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Harvey Pekar, Remembered

A tribute to Harvey Pekar at Carol and John's Comic Shop in Cleveland
A tribute to Harvey Pekar at Carol and John's Comic Shop in Cleveland

Harvey Pekar was Cleveland's most famous file clerk. The Shaker High grad filed medical documents by day, but in his free time he dreamed of creating something bigger. In a 2005 interview with WCPN, Pekar said it was meeting famed underground illustrator R. Crumb that led him to start thinking about comic books.

HARVEY PEKAR: "It was just that they had been used in a very limited way. And when I started thinking about what could be done with them, that's what sort of led to my getting into comics because the field was so ripe for innovation."

In 1976, Pekar started chronicling his life - hiring artists, like Crumb, to illustrate his stories. Pekar wrote about his day to day struggles in his hometown of Cleveland, recording a mundane, grumpy and completely genuine character in the black and white frames of comic books.

PEKAR: "A lot of my writing is like that, I get stuff off my chest and it helps to get it out."

Pekar's "American Splendor: Off the Streets of Cleveland" was an on-again, off-again endeavor that he frequently said never earned him enough money. But his books earned him brief stints of fame, helped by a series of sometimes outrageous appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" in the 1980s.

PEKAR: "We're getting into it Dave...just keep me on for another ten minutes..."
DAVID LETTERMAN: "I'm just praying for a terrorist..."

Letterman eventually got so upset by Pekar's antics that he was banned for life, even though he subsequently appeared on the show twice. In 1994, Pekar chronicled his battle with lymphoma in his book "Our Cancer Year." About ten years later, a caller to 90.3's "Around Noon" asked Pekar if Letterman's health problems gave the pair a reason to reunite.

PEKAR: "It'll take more than the mere shadow of death to make Letterman make contact with me. He wants to avoid me at all costs."

Pekar's "American Splendor" series caused a seminal change in comic books, says Brad Ricca. Ricca teaches English and comic book history at Case Western Reserve University.

BRAD RICCA: "Before it was just the Hulk fights some giant alien and punches him to Pluto or something. This gave comics a real sense of the literary."

In 2003, actor Paul Giamatti played Harvey Pekar in the acclaimed film based on his comics, "American Splendor." Part of that movie was filmed at John and Carol's Comics on Cleveland's west side. At the front entrance an employee erected a small memorial to Pekar saying simply, "You will be missed." Store co-owner John Dudas says Pekar and his stories captured the essence of working class Cleveland.

JOHN DUDAS: He had that blue collar work ethic and blue collar mentality. You gotta go to work in the morning you gotta get up you don't not necessarily like it but is there a bunch of snow on the ground? Well you better get up two hours early and shovel it because your boss doesn't care if you're late. That kind of good blue collar ethic. That's what he represented to us.

And Ricca called Harvey Pekar a kind of "mobile landmark." A frequenter of haunts near his Cleveland Heights neighborhood, Pekar enjoyed his own special kind of fame, but he was always uniquely himself.

RICCA: "He was never Mr. Pekar. He was always just Harvey. You have these big professors here and the people who buy the comics here and they all knew him as Harvey. And I think that's a real testament to him and to Cleveland because I don't think he could have come from anywhere else."

Pekar's longtime friend Toby Radloff had his own suggestion for memorializing his pal: Go to a shop and pick up a copy of "American Splendor."