Back in 1995 when I interviewed Harvey Pekar - the great Cleveland comic book storyteller, jazz critic and Everyman who died on Monday at 70 - he had only recently survived a scare with death.
Harvey and his wife, Joyce Brabner - who were portrayed by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's inventive 2003 movie adaptation of American Splendor, Pekar's epic autobiographical investigation into the vicissitudes of everday life - were in Philadelphia to promote Our Cancer Year, their comic collaboration about the feisty hospital file clerk's early '90s bout with lymphoma.
At the time, Harvey - who's represented above in 15 of the 70 drawings commissioned by Smith Magazine for the Pekar Project, one of his many ongoing endeavors at the time of his death - had been cancer free for three years. Sitting on the edge of the bed in his Holiday Inn hotel room, he pooh-poohed the actual threat to his life. "My life was never in danger," he insisted, an opinion Brabner disagreed with.
He admitted, though, that it spooked him. "Now I'm afraid I'm going to die," he said. "I used to just think about it all the time, but now it's real, rather that theoretical. It scared the hell out of me."
In his own way, Harvey was always a seize-the-day kind of guy. He couldn't draw or type, so he always had different artists render his autobiographical alter ego, from Robert Crumb, who he met in Cleveland in 1962, to Dean Haspiel, who did the Harvey Head in the upper right hand corner and drew 2005's The Quitter, a superb memoir of Pekar's post-World War II coming of age as the child of Polish immigrant parents. (Haspiel wrote this appreciation for the LA Times.)
Pekar was profoundly influential on the art of comic storytelling because like, say, Bob Dylan or Lou Reed in rock and roll, he understood that no subject matter was off limits. Crumb, who called his friend's work "so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic" had opened the floodgates with Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, showing that comics could be about psychedelic stoners and his own unleashed id as easily as they could be about superheroes.
But Harvey took the next step, realizing that along with the outlandish, comics could be about the quotidian. American Splendor was an expression of his unquenchable impulse to use words and pictures, and his own day to day experiences, to show what it really feels like to be human. "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," is the pull quote that was used in the American Splendor movie, which did a very nice job of capturing Pekar's irascible yet huggable persona.
(The scene that sticks in the mind is the one where Wilmington comic book store co-owner Brabner goes to Cleveland to meet Pekar for the first time and has various versions of Harvey floating around in her head aof what he might look like, a segment that was drawn from AS #10, which was entitled " "Harvey's Latest Crapshoot: His Third Marriage To A Sweetie From Delaware And How His Substandard Dishwashing Strains Their Relationship.")
On the Cancer Year book tour, Pekar told me that he realized in the early 70s that "you not only could do the kind of psychedelic comic book stories that were coming out of the counterculture at the time, but you could do anything. You could do realistic stories, you could do real serious stories, real grim stories, real funny stories, anything...."
Harvey's stories were about locking his keys in his car, and losing his glasses, and allowing himself to be convinced by Brabner to go back look for an injured squirrel they had seen by the side of the road. (They never found it.)
The stories were about meeting Matt Groening at a comic book convention and giving the Simpsons' creator a hard time because he had placed Harvey as only #96 on his list of 100 greatest people alive, well below fellow comic artist Lynda Barry. "I want you to warn her I'm gunnin' for her #4 spot," Harvey said, grinding his teeth.
His stories were about his favorite writers, like Katherine Mansfield, and favorite musicians, like Sonny Berman, Lonnie Johnson and John Zorn. And they were about his once frequent visits to the David Letterman show on NBC, back in its late night '80s days, when Harvey was let loose as a cranky working class court jester, until he made an enemy of Letterman by ranting about NBC parent General Electric on the show and wasn't invited back for years.
For Harvey, those episodes were important because he craved recognition, and he was always looking to make a buck. (I remember him working me to try to get review assignments in the Inquirer book section when I interviewed him.) But as far as grist for the story mill, they were no more valuable than his experiences in 40 years on the job at a Cleveland V.A. hospital or making an argument in favor of some unjustly neglected jazz trumpeter.
"What is my life?," Harvey asked me, in his scratchy voice. "I get up in the morning. I go to work. I go home. I go to bed. But I think that can be as interesting as anything else. I look at life as a war of attrition, and a series of day-after-day activities that have more influence on a person than any spectacular or traumatic events. It's the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about. The humor of every day life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV."
Hearing that Harvey died - the way you hear that famous or semi-famous people die these days, by checking your phone and seeing Facebook posts and Twitter tweets and emails, all in a hurry to tell the world, 'Harvey Pekar, RIP' - bummed me out big time. Partly because when he wasn't being a royal pain in the ass, Harvey was a real sweet guy. And partly because he was one of those rare dogged artists of advanced years like Dylan or Philip Roth, who you could count on to keep keeping on doing worthwhile work, even if it wasn't always up to his highest standard.
I'm not a collector or completist, but with Harvey's work ethic, it was reassuring to know that anytime I walked into Fat Jack's on Sansom Street there'd either be a new American Splendor on the shelves with an update on what was going on in Harvey's world, or some book project like the history of the Beat poets he published last year.
Harvey's death also sent me digging in my basement for the oversized galley copy of an old American Splendor that his publishers, Dark Horse, sent me back in 1995, when I was working on my Inky profile of him. The episode was called A Step Out Of The Nest, and it recounted his trip to New York to make his first Letterman appearance in years. (Harvey gets bumped from the show by Barry Manilow, but ends up looking on the bright side when he realizes he'll get rebooked "and they'll pay me twice as much.")
But before he heads to Gotham, there's a full page Prologue that shows Harvey darkly glaring at an alarm clock at 5:15 A.M.
Drawn by Joe Zabel, it depicts a rugged Pekar, his face covered in shadow, as he ponders his existential plight. "The Achievements Of A Lifetime" haunt him as his 55th birthday approaches.
Reading it now, I felt good for the guy, knowing that, cantankerous as he was, he must have at least felt a substantial sense of satisfaction for the quality of the work he maintained, and a sense of pride that, with the help of the movie, he achieved a measure of the notoriety he sought. Still, it tore me up inside to see his vision of what awaited him - and us all - there on the page from 15 years ago, now that his grim look into the future has come to pass.
Here's the thought-balloon internal monologue, only slightly shortened:
"So what's the end for me? Work until I drop. My income as a writer isn't enough to fill in the shortfall. Golden years!! HAH! You get old, you can't rest. Work, work, work ... Then the GRAVE.
Meanwhile, your health goes. CANCER .... You work to keep alive to DIE. Y'kid yourself into thinking stuff matters.
I'm so scared to get up, I'm TERRIFIED. But there's only one way for me to go.. Since I'm not gonna kill myself... Push outta bed ... Get into the dumb routine ...Get involved in boring work... That way you don't think about DEATH, at least....
The lucky ones think it means something. Wish I did...
Work to Live to Die."
Previously: Birdie Busch's "Brotherly Love"