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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 07/12/2010

Remembering Harvey Pekar, legendary bard of the 'underground' comic book

By Michael Cavna

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner tell their tale in the film "American Splendor." (John Clifford/Courtesy of HBO/Fine Line)

HARVEY PEKAR characterized himself as a flunkie of a hospital file clerk. What he really filed, for decades, were some of the most powerfully autobiographical stories the comics world has ever seen.

Spurred by good friend and fellow jazz enthusiast R. Crumb, Pekar put his compellingly quirky and poignantly honest stories to paper. Comic-book paper. And the artists who graced what became the "American Splendor" comic-book series included a host of top talent -- from Crumb (the first) to Spain Rodriguez to Frank Stack to Joe Sacco, among many others.

Today, all the collaborators in Pekar fandom -- all of us millions who read him with admiration as we received his inspiration -- mourn his passing. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported this morning that Pekar was found dead at 1 a.m. by his wife and creative partner, Joyce Brabner.

And make no mistake: The comics bard of Cleveland was beloved. Upon his 70th birthday last year, nearly 100 noted artists contributed their own "Harvey heads to pay tribute to the notoriously rumpled and acerbic writer.

Pekar love was confined primarily to nerd circles until the irascible personality began doing guest spots on David Letterman's late-night show in the late-'80s -- memorable segments that won Pekar some measure of celebrity thanks to his blunt quirkiness and natural ability to get laughs.

Pekar, of course, knew how to play up that persona for the cameras. "While Harvey's public persona was a curmudgeon, in person he was always kind and diffident," comics scholar Mike Rhode, who edited the book "Harvey Pekar: Conversations," tells Comic Riffs.

A higher elevation of fame came in 2003, when Paul Giamatti memorably portrayed Pekar (when Harvey wasn't appearing on camera himself) in the brilliant feature film "American Splendor."

For me, however, Pekar's most moving work will always be his 1994 book with Brabner, "Our Cancer Year," which chronicles his battle with lymphoma. Pekar and Brabner put the "graphic" in graphic novel as they seem to spare none of the most powerful details of facing down mortality.

In 2008, I re-read "Our Cancer Year" at a time when a close relative, just hours before, had received a diagnosis of advanced cancer. Reading Harvey's ordeal, in all its unflinching detail, helped me somehow in a moment of need. So below, as a way to pay my respects to Harvey, I reprint that tribute.

RIP, Harvey Pekar. We miss you already, and already cherish the honesty of your comic legacy.

This tribute was first published Aug. 20, 2008.

The Riff: From Harvey Pekar, the Power of Honest Comics

Comics are often tagged as pure escapism, but that limiting a label does some of them a disservice. Emotionally true comics not only can remove you from your reality -- they can hold lessons in how to plug into it, to better understand it. As a child, for instance, comics helped me figure out adolescence. And now, they are helping me deal with the news of a loved one's cancer.

The news came late Friday. Staggered by the cosmic sucker-punch, I swung by The Post mailroom on my way out the door -- something I never do. There, waiting for me -- delivered as promptly as promised by comics scholar and "comicsDC" blogger Mike Rhode -- was the new book he edited, "Harvey Pekar Conversations." I stashed the softcover in my satchel and dashed to the Metro.

As the Red Line rattled along, I pulled out the book and cracked the cover randomly to Page 79. Immediately staring back at me, remarkably, were Pekar's words: "I guess I wanted to show people, among other things, that you don't have to be a hero to get through cancer. You can be a craven coward and get through. You have to stay on your medication and take your treatments, that's all."

The chapter was from a 1997 Hogan's Alley interview. Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, were discussing -- among other things -- their acclaimed and moving graphic novel, "Our Cancer Year," about the period in the early '90s when Pekar recovered from lymphatic cancer. (This period was famously depicted, of course, in the 2003 film "American Splendor," in which Paul Giamatti portrayed Pekar.)

Somehow soothed by Pekar's words, I made a point of picking up a copy of "Our Cancer Year." I'd looked at it some years ago, but it had not had enough personal relevance then. Now, the comic book's scenes of painful honesty, the disorienting and mood-shifting artwork (by Frank Stack), the dialogue rife with support and anger and anguish, all spoke to me.

Elsewhere in the interview, Harvey says: "I write about my life, choosing incidents that I think will be, for one reason or another, significant to people. Often because they may have experienced the same things. ... I hope that in reading them people can identify with the character and in some cases take comfort from what I write or know that maybe they're not the only person in the world that's had this experience."

The most moving comics -- by Pekar, by Brabner, by countless others -- do exactly that. Thanks, Harvey, for once again putting it so perfectly into words.

By Michael Cavna  | July 12, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  General, The Graphic Novel  | Tags:  American Splendor, Harvey Pekar, Our Cancer Year  
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