Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at the age of 70, should be the patron saint of soreheads. Even when he got successful he stayed cranky, maybe because being a crank was what made him successful. Not even Pekar was fool enough to fuss with that formula. After the American Splendor series of comics came out starting in 1976, he was hailed as the bard of the common man, a sort of genius of ordinariness. He was nothing of the sort. He just happened to have an unglamorous job as a file clerk at the VA in Cleveland, which is enough to make most critics call you ordinary. But the day job was just that: a means to support other ends. On his own time, Pekar was an avid collector of old 78 records. Now, all 78 collectors are by definition avid, but Pekar had the self-awareness to step back and see his own mania. So there was a certain inevitability about his friendship with the graphic artist Robert Crumb, another collector of 78s and a man who has made his fortune by being both self-aware and brutally honest about his own life.
Out of that friendship came the earliest installments of the autobiographical American Splendor, which paired Pekar’s narration of his own life with comic panels supplied by Crumb. Using that template, Pekar would ultimately work with a who’s who of artists in the world of the graphic novel, including Joe Sacco, Dean Haspiel, Alison Bechdel, and Alan Moore. It was a critical and commercial hit, with multiple installments over the years. It even inspired a movie. Somehow Pekar seemed to survive it all unchanged, maybe because he became well known when he was already middle-aged and set in his ways. Or maybe he really didn’t want to mess with the formula (a formula that very much depended on Pekar being Pekar) that got him where he was.
Should we both credit and blame Pekar for the navel-gazing nature of so many graphic novels and graphic memoirs? He was certainly there first, measuring out his life not in coffee spoons but in cartoon panels. The thing that will always elevate Pekar above the herd that followed him was that he courted the limelight but made no concessions to it. He wanted everything but on his terms, and he got closer than most people to getting his wish. He was an interesting guy, maybe not someone you’d want to take a long car trip with, but someone it was always fun to read about, the little guy who made good. American Splendor was a title marinated in irony, but the real irony was that, in the end, it wasn’t ironic at all.