Published at: July 12, 2010, 4:26 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
"I just keep my eyes and ears open, and that's it. See what I can see."
In the pages of his autobiographical comic book series AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Harvey Pekar saw life as it is lived in the working-class confines of Cleveland, Ohio. To some, Pekar's dispatches (illustrated by some of the greatest comic artists in the history of the medium) revealed a banal, occasionally bitter, rarely cheerful existence; they were the laments of a regular guy stuck in an unrewarding job in an unappealing city. This is limiting.
For me, Pekar's work was a celebration of intellectual curiosity undimmed by the drudgery of the ol' nine-to-five. He was an avid reader, a jazz enthusiast, and a fearlessly critical thinker. He was an empathetic chronicler of uniqueness in others - and while he was amused by peculiarities of his friends and neighbors, he did not mine them for cheap laughs. Did the job get him down? Absolutely. So did the financial struggles, the marital strife and the cancer. But none of it ever snuffed out his interest in the world around him; he saw too clearly the value in making art out of his plight, rather than sourly swallowing down the indignities served up on an unceasing basis.
When I spoke with Pekar in 2003 during the press tour for AMERICAN SPLENDOR, I was thrilled to find that he was the same no-bullshit guy I'd been reading about for years. It was one of the most satisfying interviews I'd ever conducted - until I asked the obligatory David Letterman question. Right away, I could sense Pekar's disappointment. After earning his trust as a fellow Ohioan, I had to go and bring up the same topic he'd discussed to death all day (and for years prior). I was sick to my stomach. Though the tension may not read in the piece, I was desperate to redeem myself as someone who wasn't there just to get him reliving his classic moments on Letterman (which, admittedly, are wonderful and well worth watching on YouTube*). After tossing off a few standard questions, I remembered I'd written down a quote from Pekar's review of George Wein's autobiography. So I quickly rattled it off, and asked if Wein's belief in doing "the decent thing whenever they have the opportunity" carried any resonance in his own life. Pekar smiled and responded thusly...
Yeah, well, it worked for Wein, and I’m trying to make it work for me. Like I say, we all die, so maybe it’s all futile. I don’t have the ability to sell out. I mean, I don’t have the kinds of skills it takes to be a commercial writer. For example, I have an awful lot of trouble with some editors because my prose writing isn’t fancy enough. I’d be writing for a jazz magazine, I’d be doing an article about a guy, and they’d say I wrote too much about his music, and not enough about what kind of guy he is – like how he dresses or how many kids he has… stuff like that. I just try and do what I do well, and I try to do it the best I can. I hope it pays off. Maybe it will this time. It’s scary to think about… I’m real scared. Maybe it’ll work out; maybe I’ll get more gigs. Maybe I’ll be alright.
This answer has always stuck with me. If you're realistic, life isn't about the pursuit of happiness; it's about the pursuit of "alright". "Alright" is attainable. Joy is unexpected and fleeting, like a perfect, three-minute pop song. Aim for "alright", and the struggle is bearable.
I will miss Pekar's voice. Forget the hyperbole that attended LeBron James's departure. Today, we lost a true son of Cleveland.
Harvey's work lives on at The Pekar Project and in book stores the world over.