The Chekhov of Cleveland, RIP

Harvey Pekar (2003)

In the brave new world of the 21st century comic books have been re-branded as graphic novels and their creators are the subject of graduate school seminars and regular coverage in the New York Times Book Review. But back in 1976  American Splendor was just the ironically titled autobiography of a regular working class Joe.

American Splendor

I have never set foot in Cleveland ― and don’t intend to in the near future ― but reading Harvey Pekar’s comics I felt that I shared the mundane struggles and the exasperating minutiae of everyday life that dogged the citizens of the Rust Belt capital. Harvey’s ongoing graphic autobiography turned his, and Cleveland’s, existential struggles into accessible art. For me, Harvey was a kindred spirit, another radical, working class heeb who understood that life was a war of attrition, and that if you expect the worst sometimes you would be surprised by the good in life.

Like most of my contemporaries, I was a big-time consumer of underground comics, but until Harvey came along the genre had become moribund and achingly self-referential. American Splendor managed to make the personal political and to become an aesthetic bridge between classes and generations.

Harvey was the unvarnished, unadorned, and certainly unfiltered, everyman who found real art everywhere from a trip to the bakery to battling cancer. The Chekhov of Cleveland was fond of repeating that “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff” and Harvey Pekar was one complex guy.

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