Underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical American Splendor series was illustrated by a variety of America’s greatest comic-book artists, died in Cleveland on this date in 2010 at the age of 70. His parents owned a grocery store, and Pekar was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household (one of his last published cartoons, “Starting Out,” about his Yiddish-speaking childhood, was published in the Winter, 2009-10 issue of Jewish Currents). He was a high-school drop-out and lifelong file clerk at Cleveland’s V.A. hospital, where he continued to work even after achieving a modicum of fame. Pekar was an autodidact who became a first-rate jazz and book critic. His friendship with Robert Crumb led to Pekar’s involvement with comic books; Crumb was the first artist to illustrate American Splendor, which was launched in 1976. Its success led to Pekar’s being a guest on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman eight times, but his criticisms of General Electric, the network’s owner, as well as his refusal to behave, led to his being banned by Letterman. American Splendor was made into a creative feature film in 2003. Pekar’s last book, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land, co-written with Paul Buhle and illustrated by numerous cartoonists, was described by the Forward as “a stunningly colorful but dizzyingly messy comic bouquet to secular Yiddish culture.”
“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.” —Harvey Pekar
Watch Harvey mixing it up with David Letterman: