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RIP Harvey Pekar

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I took this death harder then most I have heard about. He was a favorite of mine. Typical Cleveland.


CLEVELAND – Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical comic book series "American Splendor" portrayed his life with bone-dry honesty and wit, was found dead at home early Monday, authorities said. He was 70.


Officers were called to Pekar's suburban home by his wife about 1 a.m., Cleveland Heights police Capt. Michael Cannon said. His body was found between a bed and dresser.


Pekar had been suffering from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression, according to Cannon. Pekar had gone to bed about 4:30 p.m. Sunday in good spirits, his wife told police.


An autopsy was planned, said Powell Caesar, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County coroner's office in Cleveland. He had no information on the cause of death.


Pekar took a radically different track from the superhero-laden comics that had dominated the industry. He instead specialized in the lives of ordinary people, chronicling his life as a file clerk in Cleveland and his relationship with his third wife, Joyce Brabner. His 1994 graphic novel, "Our Cancer Year," detailed his battle with lymphoma.


The dreary cover scene shows him sprawled beside his wife on a snowy curbside with shopping bags on the ground. "Harvey, forget about the groceries, honey. Let's get you inside first," she says.


Pekar never drew himself but depended on collaborations with artists, most notably his friend R. Crumb, who helped illustrate the first issue of the ironically titled "American Splendor," published in 1976. It was made into an acclaimed 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti. The most recent "American Splendor" was released in 2008.


Pekar's quirky commentary developed a following and his insights and humor were often a bit on the dark side.


Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University, said it was inaccurate to describe Pekar's work as "cult."


"His work was accepted by the mainstream," Caswell said. "It was bought by public libraries and read widely." The cartoon library has all of Pekar's works in its collection, she said.


"He will be remembered as an innovator who wrote stories about ordinary things that were then illustrated by some of the most notable cartoonists of the late 20th century," Caswell said. "People identified with what was writing about and the stories that these people were drawing because it was so ordinary."


In 2003, the New York Film Critics Circle honored "American Splendor" as best first film for the directing-writing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Part feature and part documentary, with animated elements added, the film starred Giamatti as the disgruntled Pekar.


Pekar, who was a repeat TV guest of David Letterman, told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview that he was determined to keep writing his "American Splendor" series.


"There's no end in sight for me. I want to continue to do it," Pekar said. "It's a continuing autobiography, a life's work."

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Stairway to Cleveland


My dinner with Harvey Pekar






Illustration by Robert Faires

"xxxx you! We do what we want."


– Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, Modern Times, 1981, "Stairway to Cleveland"


"I don't have any coffee," rasped Harvey Pekar over the phone.


In Cleveland three weeks ago for some 36 hours, I'd finally reached the longtime Chronicle contributor after weeks and weeks of trying. Working together a decade and then not talking for another three or four years after an inadvertent work estrangement, we'd never met.


"C'mon, Harvey!" I exclaimed.


"How about some chocolate milk?" he cried.


Deal. I offered to buy dinner (our publisher insisted), but the renowned Cleveland native begged off, citing a new graphic novel he'd contracted to write, something with a crazy title like How Israel Got the Whole World to Hate It. After an unexpectedly immersive day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not far from downtown stadiums for the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, we called Pekar back, and damned if he didn't answer the phone, let alone actually agree to have Agnes and me over. When our $28 cab ride arrived at the doorstep to his Cleveland Heights brownstone, he was sitting on his porch, hazel-green eyes ablaze.


"Can I still take you up on dinner?"


He drove us to a hippie hummus joint around the corner in Coventry, in a car that resembled the Volkswagen Beetle in Woody Allen's Sleeper. He limped slightly and maneuvered his downbeat compact with little regard for stop signs or lanes.


"I'm 70!" he pleaded. He didn't look it.


At Tommy's, there was a wait, and once it passed two or three minutes, Pekar was up and at the young waitstaff monitoring the list. A grandmother took his seat while he was doing so.


"I was sitting there," he demanded, nerves jangling. She scooted without incident.


When they waived our party of three into a handsome wood-cabin booth several minutes later, Pekar immediately recommended the milkshakes. He had black cherry. We shared a Moosetracks. We ate our rabbit food and talked about American Splendor and Austin. I'd edited a minianthology of Pekar's jazz reviews in the paper and midwifed my share of historical comics the music scholar/cultural critic had written but not drawn. He was no illustrator. Until American Splendor came out, seven years into our relationship, I knew him not by or for his celebrity but as a jazz encyclopedia that had come with my job.


He pitched me reviews, and I elicited his misadventures, his Charlie Brown to my nickel Lucy van Pelt in times of marital, parental, and professional chaos, which was usually. Pekar's pathos was as high frequency as his mordant humor was lo-fi. After the film was released and I understood his tribal worth, I couldn't justify assigning him any more $35 record reviews even though he wanted to continue writing them. A feature I pitched him about the history of music collapsed under the weight of its amorphous essence (mine) and handwringing (his). We didn't talk afterward, embarrassment (ours) more than hard feelings the cause.


Over dinner, quietly discounted in half by the restaurant, Pekar's rigid body language elasticized visibly. His smile softened, and his eyes let down their guard. He acknowledged how lucky he'd been in having American Splendor made into a film and how terrific Paul Giamatti had been in the role. On our way back to the car, we ducked into Record Revolution two doors down from Tommy's – empty save for its young minder, who was delighted to see Pekar. I considered a Rocky Horror Picture Show poster; our host recommended a Sun Ra DVD.


At 7:30pm, he was ready to take Agnes and me back to our lodging, me offering shotgun to the lady and hearing about it afterward in terms like "sheer terror" and "most frightening experience of my life." I questioned our chauffeur about his hometown the whole way. He told us that in Cleveland everyone kept their head down – eyes to the ground. Whether he realized it or not, he didn't.


He dropped us off, and we promised to return and buy him another meal. I got nostalgic about Pekar associate and local jazz library Jay Trachtenberg and my great journalistic coup: landing Duke Ellington on the cover of the Chronicle for the centennial of his birth. Pekar's review of the 24-CD box set accompanying the event was a victory in and of itself.


Harvey Pekar wore his insecurities on the sleeve of every conversation we ever had, 1996-2006. As Agnes and I discovered at Tommy's, his heart was in that black-cherry milkshake.

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