Harvey Pekar's iconic comic series showed what it was like to be a Clevelander.
Harvey Pekar got us because he was one of us. In American Splendor, his iconic series of comic books and his graphic novels, Pekar captured what it is like to be a Clevelander, a Midwesterner, a Rust Belter, in all its everyday splendor and distinctly American grit. He was, like us: an uncompromising curmudgeon, an artist, a striver, a worker, a collaborator, a spouse, a parent, a Clevelander.
When most comic book creators’ heads were full of heroic feats and rippling capes, Pekar wrote about his own life, that of a Jewish guy who lived in Cleveland Heights; a jazz aficionado who, for all his working years, was a file clerk at the VA hospital. When fame found him, leading to appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and a 2003 movie, he remained truly, uncompromisingly himself.
With a host of the finest collaborators and illustrators in the biz — among them his wife Joyce Brabner, Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Joe Zabel, Greg Budgett and many others — Pekar made his life fodder for gripping, searching comics about, as he once put it, “the 99% of life nobody ever writes about.”
In the mundanity of one man’s experiences with love, work, friendship, art and politics, Pekar found universals, the kinds of things that connect with people more than any caped crusader ever could. One comic from 1986, published just as Doubleday was about to launch Pekar’s first book, is a perfect illustration. It tells the tale of a confrontational phone call between Pekar and an editor at a local magazine that bears a striking resemblance to this one.
The call quickly becomes an excavation of Pekar’s insecurities. “If Doubleday hadn’t given my work ‘legitimacy’ by publishing it, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t run anything about me. Let’s face it, what does your yuppie audience care about me?” Pekar rasps into the handset. When Pekar hangs up, he finishes up his workday and comes to regret his acrid tone. He wakes up the next morning to find he is losing his voice.
Such are the small ironies of the everyday. In American Splendor, as in life, those ironies are inevitably followed by little triumphs and failures, by deeply felt frustrations and shared sorrows, by personal things that ultimately matter more than heroics. Harvey got that. And from his tombstone at Lake View Cemetery, Pekar speaks that message to us even now: “Life is about women, gigs an’ bein’ creative.”
Sheehan Hannan was on the staff of Cleveland Magazine from 2014 to 2021 and, in 2021, received the Emil Dansker Award from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists.