Graphic novel writer Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical underground comic book series American Splendor, was found dead by his wife, writer Joyce Brabner, early Monday morning. The cause of death is unclear--Pekar suffered from a number of ailments--so an autopsy is scheduled. He was 70.
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Pekar's legacy is his dedication to documenting the details of the working class' mundane existence. "I thought that every day life was very interesting and authors overlooked an awful lot of it. And there was this whole big area left to me to deal with and I saw it, " he recently told Juxtapoz magazine.
A jazz critic and file clerk in a Cleveland V.A. hospital, Pekar held a cranky, down-to-earth vision of the world. The details of his monotonous life, low pay, his refusal to sugar-coat the dreariness and never-ending annoyance at his stupidity (and others) endeared him to his fans. A collaborator in the finest sense of the word, Pekar didn't illustrate his own work, depending on (and cherishing) the skill of a plethora of famous comic book illustrators, including Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, among others, who brought his words to life.
Working against the norm of the comic industry earned him fans, but it didn't translate into much money: "The people that publish comics just publish superhero stuff. I guess that sells the best and they don't want to take any chances. They are playing to audience that likes these things, that I thought were juvenile when I was 11 years old."
Pekar wrote and self-published American Splendor in 1976 and struggled financially for several years to keep it in print. It wasn't until he married Brabner, a sturdy cheerleader for her husband's work, that he started to see any real financial return. In the '80s, he did several stints on the Letterman show, until Pekar went on a tear about General Electric and was made persona non grata.
Pekar survived a bout of lymphoma and co-wrote a comic about it with Brabner, called Our Cancer Year. A film version of the American Splendor comics, focused on the Pekar's awkward but affectionate courtship and starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, opened in 2003. It made the writer's work more famous than he could have imagined:
His comic about the experience,
Pekar was enthusiastic about the web comics, even though he didn't own a computer and wasn't on-line: "I don't really get a lot of direct contact with the people who see this stuff. But I am told pretty frequently that the stuff gets good reader response." In an interview done after Pekar's death, "The Pekar Project" editor Jeff Newelt, shares the good news says that there's a host of unpublished stories still to come out on-line and that another autobiographical, full-length comic,Cleveland, will be released in 2011.
For a lengthy public television interview with Pekar and an NPR commentary on Valentine's Day by the writer, see below: