Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar RIP

Like most people, the first time I saw Harvey Pekar was on his David Letterman appearances when I was in college in the early 80s. One of my roommates, John, and I were taken by this oddity - a comic book guy on Letterman? a weird dude who is completely unintimidated by Dave? His appearances were bizarre and you never knew what to expect, which is part of what led to their parting of ways - watch the "American Splendor" movie for details.

The best part is that his appearances prompted me to seek out and buy an American Splendor compilation. I had been buying comics since I was 7, but this - this changed the whole way I looked at the medium. These didn't necessarily have a beginning, middle and end, or battles with villains, and the quality of the various artists' work was inconsistent (Pekar wrote, didnt draw). This was "neo-realism," nothing more than snippets of this guy's daily life, tribulations and thoughts. Simple mundane things like being in line at the grocery store, to being lonely, to interesting facts about jazz musicians. I could not believe someone made a comic of those things - and I loved it. So much so that I called 411 in Cleveland and got his phone number and called him. We talked for a bit, he was very cordial, and I called him every so often. I sent him letters and comics, too.

Here's a coincidence for ya - I was chatting up AS and Pekar to my oldest brother, Tony, who for a few years was a surgeon at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. I put two and two together and thought perhaps it was the SAME hospital that Harvey worked at. I asked my brother and he replied, "Wait, the squirrely little guy that worked in files?? That's him?!?" I called Harvey and he said he remembered my brother. Six degrees of separation.

Years go by, and I opened a bar/gallery called Liquid Lounge in Hoboken. When tending bar, people talk - personal problems, crazy stories, wacky behavior, etc. Like the saying goes, "People confess to their priest or their bartender." Some stories were so good that I would jot down the salient points on napkins or a pad in order to remember the story. I came up with the idea, thanks to Harvey's American Splendor, of doing strips recounting these stories. The art had the customer looking directly at the reader so that you (the reader) became the bartender, like the person was talking to you. I called it "True Tales from the Bar Side." It appeared in a few local papers, I self-published a collection of them, and one strip was in an Australian anthology comic around '98 called Dee Vee! My strip appeared next to one by the amazing Eddie Campbell which felt like an honor, but more so was that after all those years of reading comics and drawing superheroes and villains that I finally had something of mine appear in a real, honest to goodness Comic Book!

I went to a movie at the Sunshine Landmark Theatre in NY around 2002, and during the previews I almost jumped out of my seat when they showed the trailer for an upcoming American Splendor movie!! I had no idea about this and the next day, filled with excitement, called Harvey . By this time, I rarely called because he had married Joyce and she usually answered the phone. I imagine climbing the Berlin Wall to escape the USSR was easier than getting past her to Harvey. She was always brusque, suspicious and well, just plain rude. Anyway, I passed the interrogation and got through to him. I told him that I saw the trailer, that the audience was buzzing about it, that it looked great, and how psyched I was for him. In true Pekar fashion, he replied, "Oh thanks, I just hope it makes me some money. You know I got to put this kid through college here in a coupla years."

Not long after the film came out he was doing a book/film tour and made a stop in NY. I went and finally got to meet him. As I was walking away, he said, "Oh, hey Joe, that comic you sent me, that was pretty good."
Cheers, Harvey - R.I.P.!