One of the most amazing experiences I've ever had was my first encounter with Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.
It was the summer of my first year at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I started school early – after a year away from college, I was hugely anxious to get restarted with my higher education, so I started one quarter early and took a few summer school classes.
Because the campus was pretty well deserted – it was pretty much just me and a bunch of international students on campus at that time – I had plenty of time and reason to go and explore the city of Portland. One of the things I quickly discovered about the city is that it had some awesomely cool bookstores – along with the greatest record stores I'd ever seen. Yeah, it was the mid '80s so there still were record stores, and it was really fun to shop them!
So one day in my wanderings I wandered into this small independent bookstore in Portland, only to find one of the most interesting stores I had ever seen. It was a uniquely Portland sort of place, the sort of place that doesn't set ay boundaries around so-called fine art and low art. The store had an amazing magazine rack, filled not just with magazines like Adbusters, Art in America and the Utne Reader. It also carried zines and chapbooks and a few very interesting comics magazines like Weirdo and RAW and – you guessed it – American Splendor.
The cover to American Splendor #10 practically jumped off the newsstand at me. Under a hand-drawn green-colored logo, set effectively against a black background, appeared an amazingly revelatory image. A balding middle-aged man was standing and washing dishes in his sink. Above his head is a thought balloon, as the man thinks "Poor dishwashing has always been my Achilles heel. If I could upgrade my dishwashing skills, I could really disarm my enemies." Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman is giving the man the stinkeye, her eyes boring into the man's head as he employs his pathetic dishwashing skills.
Below the image, in typeset text, is the oddest hype ever to appear on a comics cover: "Harvey's latest crapshoot: His third marriage to a sweetie from Delaware and how his substandard dishwashing strains their relationship." American Splendor indeed.
Maybe best of all, the cover was drawn by Val Mayerik, who had drawn literally hundreds of comic books for Marvel, often with the great Steve Gerber.
Somehow the massive irony of the cover worked brilliantly for me. The man was thinking grandiose thoughts, and the image was drawn by a man who often drew larger-than-life scenes. Yet the scene on the cover was as basic and prosaic as it gets. It was all incredibly intriguing. How could I not purchase this amazing comic book?
Surprisingly, the comic was even better than its cover. The comic was huge, packed with a breathtaking 12 different stories, from breathtakingly elegant one-pagers to a wonderfully warm 14 page "Wedding Album" illustrated by Mayerik.
I discovered that this comic was the chronicle of the daily life of one Harvey Pekar, a middle-aged man who worked as a clerk at a Cleveland VA hospital. The comic basically just told small stories about Harvey's encounters with coworkers or events that happened at his work. There was a breathtaking lack of drama in the stories; in fact, so much of the revelatory nature of the comic came from Pekar's dogged devotion to telling the truth in his stories without concern that the stories make a deep and significant point.
It was a revolutionary and fascinating approach to comics, completely unique in my experience up to that point. Despite the fact that he employed artists to illustrate his stories, this was the most personal and unique comic I had ever read. I couldn't put the comic down. I read and reread that astonishingly personal creation during that quiet summer. I'd read thousands of comics to that point, but I'd never read anything quite like that issue of American Splendor. But how could I have read anything like that comic? There literally was nothing like that comic.
This was an oddly in-between stage for this comic. The early issues featured the famous stories illustrated by Robert Crumb, while the issues just a little later featured Pekar's famous appearances on the David Letterman show. I had chanced upon the work of Harvey Pekar at the ideal time, when he was presenting maybe the purest version of his vision.
Because Pekar was a man of artistic vision, a man who set out to do something ordinary and produced something extraordinary. There are thousands of blogs today devoted to chronicling the minutia of an ordinary person's everyday life, but very few of them have a clear and specific vision for their work. Pekar set out in 1976 to tell ordinary stories of his very ordinary life, but somehow in his very unique viewpoint, he produced something absolutely transcendent.
Pekar was one of those rare people who was entirely, memorably, himself. He was devoted to chronicling his ordinary life, without consideration of dressing it up or making him appear in a certain way in his stories. We saw Harvey in every possible mood, from joy to rage, and the truth of his stories had the amazing effect of making ordinary life feel fascinating.
Obviously, many other creators have done autobiographical comics, from Crumb to Joe Matt to the amazing Eddie Campbell. But Pekar had his own very unique approach to comics. Nobody was quite like him. He produced amazing, revolutionary work. I will miss him deeply.