Sad news this morning: Harvey Pekar, the comic-book writer and subject of the great 2003 movie “American Splendor,” died early this morning at his Cleveland home. He was 70. No cause of death was given, but Pekar had previously suffered from several health problems, including prostate cancer.
“American Splendor,” in which Pekar shared the role of himself with Paul Giamatti (hard to describe; you have to watch it), introduced the writer, his curmudgeonly personality and his inimitable voice (something like a gargle interrupted by a strangle) — and made him an unexpected hero. The film came to the Seattle International Film Festival in 2003, and I talked to directors Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini (in an interview interrupted by a cell-phone call from Harvey, who was calling to complain about his wife not paying the bills) about their approach to this unique character:
“It seemed very organic to Harvey’s material to do something that blends fiction and documentary and animation,” [said] Springer. “We noticed when we were reading the comic books that Harvey, when he’s drawn by different artists, he looks very different. Yet there’s always the essence of Harvey Pekar, no matter what he looks like, you get this indelible persona.”
“Since there were multiple Harveys in the comic books, it gave us license to have multiple Harveys in the movie. So we had Harvey as the real Harvey, Paul Giamatti playing Harvey, the animated Harvey, Donal Logue as Harvey in the play [an independent production inspired by the comic books], and it all kind of fits.” Pulcini noted that while the much-younger Giamatti doesn’t really look like Pekar, “they look like one person drawn by two different artists.”
Pekar, who began to write to capture the (hilarious) tedium of his civil-service job in the 1970s, recently published the graphic novel “The Quitter,” and documented his cancer treatment in the comic “Our Cancer Year,” written with his wife Joyce Brebner. The New York Daily News today quoted artist and frequent Pekar collaborator dean Haspiel: “Harvey lived life and every last detail was written and drawn and published. The best way to honor Pekar now is to read his life, just like he would have wanted you to.” To which I, looking at the Harvey Pekar bobblehead on my desk (no, not kidding, I really have one), would add: watch the movie of his life, too.
The real Harvey (photo courtesy Fine Line Features).
And a bobblehead photo, added by popular demand (comment below). (Photo by Jeff Paslay, The Seattle Times)