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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 14, 2010, 8:23 am

Losing Another Working-Class Hero: Graphic Novelist Harvey Pekar Dies at 70

BY Richard Greenwald

Harvey Pekar died on Monday July 12, 2010, but his death was overshadowed by the death of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who died on the 13th. The two could not be more different, there is something fitting that the underdog Pekar even in death gets overshadowed by the celebrity business owner.

Pekar helped make the graphic novel into an art form, and for that alone we all owe him our thanks. Pekar’s books—to call them comic books would not really be fair—had no superheros. Rather, they depicted ordinary events and people, mainly himself, and the city he loved: Cleveland. They were stories of life’s everyday struggles.

His best known work, was the “American Splendor” series (made into a film last decade), started in the 1970s and first illustrated by his friend R. Crumb, the master comic book illustrator.

The series became an underground cult hit. But Harvey retained his simple life. He worked most of his life as a file clerk in the local VA hospital. The Cleveland Plain Dealer said in its obituary, “...his comics suggest a different sort of heroism: the working-class, everyman heroics of simply making it through another day, soul—if not dignity—intact.”

And that sums up Pekar: he was a man of soul and brutal honesty. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he chronicled it in Our Cancer Year, in all its grimness.

In the the mid-1980s, as his comics became cult classics, David Letterman had him on as a repeat guest. I remember seeing Pekar on the Letterman show when I was young, not knowing who he was. He was, to be honest, a bit peculiar. In 1987, during a strike at NBC, Pekar wore a t-shirt in support of the strikers, with “On Strike Against NBC” on his chest. That caught my attention.

Letterman was often ruthless in tearing Pekar apart for the amusement of his audience as a cooky simpleton. Pekar held his own, pushing back on how unsophisticated Letterman’s thinking was. Then in 1987 Pekar went on a rant about GE, saying that GE compromised Letterman’s integrity and that he was a shill for the company. In a three-minute attack on GE, Pekar was able to list the lawsuits and troubles GE caused the nation—until Letterman went to a commercial.

When Pekar returned to the show a few weeks later and they got into it again. Letterman lost it, calling his comic “a little Mickey Mouse reader.” Pekar’s response, was “I was a file clerk before I met you and I will be a file clerk after I met you.” Letterman never invited him back again. His TV career was over, and Pekar went back to his life in Cleveland as a file clerk.

Pekar used his few minutes of fame to bring national attention to striking stage hands and abuses of NBC’s parent company, GE, to light. He was truly heroic because he did not think of himself. He could have went on being an amusing character for Letterman, he could have gotten his own TV show (maybe). All he had to do is not speak out. But he didn’t keep silent, maybe he couldn't. Instead he took a principled stand for all to see.

Pekar’s characters, much like himself, were the ordinary people, working people, of Cleveland who struggled so hard just to get by. Unlike them, Pekar used his talents as a writer and creator to make visible these struggles, therefore turning art into politics. He will be missed.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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