These are not my words, but those of my boss Alan Moore, who originally wrote this for the Washington Post – for one reason or another it didn’t make it to print, but we thought it deserved an outing.
I was in Washington in the late 1980s, visiting the since-vanished Christic Institute out in the projects with my friend the fearless activist Joyce Brabner, when I first got to meet her husband Harvey Pekar. Harvey had practically invented the autobiographical comic genre, and had gifted an industry not known for its vitality or new ideas with one of the most sublime and original voices that the comic medium has ever heard. Yet here he was in Washington for the first night of American Splendour’s stage adaptation, far from his beloved Cleveland, and that wonderful man’s aforementioned unique voice was clearly going to hell. For reasons he himself appeared bemused by, Harvey’s larynx would constrict in times of stress, reducing all his utterances to a strangled croak, and stress seemed pretty much to be Harvey’s constant companion. It was almost a condition brought on by his singular worldview, the glorious insights of a resolutely human, resolutely ordinary man, subject to all of the grinding everyday pressure which that term implies. Many of his most jewel-like observations had come from the Veteran’s Hospital where he was continuing to work, and a Harvey Pekar without that constant grace in the face of constant difficulty would be very hard to imagine.
On that particular occasion, Harvey’s nerves and voice had been drawn close to breaking point by all his characteristic worrying about how the show was going to be received and I remember him asking me how I dealt with bad reviews, to which I suggested that the best way was probably to ignore the good reviews as well. I liked him immensely, hugely impressed by the fact that such a vastly important creative force was also such a self-effacing and deeply conscientious person. As the years passed I was honoured to add my meagre drawing skills to a page of Harvey’s ongoing American Splendour narrative, undeservedly joining an impressive roster of talent that ranged from acclaimed maestros like Robert Crumb to unacclaimed maestros like Frank Stack. I managed to find him a rare Katherine Mansfield collection to feed his comically furtive antiquarian book-aholism…he’d sneak them into the already worryingly book-crammed house and do everything short of hiding them in the lavatory system…and I kept in fond but intermittent touch with him and Joyce.
The next time I saw Harvey was a few years back, when he, Joyce, and their alarmingly smart and gorgeous adopted daughter Danielle were caught up in the backwash of the movie version of American Splendour and had landed up in England, specifically Northampton, on a memorable visit with me and my wife Melinda, who still has a group photograph and a ball of knitting wool that Joyce left behind sitting on her coffee table. This time around, Harvey was calm, relaxed and in good voice; the same regular guy but on holiday in Europe, hanging out with friends and his clearly beloved family. His Hollywood explosion, although obviously overwhelming, hadn’t changed the way that Harvey saw the world at all. Him and Joyce had even ingeniously managed to acquire the furniture from the film-set recreation of their home – exactly like their old furniture, but newer! I tried to muscle another page in American Splendour out of him, but we somehow never got it together.
Then, just two days ago, I was reaching for a copy of the new Juxtapoz magazine in the newsagents on noticing that it featured an interview with Harvey, when the friend that I was with informed me of his death the previous weekend. Amongst the surge of memories and feelings that the news brought with it, the most clear and burning image was a single page of Harvey’s work, buried somewhere in a misplaced issue of American Splendour and rendered by an artist whose name I cannot remember. It was an entirely wordless narrative, depicting its downtrodden author on a hot day, entering his kitchen to snip off the corner of a foil lemonade concentrate packet, squeezing its gelatinous contents into a glass and then adding a sparkling gusher of clean tap water before taking a contented sip, and that was the whole story. It was written by a good, honourable man who saw every ordinary instant of his life with a poet’s intensity; who saw the eternity in every moment, even those when he was enjoying a glass of store-bought brand name lemonade. In fact, particularly those moments. Culture has lost a browbeaten giant, and I’m going to miss him terribly.