For the last few years of Harvey Pekar’s life, he was on a creative roll. His American Splendor comic had never really gone away, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, Pekar was focusing more on long-form storytelling and documenting his struggles (Our Cancer Year) and successes (Our Movie Year). By the time the 2003 American Splendor film had been released, praised and brought him a whole new audience, Pekar once again found himself with conflicting challenges. Finally retired from his position at the VA hospital in Cleveland and with a small pension, he could finally concentrate full-time on his writing, partly out of necessity (he was never a wealthy man). He had also gone through a recurrence of his cancer, and although it was successfully treated, the disease would loom over his life for the rest of his days, eventually recurring again just before his death in 2010. But in the years between 2004 and 2010, Pekar managed to spin his experiences adjusting to retired life and facing the end into some of his most compelling, thoughtful and moving work.
As an older man, Pekar didn’t exactly mellow as much as emphasize his natural sweetness, and turned his artistic impulses with a levelling eye towards both the profound (facing his religious background head-on, being overtly political) and the mundane (fixing his toilet, finding a lost cat). He also sought out some of the next generation of talented artists, such as Dean Haspiel, to keep his material fresh and, not incidentally, looking great. Sure, he still collaborated with some of his old friends, including a warm reunion with Robert Crumb, but for the most part, Pekar still seemed to think of himself as a contemporary writer, not a “veteran”.
American Splendor itself returned to regular publication in 2006 from Vertigo, after a long run with Dark Horse. Those last Vertigo comics are collected into two trade paperbacks, titled Another Day and Another Dollar, and besides being a fascinating insight into a comics legend in his final years, they also work as a great introduction to Pekar for the first-time reader.
Most Pekar stories start with some sort of mundane problem in life that seems insurmountable, or some randomly-observed conversation or notion, and then progress through some dramatic tension that never quite seems to bubble to the surface. In these stories, many things seem just on the cusp of happening, characters seem just about to explode into something we would recognize as conventional storytelling, but somehow it never quite releases. Pekar gives us denouements with no climaxes, and some stories simply shuffle to their ends. But his endings are always profound, with enough folk wisdom to reflect a deeply intellectual sage, trapped (if that term is permissible) in a blue-collar life.
It is important to note that Pekar himself would grouse a great deal about his financial poverty, and the various stresses that brings, but at the same time he didn’t take advantage of all his opportunities, particularly if they necessitated his traveling extensively or moving away from his Cleveland-based life. His fierce loyalty to his home city, with all its problems, registers on every page he ever wrote, but found its fullest expression in his posthumous masterpiece Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, illustrated by Joseph Remnant. But the themes of coming to terms with one’s station in life and learning to accept what you can’t (or won’t) change is the meta-message of much of Pekar’s final work.
Another Day, the first of the Vertigo American Splendor collections, shows Pekar in personal and professional transition. He’s clearly thinking about growing older as he enters retirement, reflecting on his parents as they aged. Artist Ty Templeton creates delicate brush strokes and shading, and depicts Pekar himself with more realism than most artists. As Pekar recounts the sad story of both of his parents sliding into Alzheimer’s disease towards the end of their lives, and how they weren’t able to enjoy their golden years as they should have, he ends with one of his classic Pekar-isms: “I dunno, maybe it’s just not in the cards for some people to have happy lives. Although we’re here for such a short time… maybe it doesn’t matter much.”
Pekar was clearly having trouble adjusting to his new life and experiencing, as many of us writers do, the guilt of not working every moment of every day. Pekar was a lot like me in many respects, including his tendency to wake up in a state of anxiety, write feverishly for a few hours and then collapse in a fit of guilt. It’s not the healthiest of mental attitudes: I think we both would admit that. But it’s very familiar, and that’s a feeling one often gets when reading American Splendor: “I thought it was only me!” In “You Can’t Rush Anything”, with art by Rick Geary, Pekar gives full vent to his anxieties, while of course ending on his usual philosophical note.
Pekar’s love for cats is also very sweetly depicted, such as in this sequence from “Medicating in the Early am”, illustrated by Josh Neufeld. While some writers may have abstracted this sort of human-cat relationship, making it all metaphorical, or perhaps dwelt on some sort of mystical Gaia-inspired connection between species, Pekar simply tells the story, honestly and frankly. And it becomes all the more moving and profound because of it.
In Another Dollar, Pekar is back in the old American Splendor style, simply recalling vignettes from everyday life, and reporting on challenges such as finding his daughter’s lost glasses, responding to reviewers that didn’t understand his comics, attending comic-cons (which he greeted with a gruff tolerance, although he did like the fact that people were reading and liking his work), and commenting on the great issues of the day, namely George W. Bush and Climate Change. Pekar, in this last American Splendor collection, doesn’t really reach for any new style or profound observations. It’s, in some ways, the purest American Splendor since the 1980s, since he had by now seemingly adjusted to retirement and the new pace of life, and settled down to do what he had been doing for thirty years by that point. It’s wonderful that in this last collection he found time to re-state his ethos on our favourite medium (“Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.), but wasn’t seeking so much to expand its boundaries (at least, not in this book) but rather to enjoy the place he had created for himself in it.
Harvey copes with Dean Haspiel’s penchant for going shirtless…
His final American Splendor story is truly wonderful, and poignant, titled “Free Association”, a collection in three parts with a prologue and an epilogue and art by Ty Templeton, Dean Haspiel, Rick Geary and Gary Dumm, his latter-day go-to artists. The final epilogue, illustrated by Templeton, is simply about Pekar having a new idea, writing it down, considering it not bad, and going to bed. “Anyway,” he says in his last American Splendor line, “I got the basis of a very interesting piece.”
Harvey Pekar the man and Pekar the artist are difficult to disentangle, since his work is almost entirely about himself and his life, in intimate detail. He pioneered so much in comics, and his influence is still felt in media such as podcasting and blogging. But he never really considered his work finished, like any great artist. He lived, even in his final years, in the emphatic present, always thinking of the new idea, always wondering how he could pay the bills and somehow finding it in himself to keep going, until he simply couldn’t anymore. For those who love Pekar’s work, and for those who would welcome an introduction, Another Day and Another Dollar are some of the most rewarding reading you’ll find in our favourite medium.