After an untimely death, after copyright battles, after two years of fan letters addressed to your dead husband — who laid out no instructions in a will — a question slowly begins to emerge. How do you permanently memorialize one of Cleveland's greatest, yet most self-effacing, artists in a way that wouldn't have made him bolt for the deepest hole he could crawl into?
This is your question if you are Joyce Brabner, if your husband was the famed comic book writer Harvey Pekar, and if you're afraid of creating a memorial that would heretically, awfully turn your husband into some kind of golden idol, instead of accomplishing what he would've wanted: to inspire other writers.
The answer Brabner chose was to create a memorial at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library, where Pekar spent many of his days and wrote many of his famous American Splendor comics. Its focus would not be Harvey the man, but Harvey the mentor.
At the memorial's dedication a year ago, Brabner spoke of Pekar's love of the library, how he felt safe and inspired there, how he believed a library card was more important than a charge card. She cried. It was over.
Then she went about her days, confident that the memorial was in the care and view of the public, where it belonged. She was working on her new projects, a series of comics with famed graphic novelist Alan Moore and an upcoming graphic novel about the AIDS crisis, and generally finding a new rhythm. All was fine, until a Wednesday night in August, when Brabner and her foster daughter, Danielle Batone, climb the stairs of the library on Lee Road to visit the memorial to the late husband and father.
Brabner stops before the living memorial, created from pieces of Pekar's life. It includes a working desk with his writing paraphernalia, empty paper for scribbling on, and a small bronzed statue of Pekar in front of some comic strips.
The widow lovingly smoothes her hands over the wavy lines engraved in the desk. Danielle holds up and admires a pencil sketch someone has made of Pekar and left in a drawer.
Brabner's glasses slip down her nose as she kneels to look at a drawer that holds Pekar's writing tools in a plexiglass case: his glasses, his favorite books, his art supplies. Only it's empty.
"That's weird," Brabner says.
Brabner's face turns ashen. She begins pulling at her cheeks, which she does when she's nervous or thinking hard.
"I think we might be witnessing a theft," she says finally.
Danielle runs off to get the librarians. Brabner begins to pace nervously around the statue base, musing aloud about people she feels might have stolen the items.
"I can handle this," she says, and it is unclear if she is reassuring herself or her audience. "I've already been through the biggest shock and loss of my life. After that, nothing can hurt me."
It's a defiant statement, born out of the decades Brabner spent taking care of Pekar, who was sicker and more troubled than anyone knew. Today, three years after her husband's death, Brabner, 61, continues to play the role of caretaker, keeping his literary legacy alive while navigating disputes with some of her husband's collaborators. At the same time, Brabner is trying to re-emerge as an artist herself, with her own distinct voice.
• • • • •
Joyce Brabner's first collaboration with her husband appears in Pekar's American Splendor in a 1985 story, "A Marriage Album."
In the comic, which she co-wrote, she is drawn as a capable, strong-minded feminist, the width of a brushstroke, with long black hair parted down the middle and oversized glasses that look like lab goggles. Pekar is brooding, quiet, shown failing in his efforts to clean the dishes. In the story's most memorable passage, Brabner tells friends and family why she has uprooted her career and life to move to Cleveland to be with Pekar, an underground comics writer and file clerk.
"I didn't want to get married again until I was at least 55 or 60," explains Brabner, who was 31 when she married Pekar. "But it was just like being at a flea market — you see one thing you never expected to find there and it's so special you've gotta have it even if it's going to take all your money and you don't know how you'll ever get it home."
In 1982, Brabner was managing a prison arts program and operating a comic book store in Wilmington, Del. She spent 10 years at the prison, helping inmates find worth and purpose through theater and art.
"Nobody cared about these folks," she recalls. "I wanted them to see themselves in ways they'd never imagined. Imagination can make success possible."
Brabner was a big fan of Pekar's American Splendor, which was sold in her store. Pekar, dubbed "Cleveland's poet laureate" and "the blue-collar Mark Twain," was a raspy-voiced file clerk at Cleveland's VA hospital who penned comic book stories about the day-to-day life of the working class in Cleveland, with himself as protagonist and narrator. His work gained a cult following for breaking the comic mold thanks to its celebration of ordinary life and Pekar's self-effacing, curmudgeonly persona.
Brabner felt Pekar echoed her own sensibilities about class, self-education and creativity. "I just thought Harvey had this integrity and awareness about life," she says.
Brabner was peeved when her partner sold the latest copy of American Splendor before she got the chance to read it. So she wrote to Pekar, requesting a new copy. Pekar wrote back. And so it went for a few months. "Harvey fell in love with me because of the letters we wrote each other," Brabner says. In their letters, they spilled their thoughts on inspiration and day-to-day living and talked honestly about their pasts.
In 1983, Brabner traveled to Cleveland to meet Pekar. It was not a dream first date.
Brabner spent most of a day crouched on the toilet with food poisoning. But at the end of the weekend, they got engaged.
"We had both been married before and we didn't expect perfect stuff," Brabner explains. "I knew we were never going to agree on what movie to watch. But the big-picture stuff" — their thoughts on work, life and purpose — "we were in complete agreement on." Not to mention, Brabner says with a smile, "I had a feeling he would be interesting his whole life."
From the beginning, Brabner felt she had unique insight into her husband. Like Pekar, she grew up poor, in a household where books were a source of sustenance. And like Pekar, she drew motivation from slights she'd endured as an outsider.
Her rejection from the Girl Scouts still causes her pain. "I was so excited to spend time with the other girls," she says. "I thought it was going to be great."
But when Brabner proudly presented the homemade cookies her mother had baked, the other girls wrinkled their noses. They'd all brought wrapped snacks, and they "were disgusted that my mother had touched them with her hands," Brabner explains. "They looked at them like I was dirty." Humiliated, Brabner quit the group, but spent the rest of the year earning every Girl Scout badge in the book on her own.
What brought Brabner and Pekar together more than anything were the complementary roles they had paved in life. Pekar was an incredibly talented, neurotic, needy genius who could not handle basic tasks, such as turning on the computer, planning a trip or washing dishes. Brabner was a highly efficient and creative manager who felt most fulfilled when playing the role of caretaker.
"Joyce is very, very good at coping with illness and problems," explains her friend Kathy Rosner. Brabner had stepped into the role early, taking care of her six younger siblings. She was always trying to rescue someone: an inmate with father issues, a runaway teen or a lonely, depressed cartoonist.
When Pekar and Brabner weren't bickering, they worked well together.
"I think they had a pretty symbiotic relationship," says Suzanne DeGaetano, the co-owner of Mac's Backs-Books on Coventry, who hosted many of Pekar's book signings. "Because of Joyce, Harvey was able to do things he would never have been able to do himself."
Brabner handled Pekar's finances, publicity, travel itineraries and media bookings. In turn, DeGaetano says, Brabner enjoyed the celebrity and intellectual rewards of marriage to a groundbreaking writer. "She liked his genius," DeGaetano says.
• • • • •
Because of Pekar, Brabner launched her own successful comic book writing career.
In the mid-1980s, Lou Ann Merkle, a Cleveland artist, peace activist and member of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, came to Pekar for advice on designing a comic book telling the nefarious side of the military draft.
When Pekar outlined a design that looked a lot like American Splendor, Brabner jumped in. "You are going up against the biggest advertiser in the United States — [the Army]," she said. "This is the Top Gun era." To compete, Brabner argued, the comic book had to be colorful, impactful and animated.
"If you know so much, why don't you write it?" Pekar asked. So she did. The result,Real War Stories, documented some of the travails members of the military had endured — including barbaric shipboard initiations involving painting genitals with printer's ink. The Defense Department called much of the book fabricated, but was forced to back down after Brabner produced all her interviews and naval records that supported the comic's claim.
Thus began Brabner's career as a comics writer. She wrote true-life stories about victims of Agent Orange, Cambodian refugees and animal-rights activists.
"[Joyce] has a real commitment to social justice and creating works that reflect that," says Calvin Reid, senior editor for Publishers Weekly. "She looks hard to find the truth and makes sure the heroes get their dues."
Brabner teamed with English graphic novelist Alan Moore, author of the series V for Vendetta and Watchmen, for Brought to Light, a book about the U.S. government's role in the mid-1980s Iran-Contra affair.
"Joyce has never been afraid to clearly state her ethical or political position," Moore emails, "in an industry where possessing either of these things has all too often been seen as a career drawback."
Though her successes were growing, Brabner put down her pen when a young voice cried out for her help.
In 1996, Danielle, the 8-year-old daughter of a homeless musician, showed up at Pekar and Brabner's door with her father, who wanted Pekar to connect him with his friend, underground comics artist Robert Crumb.
While Danielle's father talked with Pekar, Danielle slipped upstairs and found Brabner at the computer. "I need help," she said. "I need you to be my substitute mother."
Brabner had never met Danielle before. But that didn't matter.
"I could tell right away she wasn't safe," Brabner recalls. With a bit of creative maneuvering and lobbying, Brabner and Pekar became Danielle's legal guardians in 1998.
For the next 10 years, Brabner focused most of her creative energy on getting Danielle — now 25 and an artist — the educational, psychological and emotional support she needed. It is one of the most fulfilling roles of her life, she says.
• • • • •
"I'm Harvey Pekar, author and protagonist of this autobiographical comics story. Maybe you've read some of my gloomy stories here before. They appeal to people who are miserable and love company. I think if you feel rotten most of the time by a certain age, you're always going to feel lousy — your glass is always going to be half empty. I don't have it worse than a lot of people, but I pity myself more." — Harvey Pekar, American Splendor, April 2001
To a reader, Pekar's comics about his downtrodden, anxiety-filled views on life are entertaining, like watching Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm is entertaining. But life was not always so comedic for the family of a continually depressed, anxious person.
"You could tell Harvey there was no cheese in the house, and he'd freak out, even though the grocery store was up the road," Danielle says.
Brabner knew what she was getting into from the relationship's start.
"I knew [Harvey] had depression. I knew he had anxiety," she says. She attributes much of it to family history and genetics. "The Holocaust did bad things to his family," she says. "That's not neurotic, that's serious business." Both of Pekar's parents were hospitalized with dementia in their early 60s.
Brabner could handle his anxiety. But the combination of depression and lymphoma, which Pekar was diagnosed with in 1990, was a whole other monster. They wrote about his exhausting year of treatment in Our Cancer Year, more a diary of a relationship than of an illness.
From the moment of diagnosis, Pekar and Brabner reacted differently. Certain of his imminent death, Pekar spoke to his accountant about how to provide for Brabner, while Brabner doubled down and decided to become the best caretaker possible. That sometimes meant devoting herself wholly to his care, neglecting her own.
"It was an extremely isolating time," she admits. On the first night, the book says, she "learned to cry without moving, so Harvey couldn't feel it and wouldn't know." When Pekar's drugs prompted terrifying nights, and his weakened immune system caused welts to break out over his entire body, Brabner slept on the floor. That way, Harvey could have the entire bed, yet know she'd be there when he woke up.
These trials are well known. But even most of the couple's friends were kept isolated from what happened next.
• • • • •
After Pekar received a cancer-free diagnosis later in 1990, Brabner expected him to bounce back. He did, for a short while.
But then he fell into an ever-deeper depression. It persisted even after he learned that his life would be made into a Hollywood film starring Paul Giamatti. Income from the film would provide enough security for Pekar to write full time, Brabner says, but he was reluctant to give up his day job as a clerk. That's when she realized Pekar's depression had ventured into bleaker, more paranoid territory.
"When the idea of him quitting his job and doing what he really wanted to do started making him physically ill and fall down from anxiety and panic, I began to see this was no longer just a personality quirk," Brabner says.
It was as if success was a fatal gun wound. Pekar knew how to play the role of underdog but had no idea how to exist in the world of celebrity.
His condition got worse with his second diagnosis of cancer in 2002. Pekar began a downward, self-sabotaging spiral, overdosing repeatedly on antidepression drugs and ending up in the Cleveland Clinic psychiatric ward for weeks at a time.
"Harvey was severely depressed and didn't see a way out of it," says friend Rob Kleidman, who visited him in the hospital. At home, Danielle would sometimes wake up to find Harvey on the kitchen floor, "moaning that he wanted to die," she says.
To protect her husband, Brabner and a handful of friends vowed to keep this side of Pekar hidden from the world. She wanted to preserve his ability to make a living and did not want people to take advantage of him. "I wanted him to be able to keep writing up until the end," she explains.
It took a great amount of skill and acting. American Splendor was shown on the opening night of the 2003 Cleveland International Film Festival. Pekar was supposed to give a speech, but he was hospitalized with an overdose, Brabner says. She spoke instead, letting people think her husband's no-show was cancer-related. "There's this picture on the Internet of me talking and waving my arms around like everything's all right and Danielle's got this worried look on her face like, Are you going to be able to pull it off?" Brabner says.
She did, as she had multiple times before and after. She directed hospital security to prohibit anyone from visiting Pekar's room without her permission. At home, Brabner says she became a 24-hour nursing assistant — an important role, she says, after Pekar almost started several fires in the house by forgetting about lit burners.
On good days, Pekar was still able to give speeches and lectures. Even at the height of his anxiety, he was able to write. Near the end of his life, he was still experimenting, writing about new topics such as Israel and exploring online comics.
Even many of Pekar's friends and associates were not aware of his condition.
"I never knew Harvey was hospitalized," says the couple's good friend Steve Presser, the owner of the retro toy store Big Fun. "Harvey was never a very vocal or enthusiastic person, so it was easy for [his condition] to slip under the radar. I feel bad knowing now how depressed he was and I feel bad Joyce had to deal with it."
On July 12, 2010, Brabner found Pekar collapsed on the bedroom floor, not breathing. She called an ambulance but couldn't revive him. Pekar's death, according to the Cuyahoga County coroner's office, was caused by an accidental overdose of two antidepressants.
"He did not take his own life," spokesperson Powell Caesar told The Plain Dealer in October 2010. "His death came as a result of accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion," generic versions of Prozac and Wellbutrin.
Pekar was buried at Lake View Cemetery, right next to Eliot Ness's tombstone.
"One untouchable next to another," Brabner jokes.
Pekar's funeral was attended by a small, close-knit group of Pekar's friends, a jazz and klezmer combo and a guard, to make sure the ceremony wasn't disrupted. Brabner had good reason to believe it might be.
• • • • •
If Brabner devoted herself wholly to protecting and keeping Pekar safe during his life, she has worked equally hard to protect his legacy after his death.
Brabner knew what might be coming. After the movie American Splendor was released, multitudes of personalities descended upon her and Pekar. Strangers arrived at the couple's front stoop, expecting to be housed overnight because they "really felt a connection with us," Brabner says, eyes rolling. Other assaults came from within their circle. A friend threatened to sue Brabner, Pekar, the production company and the key grips for unfairly depicting him in the movie — though he never appeared.
With Pekar gone, it was up to Brabner, executor of his estate, to shake off the hangers-on and decide which unpublished Pekar works would see the light and which to bury in the darkest closet drawer.
"When you are married to a famous artist, the phrase 'till death do us part' does not apply to you," explains Ellen Frankel, who dealt with several widows of famous writers and scholars when she was CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, the nation's oldest nonprofit publisher of Jewish books. "Even after the spouse's death, you will be married to that person's work until the day you die."
Frankel has seen widows destroy their husband's legacy by holding work too tightly, while others were the best posthumous asset an artist could have. The role of executor is challenging, she says.
"On the one hand, it's a gift," says Frankel. "On the other hand, it's a tremendous burden to be the sole decision-maker ensuring how their husband's work is remembered."
After Pekar died, Brabner vowed to guard Pekar's works as if they were her own. She worked with illustrators on posthumous Pekar books, including JT Waldman on Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me.
Waldman says he admired how Brabner seamlessly finished her husband's work.
"Up until Harvey's passing," Waldman says, "she wasn't really involved too much in the book." But afterward, Brabner came up with the title, and she figured out how to address the fact that the book was being told in the present despite his death. She wrote the book's ending, describing how her husband's funeral related to his thoughts on Judaism, his parents and Israel. "They were some of my favorite [scenes] in the book," Waldman says.
But not everyone was so happy about Brabner's editorial decisions. She refused to grant permission for two of Pekar's collaborators, Louis Proyect and Tara Seibel, to publish their unfinished work with him.
When Pekar died, he was under contract to write a graphic novel about New York-based blogger Proyect's humorous tales of his summers growing up in New York's Catskills. Pekar's death halted the nearly finished project, which Random House was set to publish. Upset, Proyect made confrontational comments about Random House on his blog. Brabner responded by denying Proyect's request for permission to shop the book around and run excerpts online. Proyect was furious.
"I think it was petty of her to deny permission," he says in a phone call. On his blog, he denounced Brabner in much more creative and offensive terms.
Brabner says Proyect's ramblings prove her point. She says it's up to her to keep Pekar's legacy from being sullied by "people attaching themselves to Pekar to inflate their own sense of importance."
With Seibel, a local illustrator, Pekar had published a colorful, experimental comic strip, "Rock City — Terminally Ill," that appeared in such publications as The Austin Chronicle and The Jewish Daily Forward. To Brabner, something about the relationship felt off. Seibel often proclaimed herself Pekar's co-creator and protege. That bothered Brabner, who says nobody had ever called themselves that before.
After Pekar died, Brabner says, Seibel began incessantly calling her. Within months, Brabner called the Cleveland Heights law department, which told Seibel not to contact Brabner. Steve Presser, Big Fun's owner, recalls asking Seibel to leave a release party for a posthumous Pekar book after she began "yelling and screaming" that she was Pekar's collaborator. Seibel's lawyer asserted that she had an oral agreement with Pekar that allowed her to re-illustrate any of his American Splendor comics. (Brabner strongly disputes this.)
Brabner has scrubbed Seibel's work from an online showcase and a traveling exhibit of her husband's works. She has warned a comics publisher not to publish Seibel's collaborations with Pekar or there could be possible legal action.
Seibel feels Brabner's efforts stem from jealousy over the hours Seibel spent with Pekar. Seibel says she believes Pekar's memory continues through her work. "My legacy is being sprung out of his legacy," she says.
Brabner was also protective and particular about her husband's memorial at the library. She funded it through a public Kickstarter campaign to maintain the project's independence. "I didn't want anyone to be able to write a big check and be able to say afterward that they owned Harvey in any way," Brabner explains.
She selected local sculptor Justin Coulter to create the memorial, but they clashed.
"I wouldn't hear from Joyce for weeks or longer," Coulter recalls. "Then all of a sudden I'd hear from her, demanding something the next day."
At a certain point, a team of artists and Coulter's mentors finished the project. Brabner says Coutler was supposed to finish it. Coulter disagrees, saying it was always meant to be a group project, and that he was hired to sculpt the bronze head and cartoon and did so.
During the memorial's dedication last October, the library's director called police to report a disturbance, and officers arrived and spoke to Coulter, a police call for service report shows. Coulter says when he arrived at the unveiling, he was surrounded by cops and escorted off the premises.
The rest of the event went flawlessly. And everyone, from Coulter to Brabner, is pleased with the monument.
Some people see Brabner as unnecessarily controlling, but to Brabner, this just meant she was doing her job well. "Look, I'm a piece of work. I can have a negative temper," she says. "But the more people realize what I was protecting [Pekar] from, the more they understand."
• • • • •
Before Pekar died, he and Brabner talked about her life after him.
"He wanted me to stop caretaking and start writing," Brabner says. "I told him I'd do it when I was good and ready."
About two years after Pekar's death, Brabner escaped to a deserted beach town in Florida with notebooks, manuscripts and sketchbooks.
"I needed to give myself a strong external sign that something had changed," she says. She spent the weekend scribbling notes and sketches for possible new books, and arrived home reinvigorated.
Next year, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux will publish Brabner's first solo-authored graphic novel in more than three decades. The book, as yet unnamed, tells the story of her friend Ray, a gay nurse in New York who tried to rescue friends dying of AIDS by smuggling ribavirin in the 1980s, an antiviral drug once reputed to inhibit the HIV virus, across the Mexican border. The story is heartbreaking, funny and well-written.
"This is Joyce at her best," says Calvin Reid, the Publishers Weekly editor who's reviewed much of the script. The story, he says, provides "some serious journalism about a period of time in our history that the nation is just coming to grips with."
Brabner is also returning to her social justice roots, reuniting with Alan Moore on a series of 13 comics that neither will talk much about. But Moore says he enjoys working with Brabner again because she "avoids cheap dramatics and empty stylistic flourishes in [favor] of the keenly judged placement of words and images."
Ellen Frankel, the former publisher, says the literary widows with the most chance at happiness are those who find their own purpose and art away from their husbands.
Still, Brabner can't bring herself to totally focus on her own work. "I don't think [Joyce] will ever stop feeling responsible for Harvey's legacy," says Kathy Rosner.
As Brabner works on the final details of Ray's story, she is also editing two books she started with Pekar about their marriage and their different ways of dealing with depression. She's also updating an unpublished comic book of Pekar's from the '80s.
"It's been this bittersweet thing," Brabner says. "As I've been going through the dialogue, I'm remembering everything that was going on at the time.
"I'm revisiting the young Harvey and seeing how he was before he got sick. We'd only been married a couple of years then."
Over the phone, her voice sounds stuffed, like she has a cold or is stifling a sob.
"We were really pretty happy."
• • • • •
As it turns out, there was no thievery at the library that Wednesday night in August. A panel in the drawer had broken, and librarians were keeping Pekar's writing items in a safe until it was fixed.
Crisis averted, Brabner was free, for a moment, to think about her life without Pekar. "It doesn't get better, but it does get easier," she says.
Brabner says a burden is lifted now that she feels free to tell the story of her husband's suffering and her struggles to keep him safe. "It's a relief not to have to keep all these things under wrap now that they can't hurt him," she says.
As for her life, Brabner can't help quoting her husband. "I absolutely believe in what I put on his tombstone," she says. "Life is about women, gigs and being creative."
And Brabner has many days still in front of her, she says, then unearths a quick, mordant one-liner. "As long as global warming doesn't destroy everything."