a eulogy for harvey pekar

It’s been a particularly busy weekend here at Casa de Pearce, so I don’t have any new sketchbook stuff to share with you. I did, however, want to take a minute to note the passing of a writer and author who influenced me greatly in the past few years.

Harvey Pekar died today.

As a comics reader, I had been aware of Pekar’s comics for years before I actually read any of his work. I only jumped into the American Splendor pool when the 2003 movie came out and I picked up a couple of anthologies. I’ve been a regular reader ever since.

I’ve used American Splendor to great success in my classroom every year since I became a teacher. One of the biggest obstacles I’ve found about getting students to write about their lives is that, by and large, young people don’t feel like their lives are very interesting. I use the “Who is Harvey Pekar?” comic that the author collaborated on with Robert Crumb

After reading the short story, we discuss how Pekar was able to take a brief incident from his life that, for most people, might have gone wholly unremarked and turn it into a examination of himself and his own mortality.

We dissect the comic panel by panel and even though I do the lesson year after year, I’m always floored by the shrewd and intelligent observations my ninth graders make about the piece, from the wording that the character uses, to the way that Pekar and Crumb use pauses in the monologue, right on through to the clothes and facial expressions that the Harvey character wears in certain panels.

When the class has gone over that story thoroughly, I then give the students their first writing assignment. They are asked to write a short story titled “Who is _________” wherein they find a small moment from their own life, describe it, and somehow tie that moment into a statement about who they are as a person.

It’s an interesting lesson to start the year off with, and it has a great rate of success insofar as it gives me a taste of who my students are. I don’t always get the most well-composed stories right off the bat… but I do get to see them engaging with their lives in a unique way, and that’s always a joy to see as an English teacher. I also feel this lesson sets a tone at the beginning of the year. I want my kids to understand that their lives are very important to me, even the dusty corners that may not even be of great interest to themselves.

If that’s the only reason why I enjoyed Harvey Pekar’s work, I would probably have saved this post for a Friday Odds & Ends collection, but there’s another reason why I wanted to write about the guy, and it’s simply this. Harvey Pekar was a comic book writer. He wrote terrific comics that made people think and documented everyday life in 20th century America.

He was also a file clerk at a veteran’s hospital for the better part of his life.

His comics didn’t make him rich. They didn’t really make him famous in the way that other authors of his stature could be considered as such… his greatest fame probably came from his stint as Late Night with David Letterman‘s resident curmudgeon in the  early 1980’s.

I don’t know the man, nor am I some kind of authority on his work, but from what I’ve read of Pekar’s writing, he didn’t do it for recognition or fame. He did it because he was smart and he needed an outlet. He did it because he loved doing it. It didn’t pay the bills and it wasn’t ever going to… but he simply felt like he had something to say. I’ve always identified with that.

If you’ve never read any of Harvey Pekar’s work, I highly recommend picking up American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, a reprint of the author’s first two collections. Published in conjunction with the movie in ’03, they’re a good introduction to the type of work that Pekar regularly did. I’d also recommend some of his more recent work for the DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, starting with The Quitter, a novel-length comic that serves as an “origin” story of sorts for Pekar, as well as Vertigo’s two American Splendor trades wherein Pekar works with a great variety of different illustrators. The Vertigo version of Splendor deserved a longer life than it received on comic book racks.

So too did Harvey Pekar. Rest in peace man… but not TOO much in peace, if I’ve gotten to know you well enough from your years of writing.

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One Response to “a eulogy for harvey pekar”

  1. I’m very sad to hear of his passing. I’ve followed his work for years. I think I stumbled upon one of his collections at a college bookstore. I was thrilled to see his life made into a film. He was an everyman, an American original, an iconoclast.

    Thanks for posting this. I’m not sure I’d have known otherwise,

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