Harvey Pekar and his younger brother Allen were born in Cleveland, Ohio to Saul and Dora Pekar, immigrants from Białystok, Poland. Saul Pekar was a Talmudic scholar who owned a grocery store on Kinsman Avenue, with the family living above the store. While Pekar said he wasn’t close to his parents due to their dissimilar backgrounds and because they worked all the time, he still “marveled at how devoted they were to each other. They had so much love and admiration for one another.” As a child, Pekar’s first language was Yiddish, and he learned to read and appreciate novels in the language. Pekar said that for the first few years of his life, he didn’t have friends. The neighborhood he lived in had once been all white but became mostly black by the 1940s; as one of the only white kids still living there Pekar was often beaten up. He later believed this instilled in him “a profound sense of inferiority.” However, this experience also taught him to eventually become a “respected street scrapper.” Harvey Pekar graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1957, then attended Case Western Reserve University, where he dropped out after a year. He then served in the United States Navy, and after discharge returned to Cleveland where he worked odd jobs before being hired as file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital. He held this job even after becoming famous, refusing all promotions until he finally retired in 2001. Pekar was married from 1960 to 1972 to his first wife, Karen Delaney. His second wife was Helen Lark Hall. Pekar’s third wife was writer Joyce Brabner, with whom he collaborated on Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel autobiography of his harrowing yet successful treatment for lymphoma. He lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with Brabner and their foster daughter Danielle.
Pekar’s friendship with Robert Crumb led to the creation of the self-published, autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. Crumb and Pekar became friends through their mutual love of jazz records when Crumb was living in Cleveland in the mid-1960s. Crumb’s work in underground comics led Pekar to see the form’s possibilities, saying, “Comics could do anything that film could do. And I wanted in on it.” It took Pekar a decade to do so: “I theorized for maybe ten years about doing comics.” Pekar laid out some stories with crude stick figures and showed them to Crumb and another artist, Robert Armstrong. Impressed, they both offered to illustrate, and soon Pekar’s story “Crazy Ed” appeared in Crumb’s The People’s Comics, and Crumb became the first artist to illustrate American Splendor. The comic documents daily life in the aging neighborhoods of Pekar’s native Cleveland. The first issue of American Splendor appeared in 1976. Pekar’s best-known and longest-running collaborators include Crumb, Gary Dumm, Greg Budgett, Spain Rodriguez, Joe Zabel, Gerry Shamray, Frank Stack, Mark Zingarelli, and Joe Sacco. In the 2000s, he teamed regularly with artists Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. Other cartoonists who worked with him include Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel, Gilbert Hernandez, Eddie Campbell, David Collier, Drew Friedman, Ho Che Anderson, Rick Geary, Ed Piskor, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, Brian Bram, and Alex Wald; as well as such non-traditional illustrators as Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, and comics writer Alan Moore. Stories from the American Splendor comics have been collected in many books and anthologies.
A film adaptation of American Splendor was released in 2003, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. It featured Paul Giamatti as Pekar, as well as appearances by Pekar himself. Pekar wrote about the effects of the film in American Splendor: Our Movie Year. In 2006, Pekar released a four-issue American Splendor miniseries through the DC Comics imprint Vertigo. This was collected in the American Splendor: Another Day paperback. In 2008 Vertigo released a second “season” of American Splendor that was collected in the American Splendor: Another Dollar paperback. In addition to his autobiographical work on American Splendor, Pekar wrote a number of biographies. The first of these, American Splendor: Unsung Hero (2003), documented the Vietnam War experience of Robert McNeill, one of Pekar’s African-American coworkers at Cleveland’s VA hospital. On October 5, 2005, the DC Comics imprint Vertigo released Pekar’s autobiographical hardcover The Quitter, with artwork by Dean Haspiel. The book detailed Pekar’s early years. In 2006, Pekar released another biography for Ballantine/Random House, Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, about the life of Michael Malice, who was the founding editor of OverheardinNewYork.com. Pekar was the first guest editor for the collection The Best American Comics 2006 published by Houghton Mifflin, the first comics collection in the “Best American series” series. In June 2007, Pekar collaborated with student Heather Roberson and artist Ed Piskor on the book Macedonia, which centers around Roberson’s studies in the country. January 2008 saw another biographical work from Pekar, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, released through Hill & Wang. In March 2009, Pekar released The Beats, a history of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, illustrated by Ed Piskor. In May 2009 he released Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation. In 2010, Pekar launched a webcomic with the online magazine Smith, titled The Pekar Project. In 2011, Abrams Comicarts published “Yiddishkeit,” co-edited by Pekar with Paul Buhle and with Hershl Hartman, depicting many aspects of Yiddish language and culture. Artists in this anthology include many of Pekar’s collaborators.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on July 12, 2010, Pekar’s wife found Pekar dead in their Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. No immediate cause was determined, but in October the Cuyahoga County coroner’s office ruled it was an accidental overdose of antidepressants fluoxetine and bupropion. Pekar had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time and was about to undergo treatment. He was cremated and buried in Lake View Cemetery, next to Eliot Ness. His headstone features one of his quotations as an epitaph: “Life is about women, gigs, an’ bein’ creative.” Some Pekar works were to be released posthumously, including two collaborations with Joyce Brabner, The Big Book Of Marriage and Harvey and Joyce Plumb the Depths of Depression, as well as a collection of the webcomics that ran as a part of The Pekar Project. Working with illustrator Summer McClinton, Pekar also finished a book on American Marxist Louis Proyect, tentatively called The Unrepentant Marxist, after Proyect’s blog. In the works since 2008, the book was to be published by Random House. After a conflict between Proyect and Joyce Brabner, Brabner announced that she would hold the book back indefinitely. As of April 2014, those four titles have not been released. In December 2010, the last story Pekar wrote — “Harvey Pekar Meets the Thing”, in which Pekar has a conversation with Ben Grimm — was published in the Marvel Comics anthology Strange Tales II; the story was illustrated by Ty Templeton.
- October, 08, 1939
- Cleveland, Ohio
- July, 12, 2010
- Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Cause of Death
- Lake View Cemetery
- Cleveland, Ohio