Harvey Pekar RIP: Bard of the Rust Belt

Harvey Pekar, the iconic autobiographical comics writer, died today.
In a week highlighted by LeBron James's decision to leave Cleveland, the Rust Belt also lost its bard: Harvey Pekar, the writer of the long-running, autobiographical American Splendor comic, died today at the age of 70

Where LeBron will easily fit into his sunny new environs in Miami, Pekar was the kind of crank that couldn't exist anywhere but Cleveland. In person, he was exactly like he was in the comic--none of it was a put-on.

The cause of death remains unknown pending an autopsy, but he suffered from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression.

I was lucky enough to be Pekar's co-worker at the Free Times, an alternative weekly in Cleveland that no longer exists. This was in 2002, long after Our Cancer Year, and he seemed always to be suffering from various complications and ailments, which only accentuated the depression. Yet he still worked doggedly--I vividly remember a one-page strip he wrote about a local Klezmer band that he thought wasn't getting nearly enough notice.

It was around this time that Pekar's life was made into a movie, a pastiche of cartoon, reality, and Hollywood in which he was portrayed by Paul Giamatti.

Harvey Pekar, it should be remembered, didn't draw his strips; he was always the writer. His life was illustrated by some of comics' greatest underground artists, including a young R. Crumb before he left Cleveland for San Francisco. Harvey Pekar gave his writers scripts, and sometimes drew the panels out in stick figures.

When American Splendor wrapped, I decided to cover the cast party. In tribute to Pekar, I wrote the story as a comic, and gave it to Pekar's longtime collaborator Gary Dumm to illustrate.

Harvey Pekar American Splendor Party (Medium).JPG
Harvey Pekar's American Splendor Cast Party had Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander in attendance.

Lebron James may have left cloudy Cleveland, but Harvey Pekar stayed until the bitter end. What he contributed will similarly outlast the passing seasons of an NBA franchise. Harvey Pekar defined life in the Rust Belt, which became life in Recession America circa 2010.

We need him now more than ever, and Harvey Pekar is gone. Rest in Peace, finally.

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