Conversations with Harvey Pekar

July 20, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

coverI started reading Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor in high school, when I was anxious about my future and frustrated by my present. Little did I know then, Harvey would soon become a friend and a confidant of sorts.

At 16, my impending adulthood terrified me, and I worried often about my ability to do the ordinary things that an independent person must do to get by. I was convinced that facing the logistics of life—finding a place to live, paying the bills, going to the dentist—would deplete any happiness I might find. The bureaucracy and tedium of high school left me outraged, and like many young people who came of age during the Bush administration, I had a pretty grim view of humanity’s future.

I found hope and comfort in American Splendor, even as the comics actually confirmed some of my worst fears about the adult world. Harvey’s autobiographical protagonist faces all the challenges I worried about, and he doesn’t always respond to them with the calm maturity I hoped I would someday develop. Most of the stories in American Splendor take place at the hospital where Harvey worked for most of his life as a file clerk, or on the streets and stoops of his run-down Cleveland neighborhood. They chronicle his strained relationships with loved ones, his bouts with cancer and depression, and his frustration at practically everything.

American Splendor reassured me despite all this gloom. A lot of the comics recount run-ins with a cast of eccentrics; some strangers, some co-workers and friends. I think one of these vignettes, an encounter with a guy named Crazy Ed, inspired Pekar to start writing comics in the first place. I spent a lot of my life at the time wandering around the city and riding buses, so I had plenty of conversations with strangers myself, and I often enjoyed talking to them more than anything else I did. Pekar recognized that these interactions are not just funny anecdotes: they can sustain one’s spirits and make it easier to persevere. Getting through the day was hard, he affirmed, but it was worth it. Not for any great philosophical reason, but because ordinary life is filled with strange occurrences that are not to be missed. American Splendor helped me imagine a future I could handle, and I considered Harvey Pekar an ally on my path to adult stability.

When I saw a P.O. box listed in a back issue of American Splendor, I decided to write him a letter to thank him. I told him that his comic books reassured me that things would turn out okay, and that I loved the Mr. Boats stories (a series of comic strips about an elderly co-worker given to making grandiose statements in elevators). I didn’t really expect a response; my brother had made similar overtures to R. Crumb and never heard anything back. A few weeks later, though, my mom called me at work to tell me that I had gotten a letter from Harvey Pekar. Luckily, I worked in a bookstore, so I could brag about it without having to explain who he was.

The wrinkled, beat-up envelope from Cleveland contained a short note, in which Harvey thanked me for my letter and said I could give him a call if I wanted to talk some more. He had free long distance, and he didn’t have time to write long missives. I couldn’t believe that an accomplished writer wanted to talk to me, although I knew from references in the comic books that he had become friends with fans before.

I was extremely nervous the first time I called. His wife picked up the phone, and I stumbled through an awkward explanation of who I was. Once Harvey got on the phone I relaxed a little bit and we talked for a while. His voice was strained and raspy, due to a problem with his vocal chords that was charted in a series of comic strips. I felt bad about keeping him on the phone because it sounded so painful. Our first conversation was friendly but short. We mostly talked about comics we liked; he was very enthusiastic about young comic book writers like Keith Knight, and gratified by the medium’s newfound popularity. He was surprised that I found anything uplifting in American Splendor, since his work was often derided as too curmudgeonly. We agreed to talk again soon and he got off the phone to go to bed.

We had longer phone conversations over the next year. Harvey was warm and funny in conversation, but he also sounded worn out and subdued. In his comics, he portrayed himself bursting with energy and anger and enthusiasm. I knew this was an exaggeration of his personality, but I think the time I knew him was especially hard for him. It was a bad time for me too, and having someone to commiserate with helped. I was so grateful that he was interested in my problems that I felt presumptuous trying to help with his; I was just a kid and I didn’t have much perspective.

I remember one very serious conversation about living with chronic depression. He was amused that I expected him to have some words of wisdom on the topic, since he had struggled with these problems his whole life without overcoming them. Nonetheless, he did give me some advice that was both pragmatic and frightening, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. I think Harvey didn’t even consider it good advice; it was just the only thing that worked. He told me that you have to force yourself to do whatever needs to be done to get through the day, no matter how you feel, and at some point later you’ll be glad you did.

We talked about lighter stuff too, mostly books and art. Harvey also told me to read as much as I could about everything I was interested in, and to keep educating myself whether I was in school or not. He believed in reading to satisfy curiosity and gain expertise, not just for pleasure, a philosophy in keeping with his pragmatic, unromantic approach to writing (another thing he encouraged me to do regularly). And, as any reader of American Splendor would expect, we spent a lot of time complaining.

We met in person twice, at comic book conventions in San Francisco and Portland, but I enjoyed talking on the phone more. The conventions were busy and crowded, and I was even shyer in person. When I introduced myself for the first time, I was flustered and asked if the convention gave him any free food. Recognizing a fellow cheapskate, he responded enthusiastically and gave me a handful of energy bars.

I was very sorry to hear about Harvey’s death last week. I’m sure our conversations meant more to me than they did to him, but I hope they cheered him up. Our acquaintance demonstrated one of the things I had loved about American Splendor: the importance of connections to strangers. The fan letter I wrote on a whim led to a brief but valuable friendship. Those talks helped me grow up. I took his advice and forced myself through the rest of high school. I’ve settled into the adult life I was so afraid of, and most of the things I dreaded turned out to be pretty easy. I wish I could thank him, and ask him for advice again, this time on figuring out what to do with my freedom.

studied art history at Reed College. She lives in Brooklyn but left her heart in Dubai.

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