Harvey Pekar, the cartoonist behind American Splendor, died this morning at his Cleveland home at the age of 70. Memories of Pekar are already flooding the Web, along with official obits (The New York Times, The Washington Post).
In the early 2000s, Pekar was coaxed into being a sometimes-Gambit contributor by former editor Michael Tisserand, who was a huge fan of the man and his work. In 2003, Tisserand even wrote his own American Splendor-type comic about his interactions with Pekar and had it illustrated by Rhett Thiel.
Today, in honor of Harvey Pekar, we're running that comic again (download the whole thing here), and presenting Michael Tisserand's remembrance of his cantankerous friend:
Lonnie Johnson, Fats Domino, Dennis McGee, Clifton Chenier, Kid Ory. Thanks to Harvey Pekar, these aren't just Louisiana music legends. They were comic heroes in the pages of Gambit Weekly.
Pekar is known to most people for his American Splendor comic book, his memorable appearances with David Letterman, and the acclaimed movie American Splendor, in which he appeared as himself. For a few years in the early 2000s, he also became an occasional Gambit contributor. His masterful portraits of local musicians managed to convey essential biographical information, Pekar's own opinions, and a dash of wry wit in just a few words and images. It was a great honor to work with him.
Shortly after Katrina, I wrote in an essay that I returned to my Gambit office shortly after the waters went down and salvaged my Harvey Pekar bobblehead, a gift from arts editor David Lee Simmons. The essay was picked up by the alt weekly in Harvey's home town of Cleveland, and the next day I received an email from Joyce Brabner, Pekar's wife. "Interesting priorities," she wrote. "Until reading this I believed that I would be the only one thinking to grab and save Harvey Pekar in the event of a catastrophe."
That was the last contact I had with either Harvey or Joyce ... almost. A couple years back, Harvey was appearing in Chicago to promote a comics anthology that he had edited. I was living there at the time and when we met up, I was feeling pretty forlorn about missing New Orleans and the chain of events that had brought me north. Harvey certainly recognized self-pity when he saw it. "You're writing and your wife's got a good job," he said. "What have you got to complain about?"
I started to answer him, but then stopped. What did I expect? A soft shoulder from the man who made timeless art out of a decades-long drudge job as a hospital file clerk? When Pekar scoffed, it was like being serenaded by a master soloist. As he explained in the film American Splendor: "If youre the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? Youve got the wrong movie."