From Off the Streets of Cleveland

I’m just back from holiday, and I was going to leave it a while before I started blogging again, but I have been moved to action by the sad news of the passing of a true hero of the counter-culture, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame.

I’m not usually one for vicarious grief, but I have been feeling genuinely cut-up since I heard that Harvey was dead. His work was personal and honest, sometimes painfully so, never glossing over his own character flaws, and it was hard to read it without getting to feel that you really knew the guy. Long before anyone had even dreamed of blogs, Harvey was there, documenting the daily grind of a lowly wage-slave, creating poetry from the rhythms of his blue-collar existence.

If you’re not familiar with American Splendor then visit your local comic-book store and pick up an anthology – the best one to start with is probably American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar which collects up the best of the early issues; also worth reading is Our Cancer Year, which chronicles Harvey’s experience of lymphoma – it is quite grim in parts, but ultimately positive. More recent comics can be found online at The Pekar Project. The 2003 biopic American Splendor was justly lauded by the critics, and Harvey also features in a segment of the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential (which was where I first came across his work). He appeared several times on the Letterman show in the late 80’s, until he fell out with the host after criticising NBC’s owners General Electric on air. He also recorded a series of opinion pieces for radio station WKSU, which can be listened to at their website.

Harvey’s work was based on the idea that the lives and experiences of ordinary people, living through good times and bad with their family, friends and community, were worth recording, and would tell the story of our times more accurately than more conventional histories. As he said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”, and few have captured it better than he did in the pages of American Splendor.

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