Harvey Pekar

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Harvey Pekar
Pekar small.jpg
Harvey Pekar
BornHarvey Lawrence Pekar
(1939-10-08)October 8, 1939 [1]
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
DiedJuly 12, 2010 (age 70)
Cleveland Heights, Ohio, United States
Cause of deathDrug overdose
OccupationComic book writer, filing clerk, music and literary critic
Nationality American
Genre Underground comics
Alternative comics
Notable works American Splendor
Our Cancer Year
Years active1974–2010
Karen Delaney
(m. 1960;div. 1972)

Helen Lark Hall
(m. 1977;div. 1981)

Joyce Brabner
(m. 1984;his death 2010)
Children(foster child) Danielle Batone

Harvey Lawrence Pekar ( /ˈpkɑːr/ ; October 8, 1939 – July 12, 2010) was an American underground comic book writer, music critic, and media personality, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor comic series. In 2003, the series inspired a well-received film adaptation of the same name.

<i>American Splendor</i> autobiographical comic books written by Harvey Pekar

American Splendor is a series of autobiographical comic books written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by a variety of artists. The first issue was published in 1976 and the most recent in September 2008, with publication occurring at irregular intervals. Publishers have been, at various times, Harvey Pekar himself, Dark Horse Comics, and DC Comics.

<i>American Splendor</i> (film) 2003 American biographical film about Harvey Pekar

American Splendor is a 2003 American biographical comedy-drama film about Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comic book series. The film is also in part an adaptation of the comics, which dramatize Pekar's life. The film was written and directed by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.


Frequently described as the "poet laureate of Cleveland", [2] [3] Pekar "helped change the appreciation for, and perceptions of, the graphic novel, the drawn memoir, the autobiographical comic narrative." [4] Pekar described his work as "autobiography written as it's happening. The theme is about staying alive, getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe. And it's a losing battle. But I can't let go. I've tried, but I can't." [5]

Graphic novel book with primarily comics contents

A graphic novel is a book made up of comics content. Although the word "novel" normally refers to long fictional works, the term "graphic novel" is applied broadly and includes fiction, non-fiction, and anthologized work. It is distinguished from the term "comic book", which is generally used for comics periodicals.

Attrition warfare is a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material. The war will usually be won by the side with greater such resources. The word attrition comes from the Latin root atterere to rub against, similar to the "grinding down" of the opponent's forces in attrition warfare.


Harvey Pekar and his younger brother Allen were born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a Jewish family. [6] Their parents were Saul and Dora Pekar, immigrants from Białystok, Poland. Saul Pekar was a Talmudic scholar who owned a grocery store on Kinsman Avenue, with the family living above the store. [7] Although Pekar said he wasn't close to his parents due to their dissimilar backgrounds and because they worked all the time, he still "marveled at how devoted they were to each other. They had so much love and admiration for one another." [8]

Cleveland City in Ohio

Cleveland is a major city in the U.S. state of Ohio, and the county seat of Cuyahoga County. The city proper has a population of 383,793, making it the 52nd-largest city in the United States and the second-largest city in Ohio. Greater Cleveland is ranked as the 32nd-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with 2,055,612 people in 2016. A Gamma + city, Cleveland anchors the Cleveland–Akron–Canton Combined Statistical Area, which had a population of 3,515,646 in 2010 and is ranked 15th in the nation.

Białystok Place in Podlaskie, Poland

Białystok is the largest city in northeastern Poland and the capital of the Podlaskie Voivodeship. Białystok is the tenth-largest city in Poland, second in terms of population density, and thirteenth in area.

Talmud Holy Book of Rabbinic Judaism

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to "all Jewish thought and aspirations", serving also as "the guide for the daily life" of Jews.

Pekar's first language as a child was Yiddish and he learned to read and appreciate novels in the language. [9]

Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. It originated during the 9th century in Central Europe, providing the nascent Ashkenazi community with a High German-based vernacular fused with elements taken from Hebrew and Aramaic as well as from Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. Yiddish is written with a fully vocalized version of the Hebrew alphabet.

Pekar said he did not have friends for the first few years of his life. [10] The neighborhood he lived in had once been all white but became mostly black by the 1940s. One of the only white kids still living there, Pekar was often beaten up. He later believed this instilled in him "a profound sense of inferiority." [11] This experience, however, also taught him to become a "respected street scrapper." [11]

White flight a term for the mass exodus of middle-class whites from large cities in the mid-20th century to smaller communities and suburbs.

White flight is a term that originated in the United States, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, and applied to the large-scale migration of people of various European ancestries from racially mixed urban regions to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions. The term has more recently been applied to other migrations by whites, from older, inner suburbs to rural areas, as well as from the U.S. Northeast and Midwest to the milder climate in the Southeast and Southwest. The term has also been used for large-scale post-colonial emigration of whites from Africa, or parts of that continent, driven by levels of violent crime and anti-colonial state policies.

Pekar graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957. He then briefly served in the United States Navy. After being discharged he attended Case Western Reserve University, where he dropped out after a year. [7] He worked odd jobs before he was hired as file clerk at the Veteran's Administration Hospital. He held this job after becoming famous, refusing all promotions, until he retired in 2001. [7] [11]

Shaker Heights High School Public high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio

Shaker Heights High School is a public high school located in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The high school is the only public high school in the Shaker Heights City School District, which serves Shaker Heights and a small part of Cleveland. Shaker Heights High School is an International Baccalaureate World School, the only public high school in Cuyahoga County to hold this accreditation and offer rigorous IB classes. It is consistently ranked among the top districts in the state for National Merit semifinalists.

United States Navy Naval warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Navy (USN) is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. It is the largest and most capable navy in the world and it has been estimated that in terms of tonnage of its active battle fleet alone, it is larger than the next 13 navies combined, which includes 11 U.S. allies or partner nations. With the highest combined battle fleet tonnage and the world's largest aircraft carrier fleet, with eleven in service, and two new carriers under construction. With 319,421 personnel on active duty and 99,616 in the Ready Reserve, the U.S. Navy is the third largest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of personnel. It has 282 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft as of March 2018, making it the third-largest air force in the world, after the United States Air Force and the United States Army.

Case Western Reserve University Private research university in Cleveland, Ohio

Case Western Reserve University is a private research university in Cleveland, Ohio. It was created in 1967 through the federation of two longstanding contiguous institutions: Western Reserve University, founded in 1826 and named for its location in the Connecticut Western Reserve, and Case Institute of Technology, founded in 1880 through the endowment of Leonard Case, Jr.. Time magazine described the merger as the creation of "Cleveland's Big-Leaguer" university.

Pekar was married from 1960 to 1972 to his first wife, Karen Delaney. [12] His second wife was Helen Lark Hall.[ citation needed ] Pekar's third wife was writer Joyce Brabner [12] with whom he collaborated on Our Cancer Year , a graphic novel autobiography of his harrowing yet successful treatment for lymphoma. He lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with Brabner and their foster daughter Danielle Batone. [13] [14]


American Splendor

Pekar's friendship with Robert Crumb led to the creation of the self-published, autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. Crumb and Pekar became friends through their mutual love of jazz records [15] when Crumb was living in Cleveland in the mid-1960s. Crumb's work in underground comics led Pekar to see the form's possibilities, saying, "Comics could do anything that film could do. And I wanted in on it."[ citation needed ] It took Pekar a decade to do so: "I theorized for maybe ten years about doing comics." [16]

Around 1972, Pekar laid out some stories with crude stick figures and showed them to Crumb and another artist, Robert Armstrong. Impressed, they both offered to illustrate. Pekar & Crumb's one-pager "Crazy Ed" was published as the back cover of Crumb's The People's Comics (Golden Gate Publishing Company, 1972), becoming Pekar's first published work of comics. Including "Crazy Ed" and before the publication of American Splendor #1, Pekar wrote a number of other comic stories that were published in a variety of outlets:

The first issue of Pekar's self-published American Splendor series appeared in May 1976, with stories illustrated by the likes of Crumb, Dumm, Budgett, and Brian Bram. American Splendor documented Pekar's daily life in the aging neighborhoods of his native Cleveland. Pekar's best-known and longest-running collaborators include Crumb, Dumm, Budgett, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Frank Stack, Mark Zingarelli, and Joe Sacco. In the 2000s, he teamed regularly with artists Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. Other cartoonists who worked with him include Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Eddie Campbell, David Collier, Drew Friedman, Ho Che Anderson, Rick Geary, Ed Piskor, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, Brian Bram, and Alex Wald; as well as such non-traditional illustrators as Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, and comics writer Alan Moore.

Stories from the American Splendor comics have been collected in many books and anthologies.

American Splendor film

A film adaptation of American Splendor was released in 2003, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. It starred Paul Giamatti as Pekar, as well as appearances by Pekar himself. Pekar wrote about the effects of the film in American Splendor: Our Movie Year.

In 2006, Pekar released a four-issue American Splendor miniseries through the DC Comics imprint Vertigo. [17] This was collected in the American Splendor: Another Day paperback. In 2008 Vertigo released a second "season" of American Splendor that was collected in the American Splendor: Another Dollar paperback.

In addition to his autobiographical work on American Splendor, Pekar wrote a number of biographies. The first of these, American Splendor: Unsung Hero (2003), documented the Vietnam War experience of Robert McNeill, one of Pekar's African-American coworkers at Cleveland's VA hospital.

Other comics work

Harvey Pekar at WonderCon 2005, San Francisco Harvey Pekar.jpg
Harvey Pekar at WonderCon 2005, San Francisco

On October 5, 2005, the DC Comics imprint Vertigo published Pekar's autobiographical hardcover The Quitter, with artwork by Dean Haspiel. The book detailed Pekar's early years.

In 2006, Ballantine/Random House published his biography Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story about the life of Michael Malice, founding editor of Overheard in New York . [18] In June 2007, Pekar collaborated with student Heather Roberson and artist Ed Piskor on the book Macedonia , which centers on Roberson's studies in that country. [19] In January 2008 the biographical Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History was published by Hill & Wang. In March 2009, he published The Beats, a history of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, illustrated by Ed Piskor. In May 2009 he published Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation.

In 2010, Pekar started the webcomic The Pekar Project with the online magazine Smith . [20] In 2011, Abrams Comicarts published Yiddishkeit, co-edited by Pekar with Paul Buhle and Hershl Hartman. The book depicts aspects of Yiddish language and culture. Artists in this anthology include many of Pekar's previous collaborators.

Theater, music and media appearances

Pekar's comic book success led to a guest appearance on Late Night with David Letterman on October 15, 1986. Pekar was invited back repeatedly and made five more appearances in quick succession. These appearances were notable for verbal altercations between Pekar and Letterman, particularly on the subject of General Electric's ownership of NBC. The most heated of these was in the August 31, 1988, episode of Late Night, in which Pekar accused Letterman of appearing to be a shill for General Electric and Letterman promised never to invite Pekar back on the show. [21] However, Pekar did appear on Late Night again on April 20, 1993, and appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman in 1994. [22]

Pekar was an assiduous record collector as well as a freelance book and jazz critic, focusing on significant figures from jazz's golden age but also championing out-of-mainstream artists such as Birth, Scott Fields, Fred Frith and Joe Maneri. He reviewed literary fiction in the early 1990s in such periodicals as the Los Angeles Reader,[ citation needed ] the Review of Contemporary Fiction,[ citation needed ] and Woodward Review.[ citation needed ] Pekar won awards for his essays broadcast on public radio. He appeared in Alan Zweig's 2000 documentary film about record collecting, Vinyl . [23] In August 2007, Pekar was featured on the Cleveland episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations with host Anthony Bourdain. [24]

While American Splendor theater adaptations had previously occurred, [25] in 2009, Pekar made his theatrical debut with Leave Me Alone!, a jazz opera for which Pekar wrote the libretto. Leave Me Alone! featured music by Dan Plonsey and was co-produced by Real Time Opera and Oberlin College, premiering at Finney Chapel on January 31, 2009. [26]

In 2009, Pekar was featured in The Cartoonist, a documentary film on the life and work of Jeff Smith, creator of Bone. [27]

Death and work released posthumously

Pekar's grave stone in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland Harvey Pekar grave stone.jpg
Pekar's grave stone in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland

Shortly before 1 a.m. on July 12, 2010, Pekar's wife found Pekar dead in their Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. [7] No immediate cause was determined. [28] In October the Cuyahoga County coroner's office ruled it was an accidental overdose of antidepressants fluoxetine and bupropion. [29] Pekar had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time and was about to undergo treatment. [7] His headstone features one of his quotations as an epitaph: "Life is about women, gigs, an' bein' creative."

Some Pekar works were to be released posthumously, [30] including two collaborations with Joyce Brabner, The Big Book of Marriage and Harvey and Joyce Plumb the Depths of Depression, as well as a collection of the webcomics that ran as a part of The Pekar Project. [31] Working with illustrator Summer McClinton, Pekar also finished a book on American Marxist Louis Proyect tentatively called The Unrepentant Marxist, after Proyect's blog. In the works since 2008, the book was to be published by Random House. After a conflict between Proyect and Joyce Brabner, Brabner announced that she would hold the book back indefinitely. [32]

In December 2010, the last story Pekar wrote, "Harvey Pekar Meets the Thing", in which Pekar has a conversation with Ben Grimm, was published in the Marvel Comics anthology Strange Tales II ; the story was illustrated by Ty Templeton. [33]


"I think probably the most important thing about American Splendor, in all its incarnations, is that there were very few people in the earlier days of comics prepared to put their work where their mouth was. Harvey believed there was no limit to how good comics could be. To chronicle his life from these tiny wonderful moments of magic and of heartbreak — and the most important thing was that he did it."

Neil Gaiman [4]

Frequently described as the "poet laureate of Cleveland," [2] [3] Pekar "helped change the appreciation for, and perceptions of, the graphic novel, the drawn memoir, the autobiographical comic narrative." [4]

His American Splendor "remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics." [34] In addition, Pekar was the first author to publicly distribute "memoir comic books." [35] While it is common today for people to publicly write about their lives on blogs, social media platforms, and in graphic novels, "In the mid-seventies, Harvey Pekar was doing all this before it was ubiquitous and commercialized." [35]

In October 2012 a statue of Pekar was installed at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library, a place he visited almost daily. [36] [37]



Harvey Pekar (age 45) and Joyce Brabner (age 33) at Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York (October 4, 1985). HPekar.jpg
Harvey Pekar (age 45) and Joyce Brabner (age 33) at Hallwalls, Buffalo, New York (October 4, 1985).

Related Research Articles

Robert Crumb American illustrator and cartoonist

Robert Dennis Crumb is an American cartoonist and musician who often signs his work R. Crumb. His work displays a nostalgia for American folk culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and satire of contemporary American culture.

Autobiographical comics are autobiography in the form of comic books or comic strips. The form first became popular in the underground comics movement and has since become more widespread. It is currently most popular in Canadian, American and French comics; all artists listed below are from the US unless otherwise specified.

Warren Pleece is a British comics artist. He is best known for his work at the DC Comics imprint Vertigo.

Gary G. Dumm is an Ohio-based comic book artist known particularly for his work illustrating the comics of Harvey Pekar.

Frank Huntington Stack is an American underground cartoonist and fine artist. Working under the name Foolbert Sturgeon to avoid persecution for his work while living in the Bible Belt, Stack published what is considered by many to be the first underground comic, The Adventures of Jesus, in 1962.

<i>Our Cancer Year</i>

Our Cancer Year is a nonfiction graphic novel written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Frank Stack.

Dean Haspiel American comic book writer and artist

Dean Edmund Haspiel is an American comic book artist. He is known for his collaborations with writer Harvey Pekar on his American Splendor series as well as the graphic novel The Quitter. He has been nominated for numerous Eisner Awards, and won a 2010 Emmy Award for TV design work.

Josh Neufeld American cartoonist specializing in nonfiction

Josh Neufeld is an alternative cartoonist known for his nonfiction comics on subjects like Hurricane Katrina, international travel, and finance, as well as his collaborations with writers like Harvey Pekar and Brooke Gladstone. He is the writer/artist of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and the illustrator of The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media.

Joyce Brabner writer

Joyce Brabner ) is a writer of political comics and the widow of Harvey Pekar.

Joe Zabel is a comic book artist living in Cleveland Heights. He is best known for his work illustrating American Splendor, by fellow Clevelander Harvey Pekar. Under the company names Known Associates Press and Amazing Montage Press, Zabel has also published his own series of mystery comics, The Trespassers.

Brian Bram artist

Brian Bram, raised in Deerfield, Illinois, played a minor role in the underground comix movement with his contributions to American Splendor, the comic book series written and published by Harvey Pekar.

Jonathan Vankin is an American author, journalist and comic book writer/editor.

Gerry Shamray is an American comic book artist known for his work on Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book series American Splendor and the syndicated comic strip John Darling.

David Collier (cartoonist) Canadian cartoonist

David Collier is a Canadian alternative cartoonist best known for his fact-based "comic strip essays."

<i>Macedonia</i> (comics)

Macedonia is a biographical comic book, published in June 2007 by Random House. The book was written by Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson, with illustrations by Ed Piskor. It is based on Roberson's travels through the Republic of North Macedonia.

Tara Seibel American cartoonist

Tara Seibel is an American cartoonist, graphic designer and illustrator from Cleveland. Her work has been published in Chicago Newcity, Funny Times, The Austin Chronicle, Cleveland Scene, Heeb Magazine, SMITH Magazine, Mineshaft Magazine, Juxtapoz, Jewish Review of Books, Cleveland Free Times, USA Today, US Catholic, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Paris Review.

Ed Piskor American alternative comics artist

Ed Piskor is an alternative comics artist operating out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former student of The Kubert School and is best known for his artistic collaborations with underground comics pioneers Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame, and Jay Lynch who illustrates Garbage Pail Kids. He has a cult following amongst minicomic fans with his series Deviant Funnies and Isolation Chamber.

Greg Budgett is a Cleveland, Ohio-based comic book artist known particularly for his work illustrating the comics of Harvey Pekar. Most of Budgett's work on Pekar's American Splendor and other comics has been in partnership with Gary Dumm, who has inked most of Budgett's stories.


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