Honest Harvey

To me Harvey Pekar wasn't just an underground comics creator. He was the underground comics creator.

He died this morning at about 1 A.M. 70 years young.
[via @Newsarama & @NBMPUB & @DarkHorseComics & The Cleveland Plain Dealer]

I grew up reading superhero comic-books (and I still do), but actually, the truth is I grew up reading Marvel Spider-Man comic-books. Only in high school did I begin to branch out from Spidey and only in college, when a friend named Abbie lent me a collection of stories from "American Splendor" (the title that became Harvey's most used vehicle for telling the story of his life), did I begin to really 'get' underground comics. In fact, I know the exact moment I understood why this girl was raving about this man's work and I first appreciated the beauty of both underground comics and autobiographical comics: The moment I read a full story titled "Kaparra" drawn by Gerry Shamray originally from "American Splendor" #5. A single page of panels depicting the reminiscence of an old man's narrow escape from the possibility of a Nazi death squad because of some triviality. One page. Whole story. There was no drama, no tension in the story. There didn't need to be. It was a true story. At least as told to Harvey Pekar.

Harvey met R. Crumb in the 60s and as Crumb slowly began throwing off the shackles of the American Greeting Card Company and started making self-published comics he spurred a wave of similar projects from the people around him. Pekar sat Crumb down and asked him to illustrate some very simple stories of Pekar's life. In 1976 Harvey self-published the first issue of "American Splendor" with art by Crumb. The series was such a cult hit there were multiple trade-paperbacks published reprinting stories from the comic-book long before such a thing became the norm. In 1994, a graphic novel co-written with his wife Joyce Brabner titled "Our Cancer Year" followed. "American Splendor" continued on in various forms, finally under the DC Comics' imprint Vertigo.

Harvey Pekar was the kind of man who would get married and then write a comics story titled "Harvey's Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage to a Sweetie from Delaware and How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship" in the tenth issue of his comic-book. A remarkable, curmudgeonly, honest kind of man. Harvey's willingness to be entirely transparent with the details of his life has been an inspiration to my prose, to my comics, to my reporting, and to my personal style. I recognize that things were probably changed here and there to make things move, to simplify them. But Harvey never skimped on the details. The awesome little things that made his stories human and true.

If you've happened to read my comics, especially the comics I've been making over the past few years? Single pages that tell stories with details I observe, striving to find things both human and true.

A lot of underground comic creators get so busy trying to be ironic they forget they were telling a story. Some of the guys (and ladies) doing autobiographical comics (even people doing GREAT autobiographical comics) inject a little too much... drama, a little too much 'woe is me'. Give me honest Harvey's work any day.

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard has 10 rules for successful writing put down first in an article in The New York Times, then later in a short book. Rule #10 is "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip" which I always translated as 'Take out the boring parts'. It's damn good advice. Advice I don't follow nearly enough in my own writing. But that was the truly remarkable thing about Harvey Pekar. I suspect he didn't think of parts of a story as boring or exciting.

He told it like it was.

R.I.P. Harvey

~ @JonGorga


  1. Entirely worth reading: chef Anthony Bourdain's tribute to Harvey Pekar.

    I didn't know that there was an episode of Bourdain's show "No Reservations" made with Harvey Pekar, about the food of Cleveland, let alone that he really appreciated the man.