed to be incredibly creative. His death in 2010 came soon after yet another cancer diagnosis and may have been the result of mixing medications for depression. The spirit was willing, but the flesh had been put to the test one too many times.
There may be another posthumous release from Pekar, and Joyce Brabner has been invaluable to the comics community in keeping his memory and work alive, even recently saving many unreleased pages of writing from a flood, hanging the pages to dry in Cleveland, an almost poetically beautiful image of Pekar’s words hanging above Pekar’s city.
Harvey Pekar may have liked to play the everyman, but for someone with his emotional and physical health issues to be so amazingly creative and productive in the last nine years of his life speaks to an inner strength that is anything but ordinary. Maybe Harvey was never meant to live to 75, but I suspect if he had, he would still be there at the public library, ready to explain anything to you in detail and then shrug with the world-weary wisdom he had earned. The angry figure who appeared on Letterman in the 1980s had given way to an older man with patience and diligence, and a gentle humor that no one who met him forgets. So, happy belated birthday, Harvey, and thanks for continuing to be inspirational.