After decades of success which ranged from one of the medium’s earliest self-publishing triumphs to a mainstream crossover that would defy all expectations for the phrase “comic book movie,” one of the comics greatest stories has come to an end as The Cleveland Leader has confirmed that writer Harvey Pekar died this morning at the age of 70.
A lifelong resident of Cleveland, Ohio, Pekar turned the true tales of his life “from off the streets” of that city into one of the most celebrated and notable comics projects in the history of the artform. Starting in 1976 as a collaboration between the writer and underground cartoonist R. Crumb, Pekar’s “American Splendor” title chronicled its heroes life as a file clerk at Cleveland’s VA hospital and his interests from jazz music to literature. Originally a modest one-man operation published by Pekar and illustrated by a rotating cast of comics talents including Gary Dumm and Spain Rodriguez, “American Splendor” caught national attention in the ’80s when Pekar became a frequent guest on NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” often running opposite the popular “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment before his outspoken criticisms of NBC owner General Electric briefly ended the relationship.
More importantly, “American Splendor” brought Pekar to the attention of his third wife Joyce Brabner who also become one of his most important collaborators. In 1994 when Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma, Brabner pushed him to turn the story of his treatment into a graphic novel as both a form of creativity and of therapy. The resulting “Our Cancer Year” won the prestigious Harvey Award in 1995 which along with a 1987 win of the National Book Award for “American Splendor” helped carry Pekar’s reputation for keenly observed autobiography to new audiences both within and outside the comics community.
The “American Splendor” title continued over the years in a variety of formats and for a variety of publishers including Dark Horse and DC’s Vertigo imprint and in 2003 was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film directed by by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis as well as Pekar and Brabner in real life segments.
Pekar retired from file clerking around that time, but continued to be a force in comics up through his death. No longer spinning out smaller stories meant for comic books, Pekar’s later work took on a broader introspective tone as graphic novels like “The Quitter” with artist Dean Haspiel and multiple non-autobio comics including an adaptation of Stud Terkel’s “Working.” This past year, the writer found a new generation of young cartoonists to work with at Smith Magazine under the heading “The Pekar Project” where a rotating cast of artists would work with Pekar to delve into his life as a cultural figure as well as his interests in music and art.
Pekar passed away early this morning, being found by Brabner just before 1:00 AM Cleveland time. He is survived by his wife and their daughter Danielle.