The past few weeks I have obsessed over where LeBron would end up. Would he stay in Cleveland or leave for greener pastures? In the end he chose to go to Miami, and many in Cleveland are upset that he would abandon Northeast Ohio where he grew up. While most Clevelanders probably didn’t know Harvey Pekar, and he didn’t have a huge economic impact on the city, his loss this week was much bigger; he made the city a much more interesting place and touched everyone who knew him.
And everyone who knew him seemed to have a story that could have fit into an issue of American Splendor. I worked with a woman who lived in a downstairs apartment from Harvey and had many stories about his eccentricities. I’ve run into people at conventions who wanted to share Harvey stories. I even have my own Harvey story:
In 1994, I moved back to Cleveland after transferring from University of Buffalo. I had been a comics fan my whole life, but between a lack of money and a growing disinterest in superhero comics, I was looking for something else. My local library had the first two American Splendor collections, and I was hooked. Later that year, a sociology professor at Cleveland State invited Harvey into speak.
There were only about 20 of us in small classroom in Rhodes Tower when Harvey shuffled in, pulling a hand cart filled with books behind him. He gave a short talk about his experiences self-publishing, getting kicked off the Letterman show, working with Crumb, and his lack of financial success in the comics industry. After the talk, he offered to sell the books he had.
I hung around and picked out four of the old magazine sized issues and asked how much he wanted for them. He told me the price for three of them and then hemmed and hawed on the fourth. “This is one of my last copies of this book. I won’t have any more Letterman books after this. I probably shouldn’t sell it to you.” It was the legendary, curmudgeonly Pekar complaining about money! I didn’t care what I was going to pay; I was experiencing Harvey as he was in the books.
He finally settled on a price and I handed over the money. I asked him to sign the books and between the two of us, all we had was a stubby #2 pencil. “To Sean, from Harvey” he scratched in the narrow margin on the bottom of page 1 of each book. Those books, along with my Amazing Fantasy #15, are the only books in my collection I won’t sell.
A few years ago, I had an idea of doing a tribute book to Harvey. I mentioned it at Panel. I’d approach a number of artists and writers who knew, met, worked with , or were influenced by Harvey and ask them for stories about Harvey. Then I’d get Harvey to write the introduction to it. I figured he’d get a kick out of it. I don’t think he felt he got the recognition he deserved.
Unfortunately, I never acted on my idea, nor did I even write out the script for my story above. Even in the few hours since his death, I’ve seen a number of tributes from people I had no idea were influenced by Harvey and I expect more over the coming days. It is a shame that he isn’t around to see them and realize how respected he is.
It is easy to forget now how influential Harvey was. He basically created the autobiographical, quotidian memoir that any number of indy comix creator are milking to this day (including myself!). More importantly to me, he showed that you could just be a writer, not necessarily and artist, and still create a unique style.
Recently he had spread his wings even more and moved away from autobiography toward a number of diverse subjects: The Beats, Vietnam veterans, Studs Terkel, the Students for a Democratic Society, Macedonia, Michael Malice. They weren’t all great–in fact an artist of one of the books was surprised when I asked him to sign one; he didn’t think anyone had bought it–but they all showed his varied interests. I believed he had even more written and waiting for artists. I hope these see the light of day in the upcoming months.
As Matt said earlier, he was “true Clevelander”–not great looking, shabby, beaten down, the lovable underdog, overlooked by the elite in major metropolitan areas. He was often disappointed in his city, but you know what? He never left and was loyal to it until the end. He was the anti-LeBron. Unlike LeBron, he will be missed.