"Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." -Harvey Pekar
I have those words of Harvey's handwritten above my desk where I do most of my writing. I grew up reading comics -- Batman and Spider-Man were, of course, the coolest. I had them on t-shirts and played with their action figures and watched their cartoons. As I got older my tastes matured and I got into a lot of different, "weirder" stuff you could call it. I reached an age where I was okay with the thought that not all comics had to be about fighting crime and superpowers.
My brother got really into indie comics as we got older. He always tried to get me to check them out and I always passed them off as boring and generally uninteresting. Why would I read a comic about people just having conversations when I could read about The Hulk throwing cars at people or exploding planets? All the flash and explosions and lights almost blinded me, I guess you could say. Thankfully, I eventually became more open-minded. I should have listened to my brother.
A few year passed and I warmed up to independent comics. One faithful night I sat down and watched an excellent documentary about comics called Comic Book Confidential which is basically the history of comic books up until the 80's. There was one segment that I was blown away by -- Harvey Pekar's.
I always heard the name and remember my brother talking about American Splendor but I was never in a rush to read it. Immediately seeing and hearing Pekar speak in the film, he had this warmth about him, like an old friend. His gravely voice and posture was oddly kinetic. He narrates a simple little story about how he had a friend who worked at a radio station and he went there while his friend was deejaying and attempted to steal some records and failed miserably. It was quick, and funny and most important, real. Reading his stories, I felt like I was sitting next to him listening as he poured his soul out in front of me. I was hooked. I went out and bought as much American Splendor as I could. I watched the movie and fell even more in love with his work and vision.
So what did Harvey's comics teach me?
Harvey taught me that everyone has a story however boring, weird, or unflattering that story may be. He showed me that not only do we all have stories, but they are worth telling to whoever we could get to listen. He presented his work in such a confident and honest way I was instantly humbled and more so inspired. He showed me that comics were indeed capable of so much more than I could have ever imagined. He showed me that it was okay to be sad and that some people just have crappy luck in life. He showed me that you could still be a tough guy and have cats. He let me know that sometimes a stack of records can make life just a little bit better. He taught me that comics are as good as the guy making them. He taught me that if you have a story, why not share it?
Though he sadly no longer walks the street of Cleveland anymore, Harvey is alive and surly as ever in the pages of American Splendor, available at your local comic shop or bookstore. Go buy it, and meet your new friend, Harvey.
His widow, Joyce Brabner is trying to put together a "Comics as art and literature" memorial in Harvey's honor in Cleveland. They need all the help they can get. Check out it out here.
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