|Harvey Pekar, 9 x 12" on 60 lbs sketchbook paper pencil|
Mr. Pekar (pronounced PEE-kar), who toiled for nearly 40 years as a file clerk in a Veterans Administration hospital, applied the brutally frank autobiographical style of Henry Miller to the comic-book format, creating a distinctive series of dispatches from an all-too-ordinary life. His alter ego, introduced in 1976, trudged on from episode to episode, quarreling with co-workers, dealing with car problems, addressing family crises and fretting over money matters and health problems.
“Harvey was like the original blogger, before there was an Internet,” said Dean Haspiel, an artist who worked with Mr. Pekar on “American Splendor” and “The Quitter,” his memoir. “He was ‘Seinfeld’ before ‘Seinfeld.’ Comics, which had been power fantasies for 12-year-old boys, could now be about anything.”
Since he could not draw, Mr. Pekar enlisted top comic-book artists to do the illustrations, notably R. Crumb, who had encouraged him to publish and contributed illustrations for the first issues of “American Splendor.” Later issues were illustrated by Gary Dumm, Greg Budgett and Mark Zingarelli.
“It dawned on me that comics were not an intrinsically limited medium,” Mr. Pekar told Interview magazine in 2009. “There was a tremendous amount of things you could do in comics that you couldn’t do in other art forms — but no one was doing it. I figured if I’d make a try at it, I’d at least be a footnote in history.”
Harvey Lawrence Pekar was born on Oct. 8, 1939, in Cleveland, where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a neighborhood grocery store. The neighborhood, once white, became mostly black in the 1940s, and Harvey was the target of local youths who called him “white cracker” and routinely beat him up. The experience, he later theorized, instilled a profound sense of inferiority.
After the family moved to a white neighborhood, Mr. Pekar found that the constant fighting paid off. In one-on-one combat, he usually emerged the victor, and he became a respected street scrapper. At the same time, he nourished deep-seated anxieties and compulsions that made him fearful of taking on any challenge, one of the major themes of “The Quitter” (2005).
A series of dead-end jobs led to enlistment in the Navy, which discharged him when his anxieties made it impossible for him to pass inspections. Mr. Pekar resumed working a string of low-paying jobs, usually clerical. In 1965 he found a permanent roost with the Veterans Administration, where he turned down all offers of promotion and remained a file clerk until he retired in 2001.
On the side, however, Mr. Pekar began writing articles for Jazz Review in the late 1950s, and later for British jazz magazines and Downbeat. He also struck up a friendship, in 1962, with R. Crumb, a fellow jazz enthusiast and record collector then living in Cleveland. In Mr. Crumb’s early work he saw new possibilities in the comic-book form.
He began sketching out stories with stick-figure illustrations. Mr. Crumb, impressed, encouraged him to publish and showed his work to other artists, who also saw what Mr. Crumb saw. Mr. Pekar’s humble tales “from off the streets of Cleveland,” as the subtitle to “American Splendor” has it, resonated with enough readers to keep the experiment alive.
“I always wanted praise and I always wanted attention; I won’t lie to you,” he told Interview magazine in 2009. “I was a jazz critic and that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted people to write about me, not me about them.”
The cantankerous Mr. Pekar, who published the first 15 issues of “American Splendor” himself, became a regular on “Late Night With David Letterman” for two years in the late 1980s, until he went on a memorable tirade against General Electric, the parent company of NBC, and was dropped for several years from the show’s guest list.
Wider fame came with the film, a quirky blend of documentary footage, animation and fiction. Mr. Pekar and his wife were played by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, but Mr. Pekar provided the narration and slipped into several scenes in both live and animated form. He wrote about the film in “Our Movie Year” (2004).
In addition to “American Splendor,” Mr. Pekar wrote several biographies, including “American Splendor: Unsung Hero” (2003), about the Vietnam War experiences of Robert McNeill, a fellow worker at the VA hospital.
Mr. Pekar’s other books include “Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History” (2008), “The Beats” (2009) and “Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation” (2009) as well as “Our Cancer Year” (1994), an account of his treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he wrote with his wife.
Mr. Pekar’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by their daughter, Danielle.
Success did not seem to ease Mr. Pekar’s existential predicament. “Of course I don’t think I have it made by any means,” his alter ego said in a cartoon in Entertainment Weekly in 2003. “I’m too insecure, obsessive and paranoid for that.”