The Arty Semite

Harvey Pekar, Our Mensch in Cleveland

By Jeff Newelt

  • Print
  • Share Share

Jeff Newelt is editor of the Pekar Project and the forthcoming “Harvey Pekar’s CLEVELAND.”

A panel from “Legendary Vienna” by Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant.

If I had my druthers I’d do a universal search/replace on the Internet, find all instances of Harvey Pekar, who died one year ago at age 70, being lazily labeled a “curmudgeon,” and switch each misnomer to “mensch.” It’s not that he was always cheerful, as those who knew him, or read his autobiographical “American Splendor” comics, or saw the movie of the same name starring Paul Giamatti, knew. It’s just that like in the news, the negative gets more play.

Much of the misconception stems from the film, a half-biopic, half-documentary. Because it can only show so much in two hours, perhaps it overemphasized Harvey as a downer, and downplayed how much of an enthusiastic, gracious, child-like serial appreciator he was. About 50% of his work, in comics and prose, was not complaining about minutiae, but championing unheralded writers, musicians, artists or just people he knew and on whose lives he cast a non-sugarcoated yet affectionate eye. This was especially true of not famous or successful geniuses like saxophonist Joe Maneri, whom Harvey frequently raved about for Jazz Times.

Also, as anyone who really knew Harvey would tell you, there was no one more thankful for anything anyone gave him. On our Pekar Project trip to Cleveland for his 70th birthday in 2009, the team went to dinner at Sokolowskis, the Polish restaurant he took Anthony Bourdain to on “No Reservations.” Harvey could not get over the fact that the restaurant would not let him pay. At age 70, after accolades and respect from peers and fans, the simple fact of being treated to a meal was mind-blowing to him — something not taken for granted. Also, you should’ve heard how farklempt he got when he saw the surprise 70th birthday Harvey Heads online gallery with contributions from more than 100 artists, including the Forward’s own Eli Valley. That is not the behavior of a curmudgeon.

That said, Harvey was sweet, but he was also no-nonsense, and not one for stupid talk. A lot of patience he did not have. Part of my role as his editor was irritating the oyster to get some pearls! I learned that tactic on the first story I worked on with him, “Gauntlet of Rock” for Royal Flush Magazine, when we sent him heavy metal CDs to review in the form of a comic, knowing it would get a rise out of him. He didn’t really address the music directly, but it spurred a spirited spiel on popular music.

Another non-curmudgeonly characteristic of Harvey’s was how he found interesting stories everywhere. On our first editorial call he asked me “So what kind of Jew are you?” I told him, “My last name is from Vienna.” He said, “Vienna!? Let me tell you something…” and lectured me on how many Jews say they’re from Vienna but are “Galitzianers.” He called the next day and said “I got a story for you… so I’m talking to you…” and that became “Legendary Vienna,” illustrated by Joseph Remnant, who is also illustrating the upcoming “Harvey Pekar’s CLEVELAND,” which I’m editing, and which covers familiar American Splendor-ous territory while weaving in chunks of Cleveland history and cameos by Pekar-verse regulars like Toby the Genuine Nerd, Mr. Boats and Harvey’s wife, Joyce Brabner.

Panels from “Harvey Pekar’s CLEVELAND” by Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant, forthcoming Winter 2011.

Some happy news is that there are more Pekar comics to come: “Huntington, West Virginia ‘On The Fly,’” a wonderful collection of biographical novellas illustrated by Summer McClinton is out now; “YIDDISHKEIT” edited by Pekar and Paul Buhle; “Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me” illustrated by JT Waldman; “Harvey Pekar’s CLEVELAND,” and on the Pekar Project, the last two parts of “Pekar & Rushkoff: How Life Got Incorporated” illustrated by Sean Pryor (read Part One here, and Part Two here).

Perhaps the strongest proof of Harvey as mensch rather than as curmudgeon is the love heaped upon him by his comics mishpokhe. Recent tributes include this strip by Dean Haspiel (“The Quitter”), the epic all-star photo-comic by Seth Kushner, and the live reading/motion comic video below. Plus, Joyce Brabner is working on some graphic novel projects of her own and is starting a campaign to build a Harvey Pekar memorial statue in Cleveland. We miss ya Harvey!

Watch a tribute to Harvey Pekar:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Summer McClinton, Toby the Genuine Nerd, Seth Kushner, Sean Pryor, Royal Flush Magazine, Mr. Boats, Obituaries, Paul Giamatti, Joyce Brabner, Joseph Remnant, Joe Maneri, JT Waldman, Jeff Newelt, Harvey Pekar, Graphic Novels, Gauntlet of Rock, Comics, Dean Haspiel, Books, American Splendor

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.