Tuesday, July 20, 2010

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

I was really sad when I heard that Harvey Pekar died last week. When I saw the obituary notice I think I audibly gasped and let out an "Oh no!" at my desk at work. He was only 70, which seems far too young to me, and he was still working, still creating comics, most recently with the Pekar Project (the latest story was posted just under three weeks before his death).

Admittedly, I'd never heard of him until the movie American Splendor came out. After that I of course wanted to read his comics (how could you not?), and sought out this collection. At the time I'd say I was mildly interested in reading graphic novels, and I guess right after that I became a bit obsessed, hunting down anything that seemed mildly interesting (luckily I worked at a library at the time). I don't think it was a direct result of reading American Splendor, though at the same time maybe I was inspired to seek out even more.

Anyway, if you've somehow not seen the movie, Harvey Pekar was a working class guy from Cleveland who had the good fortune of meeting R. Crumb, whose work gave him the idea to use words and pictures to tell his own story. And because Harvey couldn't draw, Crumb agreed to take Harvey's words and make them into pictures.

As you can probably guess from this strip, they met through their love of record collecting. (Sorry about the blurriness--still figuring out my new scanner.)

This page is from a hilarious story that was brought to three dimensions in the film.

Throughout the years American Splendor was drawn by a variety of artists. Here Gerry Shamray illustrates a scene from the office where Harvey worked as a file clerk for many years. His answer to why he never brings in any food for his co-workers is pretty great: "I don't wanna give, I just wanna freeload."

Harvey ponders man's existence. I love his contemplative look in the last panel. His writing could be philosophical, thought-provoking, moving, or just plain funny. Or all of the above.

A view of the Cleveland train yards (I think).

The Comics Reporter invited a variety of comics artists to give their thoughts on Harvey, collected here, but I thought Seth said it the best: "[Harvey was] probably the first person who wanted to use the comics medium seriously as a writer. Certainly the first person to toss every genre element out the window and try to capture something of the genuine experience of living: not just some technique of real life glossed onto a story--not satire, or sick humor or everyday melodrama--but the genuine desire to transmit from one person to another just what life feels like."

I also love what Phoebe Gloeckner says: "I feel like Harvey can't die." And maybe in a way that's true--as cheesy as it sounds, he'll always be alive on the pages of his comics. But it's still so damn sad that there won't be any new ones.

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