The Arty Semite

Harvey Pekar, Our Mensch in Cleveland

By Jeff Newelt

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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:


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