A Splendid American

I had been lettering comic books for Marvel for about eight years when I chanced upon a copy of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic book in a neighborhood bookstore in 1985. For the uninitiated, Harvey Pekar was a file clerk working for the Veteran’s Administration who wrote stories about the details of his own life and had various artists illustrate them.

“Of course!,”I thought. “Comics can be about REAL people and their lives….comics stories don’t have to be just about the antics of costumed characters with super powers…..one day I’d like to do a comic like this.”
 
I didn’t think any more about Harvey Pekar or his autobiographical comic book until a year or two later, when I was up late,  as usual, lettering The Spectacular Spider-Man, while watching the David Letterman Show. Then this guy Harvey Pekar suddenly comes on as one of the guests.
“It’s that guy who does that comic book about his mundane life”, I thought. “….this should be interesting.”
 
Apparently, Harvey Pekar had been on the show several times before and was even a popular guest, and a favorite of Letterman, but this time, perhaps in an attempt to spice things up, Pekar “baited” Letterman, accusing him of “…looking like a schill for General Electric“–one of the sponsors of the show. Letterman lost his cool and became incensed. Then David Letterman tried to make Pekar look like a fool, even ridiculed his work and the medium of comic books in general. He referred derisively to Pekar’s comic as “Rainy Day Fun for Boys and Girls”, which I thought was a pretty good tagline.
Up to that point, I liked David Letterman and watched his show almost every night as I worked, but now I was bothered by the way Letterman turned on Pekar and attempted to turn the studio audience against him, too.
l will admit, I didn’t pay much attention to American Splendor after that. I wasn’t following trends in comics closely at the time, just working on them to make ends meet, while pursuing my fine arts career.
Time passed– and eventually, after 15 years with Marvel Entertainment, I found myself the artist of a hit comic book for them.
In 1994, I was even a “Guest of Honor” at The Chicago Comic Con. After many years of slaving away, I was beginning to feel pretty good about my prospects for success in the field.
 Thousands of people were lining up to get a sketch or my autograph on Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book. Taking a break from my table to walk around a bit and stretch my legs, I happened to pass a panel discussion that was just breaking up when I recognized Harvey Pekar, still seated in the audience, and looking rather dejected as most of the crowd was getting up to leave.
I had never met the man, and feeling somewhat emboldened by my recent success, I swaggered over and introduced myself. The very first thing he wanted to know was how my comic book was selling. I told him the first two issues had sold nearly a million copies combined.
“I wish I could get my books to sell like that,” he mused. 
 
I confided in him that I thought his “Slice of Life” comic books were more to my taste than anything else I was working on regularly.
I was secretly hoping he would ask me to draw a story for him. I was no Robert Crumb, but I felt like I could do a good job on it.
Because of my own somewhat reticent nature, I didn’t feel comfortable just coming right out and asking Harvey Pekar to give me one of his stories to illustrate. In those days, I was not at all “pro-active” in fact, I was the type of artist (and person) who always seemed to wait until someone would ask me to do something. To suggest to him that he hire me seemed presumptuous and even rude, somehow.
Boy was I naive.
Many years later, after I hadn’t had any comics work published in what seemed like ages, I was at home doing the laundry or perhaps taking out the trash when the telephone rang.
It was Dean Haspiel calling.
I knew Dean Haspiel as an up-and-coming young artist who had recently been collaborating with Mr. Pekar on a series for DC Comics. I thought it was great that the publisher of Superman was now publishing autobiographical stories. Having not much of an affinity for superheroes, I thought it boded well for people like me.
Months earlier, I had seen the two of them autographing comics together at the New York Comic Con, and thought Dino! did a great job, as I thumbed through an issue of one of their comic books, I couldn’t help being a little bit envious of Dino!
I secretly wished that Harvey Pekar had asked me to work with him.
Now I couldn’t imagine why Dean Haspiel was calling me.
Dean explained to me that he had spear-headed some kind of a writing contest revolving around cartoonists doing stories about “Next Door Neighbors” and that Harvey Pekar had been the judge. Harvey chose a story by a newcomer, Michelle Carlo entitled, “Night of the Black Chrysanthenum”, about her childhood growing up in The Bronx.
Her “prize” was that her story would get made into an eight-pager by a “professional artist”. Dino! was pretty busy and wanted to know if I might be interested in doing it. He apologized that they could only pay $85 dollars. I thought he meant per page! My page rate at Marvel for penciling, inking and lettering combined had been over $300 per page but I was very anxious to get back into comics work and so I readily agreed to do it and spent three weeks drawing and coloring it.
Dino! liked my work on the story well enough to introduce me to a bright young fellow named Jeff Newelt, the editor for Smith Magazine, an online comics anthology created by Dean Haspiel featuring the work of a band of hotshot comics creators in and around Brooklyn.
Jeff was putting together a team of artists to illustrate new stories by Harvey Pekar and get them on the Smith Magazine website. Of course I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t?
Meanwhile, at 62, I had been going to Cardiac Rehab and had become friendly with another one of the patients there while we all walked on parallel treadmills and chatted. When he found out I was an artist, he kindly offered to introduce me to his daughter who owned an art gallery in Cleveland, Ohio. I pretended to be interested, but deep down, in my heart of hearts, and being a bit of a snob, what I really wanted, was to be affiliated with a New York Art Gallery—what artist doesn’t? After all, time was running out! I could die at any minute! I needed to get my work out there while there was still time!! But no New York galleries had called since 1987, when I stopped making fine art and shifted the emphasis of my work to cartooning.
After a few months had gone by, and many miles on the treadmill,  I had drawn several stories for Harvey that were now online when I suddenly remembered the offer the man in Cardiac Rehab had made. Maybe his daughter would be interested in showing my drawings in her art gallery in Cleveland!
I ran the idea past Jeff Newelt who was the editor of all the stories.  He wisely suggested that all four of the artists involved in what was now being called The Pekar Proiject be included– not just me–and that the show could be timed to coincide with Harvey Pekar’s 70th Birthday on October 8, 2009.
I felt selfish and stupid for not immediately thinking of the other artists involved. But it wasn’t the first time I ever felt that way and I knew it probably wouldn’t be the last.
I called the lady art dealer in Cleveland and she arranged the exhibit.
In October, we all piled in my old car and drove to Cleveland for the weekend.
Jeff Newelt, who it turns out is quite a Public Relations and Promotional genius and seemes to know everyone in the entertainment world on both coasts, also made arrangements for Harvey– and the artists in The Pekar Project to be interviewed in Cleveland by a documentary film company at the home of Tara Seibel, one of the four artists involved. The other two artists were Joseph Remnant and Sean Pryor, two incredibly talented and very nice young men.
I was elated to be back working in comics again and to be making connections with a younger generation of cartoonists. I was enjoying thinking of myself as some kind of bridge between the old guard and the young Turks now coming into the field.
It was snowing on the day we all assembled to be interviewed at The Seibel House. Harvey and his wife Joyce were the last to arrive. I hadn’t seen Harvey Pekar in 15 years, and he seemed subdued and in a reflective mood upon arrival. It seems he had good reasons to be uncomfortable. Harvey always seemed uncomfortable, I concluded, as I spent more and more time observing him.
Introductions were made and seemed somewhat strained. In short order, everyone found places to sit around the house or hung around the kitchen nibbling at a large and sumptuous table of goodies. The Seibels were good hosts and had a lovely home.
Meanwhile, in another room, filming and interviewing began.  Almost as soon as he arrived, Harvey sat apart from everyone else on a sofa in the living room waiting to be called in to be interviewed. At first he seemed depressed, but soon his demeanor turned to one of delight as he played with The Seibel’s one-year-old toddler who was seated on the floor with a firetruck. Harvey and his wife Joyce had adopted a child and from all reports, he relished his role as a Dad.
When Harvey had first seen the boy he was drawn over to him like a magnet. Clearly, the two of them had met before and Harvey, who was normally very subdued and had acted somewhat pained upon arrival now seemed genuinely happy as he played with the boy, totally oblivious to all the activity and energy that swirled around him.
And the boy seemed to regard Harvey as some kind of Fairy Grandfather or magical wizard even, and while I watched, Harvey Pekar seemed happily lost in play with the boy and the firetruck and succeeded in escaping the pain of his former life and all its trials which he wore heavily on himself day and night like a heavy and old wornout overcoat.
One by one, we were summoned unpredictibly to the other room, it seemed to me as if to an execution, where the lights and the cameras were rolling. When it was thankfully at last, my turn, my only goal was to try and not say anything stupid as I knew that one day, someone I knew would see it.
In December of that year, Harvey flew to New York and then came by train from New York to New Jersey to speak to a group of excited college students at Drew University. And then took the train back to Brooklyn the next day for a convention where he was fawned over and photographed and posed with and honored –and perhaps even starting to believe for a few days anyway, that there was a whole new generation of comics creators who revered him.
And there was.
And then Harvey Pekar returned by airplane to Cleveland, Ohio where he had always lived, and to the life that he had there.
In August of the following year, he was found dead on the floor of his bedroom— a reluctant, unwilling and unwitting victim of a fatal combination of the very same medications he was taking to sustain him.
He would have smiled at the irony.

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