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An Average Man

by Tamara Arden / 03.08.2010

On a Monday afternoon, this July, we said goodbye to a comic book writer. Fittingly Harvey Pekar was found by his beloved wife, Joyce Brabner, in their modest home in Cleveland Ohio. Joyce was his third wife.

Pekar was diagnosed with cancer in 1990. Though he had serious health problems the ultimate cause of his death is not clear. Long term readers of his melancholy output will put it down to chronic existential loneliness. His masterpiece, Our Cancer Year, co-written with Brabner, is an exceptionally honest and moving look at his tussle with death.

“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.”

Pekar’s quietly obsessive themes were anxiety, insecurity and an abiding suspicion that the universe had it in for him. His strikingly consistent tone was one of benumbed emotional angst. Everyman as worrier. In the constant struggle between consciousness and death – death won. Harvey always knew it would. That’s what made his comics so low key, depressive and forthright.

His upbringing was dominated by gloomy emigrant parents. After the devastation of the Second World War they made it very clear to their only son that he should always expect the worst. That way when the unlikely possibility of something good happening proved void, he wouldn’t be surprised. A kind of grim stoicism was his deepest philosophy. The seeds were planted early in childhood.

His best known comic remains American Splendour – thanks to the successful Hollywood film of the same name. Schlubby character actor, Paul Giammatti, balding and morose, does a dead-on dead-beat impression, including Pekar’s distinctive whine. The book is a triumph of mundane existence. Pekar comes across as the ultimate silently enraged anti-hero. An ineffectually seething, rumpled, obsessive-compulsive “flunky file clerk”. Struggling mightily against the relentless tide of urban anonymity, thankless work and loneliness.

After trying out a clumsy series of stick figures himself, Pekar knew enough to know he needed a real artist to match his affecting language. Robert Crumb and Harvey were friends since meeting at a garage sale in 1962. Their mutual passion for early jazz and bluegrass cemented the relationship. It was dumb luck on Pekar’s part: Robert Crumb has been called “the Goya of the 20th Century”. Crumb, a genuine master of comics, would illustrate much of Pekar’s early work.

Harvey wanted a comic book that would illuminate his peevish internal dialogue with the drudgery of existence. It was a thoroughly biographical fiction centered on something he knew well: “average man syndrome”. Pekar’s embattled humour quickly found an audience. His days were ordinary and terribly familiar to many. He was an example of how to retain your dignity by looking inwards with honesty and curiosity.
Fellow comic book artist, Dean Haspiel, acknowledges Pekar’s legacy: “He taught us that there are many versions of the truth. Really his entire life is in comic book form. The most respectful thing to do at a Jewish funeral is to pick up the shovel and spread the dirt across the grave yourself. You’ll hear stories and more and more people will talk about Harvey Pekar. They’re helping “spread the dirt.” This very normal guy found the extraordinary in the ordinary and showed us who he truly was.”
Harvey once wrote: “Life seemed so sweet and so sad and so hard to let go of in the end.” He will be missed.

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