Harvey Pekar, one of my all-time favorite comics writers died yesterday. He was 70.
I first learned about Harvey from a valued penpal of mine, Marty Pahls, in the early ’80s. I was a struggling small press comics creator at the time and Marty was a key figure in my development as a writer and a cartoonist. He gave me encouragement and coaching when I desperately needed it. (The story of my friendship with Marty is a great story in itself.)
Marty’s letters arrived infrequently but I always looked forward to them. I thought he was one of most intelligent people I knew at the time. There was a lot about him I didn’t know, and I was eager to learn more.
In one of his letters he mentioned AMERICAN SPLENDOR because he played a major role in “The Young Crumb Story”. I was familar with Robert Crumb and very curious about him too. (In his letters, Marty would frequently draw parallels between my own struggles as a comics creator and those of Robert Crumb.)
Although I remembered the title “American Splendor”, I didn’t actually see any of the stories until the summer of 1986. At the time, I had recently completed my sophomore year at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, MN and was staying with my parents in the Mankato, MN area for the summer. It was, all in all, a pretty miserable summer. There had been a lot of fighting going on on my family. It wasn’t a lot of fun being around my mother and dad because they didn’t seem to be too thrilled to be around each other. None of the intelligent and interesting people that were part of my college life were around me. I felt isolated and alone.
One day, I walked into the Readmore Bookstore in Mankato, MN and a copy of the first AMERICAN SPLENDOR paperback, the one with the talk show cover, was sitting there on the shelf. I flipped through the copy and immediately noticed “The Young Crumb Story”. I had to buy this book and I did. It was the highlight of the whole summer.
I missed Marty Pahls. He had mysteriously stopped corresponding with me in the early ’80s. He was going to draw the cover to one of my small press projects, BIZARRE ESCAPADES #3. He never sent me any cover art, and I ended up doing it myself.
Part of the reason I was drawn to Harvey’s work was that I missed Marty. Like Marty, Harvey was clearly a very thoughtful and intelligent individual. Part of what I loved about this paperback was that it documented one of Marty’s greatest accomplishments — he introduced Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, two of the best and most influential comics creators of modern times.
This paperback seemed to be uniquely suitable reading for my summer of ’86. One of the story titles, “Awaking To The Terror Of The Same Old Day”, was an apt description of a typical day for me during that summer. As I read the book, I came to think of Harvey as a kindred soul and another person coping with a mundane reality not unlike my summer of ’86. He seemed to have many of my own personality traits — he was stubborn, independent, and ambitous. I found myself rooting for him to achieve his dreams as I kept reading the book.
I found the second American Splendor trade in the Saint Olaf library a year later and checked it out. Only two other Saint Olaf students had checked it out — one of them was Ward Sutton, who did comics for the Saint Olaf newspaper and would later become a very successful cartoonist and illustrator.
About two and half years later, I picked up a copy of THE COMPLETE CRUMB COMICS Vol. 4 and learned about the sad fate of Marty Pahls.
About eight years after that, I decided to publish independent comics myself. I made a number of new friends as a result of the experience. One of them was AMERICAN SPLENDOR artist Joe Zabel (one of my favorites), who would later publish some of my work.
My all-time favorite AMERICAN SPLENDOR cover is the cover to issue #15 by Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm. Harvey says on the cover,” In the ’90s, I’m gonna be harder on everybody … th’ vast inert masses ain’t buying my comics, stupid-ass editors don’t wanna print my stories and articles … I gotta push more than ever. Really sweat things outta people!”
Life may be hard on all of us. It may run over frequently brilliant people like Marty Pahls, but we still have the choice to not take the injustices heaped upon us lying down. I love the piss and vinegar Harvey exudes on the cover of AS #15. Many of us need this to make it through the day.
Creating comics can help you cope with cancer, dysfunctional families, and many of the other horrors life can heap upon us all. Harvey’s work will always remind me how strong comic strip creators — and people in general — are really capable of being.
He left us too soon, but his legacy will never be forgotten.