Reading the first reports of Harvey Pekar's death on July 12, at 70, I noted this line: "Mr. Pekar had been suffering from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression, police said."
In my experience with the one-of-a-kind writer, known for his autobiographical comic book American Splendor, he was always "suffering" from something. He complained constantly, even to a relative stranger like me -- the person who edited his jazz and book reviews for Isthmus in the 1990s. This wasn't run-of-the-mill complaining, mind you. With Harvey, kvetching was an art form, even on the telephone. He took gloomy self-obsession over the top, to the point where you couldn't help laughing -- just as he intended.
That was the intermittent genius of American Splendor. Harvey chronicled his life as a perpetually cranky misfit, working as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital. The man I saw in those pages (illustrated by others) was the same man I came to know over the telephone, calling from Cleveland to discuss his next assignment: worried, put-upon, critical of everything and everyone, proudly intellectual despite his low-level job.
Not every strip worked for me -- Harvey sometimes transcribed his life without enough shaping -- but the ones that did qualify as significant art for our time. Here was an original way of rendering modern American alienation, from someone who lived it every minute. At his best, Harvey's doubts and fears and obsessions seemed like my own.
Harvey had a cult following for American Splendor, and he got a boost from his ill-tempered sparring matches with David Letterman in a few startling appearances on Letterman's late-night show. He stopped writing for Isthmus before his big breakthrough: the fabulous 2003 movie adaptation of American Splendor starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar. But I did get to meet him once, when he traveled to Madison for a reading. We had lunch together at the old Canterbury Booksellers, where Harvey talked about himself nonstop for a solid hour, barely noticing I was there.
I didn't mind, of course. The guy made a career of talking about himself, and I would have felt cheated if we'd talked about anything else.