Harvey Pekar, who died at his home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on July 12 at the age of 70, was one of a handful of veteran underground comic-book creators--including Robert Crumb, with whom he collaborated, and Art Spiegelman--who laid the foundation for the flourishing graphic-novel scene today.
Harvey, an autodidact who could draw only stick figures, recognized that there was no intrinsic reason comic books could not explore the same human terrain as prose literature. His autobiographical stories, illustrated by a large and varied stable of cartoonists and printed in his long-running American Splendor series, have had an enormous influence on practitioners of the comic-book medium. Almost every cartoonist who writes and draws personal stories today owes a debt to Harvey's unsentimental depiction of his life and foibles, which were portrayed in a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti.
Harvey may have been one of the few authentic working-class voices active in any of the arts. He kept his day job as a file clerk at a Veterans Affairs hospital, which served as a setting for many of his most memorable vignettes. In addition to his comics work, he was a well-respected jazz critic.
I was lucky enough to have been one of his comics collaborators. Harvey would call up to say things like "Joe, I figured out a way we could make some bread." He understood all too well that if an artist is to survive, creativity must meet commerce somewhere. Harvey was a man who struggled hard for everything he got and never quite felt his struggles would let up. Along the way, he left an indelible stamp on the comic-book medium.