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In Memoriam:
Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book legend, dies at age 70
July 15, 2010

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Harvey Pekar's life was not an open book. It was an open comic book.

Pekar chronicled his life and times in the acclaimed autobiographical comic book series, "American Splendor," portraying himself as a rumpled, depressed, obsessive-compulsive "flunky file clerk" engaged in a constant battle with loneliness and anxiety.

Pekar, 70, was found dead shortly before 1 a.m. Monday by his wife, Joyce Brabner, in their Cleveland Heights home, said Powell Caesar, spokesman for Cuyahoga County Coroner Frank Miller. An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

Pekar and Brabner wrote "Our Cancer Year," a book-length comic, after Pekar was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1990 and underwent a grueling treatment. He was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, and also suffered high blood pressure, asthma and clinical depression, which fueled his art but often made his life painful.

"American Splendor" carried the subtitle, "From Off the Streets of Cleveland," and just like Superman, the other comic-book hero born in Cleveland, Pekar wore something of a disguise. He never stepped into a phone booth to change, but underneath his persona of aggravated, disaffected file clerk, he was an erudite book and jazz critic, and a writer of short stories that many observers compared to Chekhov, despite their comic-book form.

Unlike the superheroes who ordinarily inhabit the pages of comic books, Pekar could neither leap tall buildings in a single bound, nor move faster than a speeding bullet. Yet his comics suggested a different sort of heroism: The working-class, everyman heroics of simply making it through another day, with soul -- if not dignity -- intact.

"American Splendor" had its roots in Pekar's friendship with R. Crumb, the seminal underground comic-book artist. The two met in 1962 when Crumb was working for American Greetings in Cleveland. At the time, Crumb was just beginning to explore the possibilities of comics, which would later lead to such groundbreaking work as "Mr. Natural" and "Fritz the Cat."

When Pekar, inspired by Crumb's work, wrote his nascent strip in 1972, Crumb illustrated it. Crumb also contributed to Pekar's first full-fledged books, which Pekar started publishing annually in 1976.

"He's the soul of Cleveland," Crumb told The Plain Dealer in 1994. "He's passionate and articulate. He's grim. He's Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness."

Yet the darkness came with a humorous silver lining. As Pekar said, "The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV. It's the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there's no routine and everything is unexpected. That's what I want to write about."

Pekar often complained that he made no money from his comics, but they did not go unappreciated. He won the American Book Award in 1987 for his first anthology of "American Splendor." He was a regular guest on "Late Night With David Letterman," until they had a falling out. (Letterman declined to comment.) And in 2003, the film adaptation of his comics, also titled "American Splendor," won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Pekar reacted to the prize with his characteristic mordant wit.

"I'm always shook up and nervous and I've got the hospital record to prove it," he said that night. "I wake up every morning in a cold sweat, regardless of how well things went the day before. And put that I said that in a somewhat but not completely tongue-in-cheek way."

Pekar was born Oct. 8, 1939, to Saul and Dora Pekar, who had emigrated from Bialystok, Poland. His father, a Talmudic scholar, owned a small grocery store on Kinsman Avenue, and the family -- who included Harvey's younger brother, Allen, a chemist -- lived above the store.

He graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957, and went on to Case Western Reserve University, dropping out after a year when the pressure of required math classes proved too much to bear. He served in the Navy, then returned to Cleveland and a series of menial jobs before landing at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Cleveland as a file clerk, a job he would hold until he retired in 2001.

He was married three times, the last to Brabner, whom he met in 1983 when she wrote to him asking for an issue of "American Splendor." They were married on their third date, and a comic book naturally followed. "American Splendor No. 10" was subtitled, "Harvey's Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage to a Sweetie from Delaware and How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship."

They became legal guardians of Danielle Batone when she was 9 years old, in 1998, "raising her as our own," Pekar said.

After he retired from the VA hospital, Pekar continued to write jazz reviews and "American Splendor," garnering the accolades of his peers and critics.

In 1989, the New York Times Book Review said, "Mr. Pekar's work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov's and Dostoevski's, and it's easy to see why."

The filmmaker David O. Russell ("Three Kings"), who was on the Sundance jury that awarded "American Splendor" the grand prize, said, "It's really great for people to see someone like Harvey Pekar, this guy who wants to remain authentic, isn't going to buy [garbage], isn't going to the malls, keeps on collecting old jazz music that's important -- that kind of independence."

In the 1994 Plain Dealer article, R. Crumb said Pekar's work examined the minutiae of everyday life, material "so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic."

Pekar himself summed it up as revealing "a series of day-after-day activities that have more influence on a person than any spectacular or traumatic events. It's the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about."

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