I first saw Harvey Pekar during one of his infamous Late Night With David Letterman appearances in the early ‘80s, where he came off as just another one of Letterman’s regular stable of weirdoes to my ill-informed teenage self. It wasn’t until I got to college and found a decent comic book store—God bless you, Bizarro Wuxtry in Athens, GA—that I held an actual magazine-sized issue of American Splendor in my hands. I bought that issue (as I recall it was #15, the last self-published one) and then bought the two American Splendor anthologies that Doubleday had released a few years earlier. I quickly realized that I’d figured Pekar all wrong. He wasn’t some working-class crank using comic books to bitch about his job. He was a visionary, using a populist medium to offer an alternative perspective on art, history, literature, and “success.”
In a way, it was entirely appropriate that I’d misunderstood what Pekar was up to before I finally read him. A lot of what Pekar wrote over the years had to do with how people tended to underestimate him, because he dressed like a slob, was self-educated, and had no higher ambition than to work as a hospital file clerk while writing on the side. Some of my favorite American Splendor stories dealt with his frustration when he got called on the carpet at work or couldn’t get a woman he liked to agree to go on a date, even though in his shadow-life as a jazz critic and cultural essayist, he was highly respected. I thought about Pekar a lot early in my career, when I was waiting tables while doing as much freelance writing as I could. All the encouraging words from editors and readers meant nothing when I was marrying ketchup bottles or running a ramekin of cheese out to Table 23.
Pekar once wrote that we’d all understand a lot more about the history of the world if we stopped memorizing the succession of kings and focused more on how the farmers, blacksmiths and shopkeepers lived. That was one of the guiding principles of his work as a comic book writer. A typical issue of American Splendor was full of short, amusing anecdotes about Pekar’s job, along with his opinions of what he’d been reading lately, and the hassles of dealing with flaky friends, and his struggles with his own shortcomings as a person. In recent years, some have pointed to Pekar as a proto-blogger, but there was an often-unrecognized element of idealism to what Pekar was doing. He believed he was recording not just his life, but everyday American life in the late 20th century, as an alternative to future history books that might document presidential scandals but not—as they should— what a good bag of potato chips tasted like in 1978.
After the movie version of American Splendor came out in 2003, Pekar seemed a little adrift for a while as a writer, torn between his impulse to make as much money off his fleeting fame as he could and his wariness toward those who might be interested in him for the wrong reasons. In 2005, I wrote a blog post about how Pekar’s comics in the wake of the movie had gotten sloppier and less focused. But he quickly pulled it back together, and a year later I wrote a second blog post praising the American Splendor comics that Vertigo was putting out. Pekar finished strong, and by broadening his subject matter in later years to encompass other people’s stories too, he fulfilled a lot of what he set out to do with American Splendor when he launched it in 1976.
There are some I’m sure who have only heard of Pekar because of the movie, just as there are some (like myself) who had only heard of him 20 years ago because of Letterman. And if you’ve only seen the movie American Splendor and haven’t read any of Pekar’s comics, I’d urge you to pick up the 2003 reprint package of the Doubleday books, just as a start. But that said, the movie is by no means a bad introduction to Pekar. Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini—and star Paul Giamatti—did a remarkable job of sorting through Pekar’s vast body of work and picking out the stories that get to the core of what American Splendor was about. They covered Pekar suffering a vocal cord ailment that caused him to lose his voice, and Pekar meeting and marrying Joyce Brabner, and Pekar fighting with Letterman over the content of his segments, and Pekar dealing with a cancer scare and taking on the responsibility of caring for a friend’s daughter. The common thread of all these stories: Pekar striving to be heard and understood the way he wanted to be heard and understood, so that he could control the legacy he left behind.
Of course no one has that kind of control—not fully. There will always be people who know Pekar only as a fringe figure in popular culture, and who will form opinions about him based only on brief impressions. But it won’t be for lack of effort on Pekar’s part. Year after year and page after page, with the help of whomever he could cajole into drawing for him, Pekar drafted a record of who he was and what he believed. It’s no exaggeration to say that Pekar’s work stands as one of the most significant cultural achievements of the last 35 years. And I for one wish it could’ve gone on even longer.