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Posted at 5:51 PM ET, 07/12/2010

Harvey Pekar book editor recalls a 'kind and diffident' man [UPDATED]

By Michael Cavna

UPDATE: This item was originally published at 1:50 p.m. ET Monday.

"I would think that he's the only [VA] file clerk to also be a jazz critic, book reviewer for the Washington Post, and comic book writer and have a major motion picture made about his life."

Those are the words of Mike Rhode, describing his friend Harvey Pekar, who was found dead today at age 70.

Among cartoonists and comics fans, the encomiums poured forth Monday at the news of Pekar's passing. Neil Gaiman tweeted: "A sad day for comics." Matt Fraction wrote on Twitter: "So harvey pekar gets to the gates of heaven and goes, 'man, look at this line.' "

And cartoonist and comics scholar Scott McCloud tells Comic Riffs: "It's worth remembering that when 'American Splendor' began, the graphic-novel movement in America was virtually nonexistent."

Rhode, creator of the ComicsDC blog and contributor to Washington's City Paper, edited the book "Harvey Pekar: Conversations." Today, Rhode recalls his experiences with Pekar for Comic Riffs:

I met Harvey at D.C.'s Small Press Expo when I filled in to interview him for a panel. Harvey was sitting at a table on the main exhibit floor, meeting his fans and admiring the works that other cartoonists were bringing by for him. He had a box lunch provided for him, and offered the mustard to one of his fans, noting, "Now would a curmudgeon give away his mustard? See? I'm a nice guy."

While Harvey's public persona was a curmudgeon, in person he was always kind and diffident. The interviews went well, with Harvey playing straight man to Dean Haspiel, one of his American Splendor artists and kvetching about the corrections his wife, Joyce Brabner, was calling out from the audience.

Harvey kept thanking me for editing a book about him -- and I kept thanking him for letting me edit a book about him -- we both acted as though the opportunity had dropped out of the sky on us, and really for both of us, it had.

Harvey's brains and willpower let him rise from his blue-collar beginnings, and eventually overcome his psychological fears to become a true part of American culture. I would think that he's the only [VA] file clerk to also be a jazz critic, book reviewer for the Washington Post, and comic book writer and have a major motion picture made about his life.

I was in Cleveland on business a couple of springs ago, and Harvey came by my hotel to show me his Cleveland. As I noted on my blog at the time, he took me to an early dinner in his town, Cleveland Heights. After asking me if I liked milkshakes, he took me to Tommy's Restaurant (1824 Coventry Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118, for those planning a trip) where he was greeted by name. We were parked in a booth and talked comics, food and mutual acquaintances for a while. ... Harvey had a grilled cheese, which I report for the sake of history.

We talked a little bit about his appearance on Tony Bourdain's TV show, "No Reservations," and in spite of Harvey's reputation as a TV disdainer (apropos of his Letterman appearances), he's got a real liking for Bourdain, who's another self-made man like Harvey is.

DC hadn't picked up his American Splendor for a third miniseries, so Harvey was hustling for work writing graphic novels. He estimated that he needed to do four books a year to keep enough money coming in to the household, but Harvey was always worried about money. That's no surprise given that he worked as a clerk for his entire professional life, and his comics never really made money for him.

Harvey's work will live on after him, and he'll be taught in college courses for his groundbreaking autobiographical comix, and we're all richer for his sharing his experiences with us.

By Michael Cavna  | July 12, 2010; 5:51 PM ET
Categories:  General, The Comic Book, The Graphic Novel  | Tags:  Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Mike Rhode  
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Next: A PEKAR TRIBUTE: Collaborators & colleagues remember 'sweet, curmudgeonly' Harvey


The JRB mourns the passing of Harvey Pekar. Our just released second issue contains one of his characteristically witty musings on Jewish identity. He stopped by the office just the other day to pick up his author's copy. We'll miss him. Link:

Posted by: JewishReviewofBooks | July 12, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

A nice memory, Mike. I think he left a lot of those.

Posted by: rhompson | July 12, 2010 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Michael, that should be Veteran's Administration, not Social Security. I was a bit shocked when I wrote it.

Posted by: Mrhode | July 12, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the note about Harvey's piece in the JRB - I'll be sure to check out a copy. I think there's a book to be done of Harvey's criticism and essays - perhaps 2.

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