Local man rests in peace: Harvey Pekar, grandfather of blogging, dies at 70
He died. What more is there to say about Harvey Pekar’s death yesterday, at age 70?
You could say that Cleveland has lost its bard, blogging’s grandfather has slipped off, and the muse of diaristic comix artists like Seth, Joe Matt, and Chester Brown had moved off to the happy hunting ground, and you’d capture a little bit of his cultural importance and some of the people he touched. Course, to really do that, you have to include all the people who loved American Splendor, his annual, diaristic comic book drawn by other artists, genius all around, or who saw the major motion picture of the same name, starring Paul Giamatti, which wasn’t terrible. On a bad day, he might argue that you’d also need to include all the veterans whose medical files he handled in his day job at the Cleveland VA hospital, none of whom were aware of his labor on their behalf.
Pekar’s work elevated one man’s ordinary days – “the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about” -- to the point of either a story worth listening to (and looking at, using the pens of talented cartoonists from R. Crumb to Josh Neufeld) or possibly a part of history. Books, after all, used to be evidence that you mattered. Now, who knows?
Or you could think of the space this loss leaves for Joyce Brabner, his wife, who he met after she wrote to him looking for a copy of one of his books. She’s one of those, I suppose, who’s grateful there aren’t so many cool independent bookstores like the one I used to run, where I first encountered American Splendor and the cohort of folks my own age who worshipped, but couldn’t entirely “get,” Pekar: we understood his genius but to really respect the voice, I think you have to get beat down a few times by middle-class life, which didn’t happen to most of us till at least our thirties.
R. Crumb called Pekar’s subject matter “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.” I’ve always loved that intersection of real life and art, the making holy of the ordinary act, the Virgin in the pancake. So Pekar was a big influence on me, though I first identified my adoration of this stream in Fluxus and later, in my own living. The confessional comix, especially by the Canadians who followed in his autobiographical footsteps (though they did their own spectacular drawing), the ordinary heroics and dramatics of people bottled for reality television, the combination of artistry and self-sacrifice and voice exercise that we know as blogging: none of these would be the same without Harvey Pekar, and they all move me.
Pekar was more than all this, and less: a regular cranky middle-aged guy, a pugilistic guest on Letterman, an aficionado of antique Jazz, a writer and speaker and someone who lived among us. I thought of him as a better “Local Man” than the one featured in the Onion headlines: but Local Man was a fiction disgused as something real and boring, and Pekar showed the real and boring as epic and valuable.
Each of his stories was an anticlimax: his work with Brabner, “Our Cancer Year,” served not to inspire Gavin and I through our battle, but to validate that our fight was as ordinary as the year before or after, only with more vomit. It wasn't true for us, but every cancer is different and every person is different: witness still helps you get through.
In the end, he just died. My eulogy: Harvey, we hardly knew ye; rest in peace, old stranger, old friend.
(Photo of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner at Hallwalls, Buffalo, N.Y. Oct. 4, 1985. Courtesy of Hallwalls' archive. Used under Creative Commons licensing.)
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