It goes without saying that the comics world was shocked and saddened by the death of Harvey Pekar, and that those feelings of loss extended well beyond the little community of comics. There is no shortage of tributes this week to his sweet soul and his absolute genius, all of them written with grief and honesty, and all of them inspiring readers to nod their heads, to think, yes, I felt that too.
I think the greatest compliment to Harvey Pekar is the abundant outpouring of messages of gratitude, not just from those who knew him, but from anyone who read his comics. What a beautiful reflection of a beautiful human being!
When I first heard the news my thoughts turned to Paul Buhle, a longtime friend of Harvey’s. In recent years their friendship has borne remarkable fruit in a number of excellent books about American social history, including The Beats, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, and Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation. Their forthcoming Yiddishland (Spring 2011 from Abrams) will push our understanding of Yiddishkayt into brand new terrain. And yet now, it hints at the elegiac.
When I called Paul, he was working on a piece for The Forward about the lives of Harvey Pekar and Tuli Kupferberg, two great American prophets – in the tradition of Jeremiah – who died the same day. We talked a bit about what Harvey meant to comics, and what comics meant to Harvey.
The inevitable question of legacy comes up at a time like this, and I know you’ve already been asked about Harvey’s legacy. What I wondered is if you could speculate on how Harvey would have described his legacy.
You know, he said so often, and I’m just repeating the obvious, that anything could be done in comics. The idea that something as serious as Dostoyevski, a Russian novelist who he greatly admired (like a number of Russian novelists) could as well be done in comic art form as in the traditional words on the page form. And he not only believed in it, but he did it.
He produced what most people would call text-heavy comics, because they weren’t devoted to people hitting each other and saying “Bang! Wham!” But they also were very serious approaches to a large variety of subjects. And always treating himself very seriously, without ever being pompous. So the power to do serious things that had never been done before in comics, and to keep yourself in proportion in the picture. These would be really big for him.
Not everybody can do Dostoyevski in comics…
Indeed, indeed. Another thing, that my wife Mary Jo Buhle, a noted historian, said this morning, is that Harvey was the world’s most determined autodidact. He was delighted when the two of us were working on this book Yiddishland for next spring, because it gave him a reason to read a whole lot of newly translated Yiddish novels, translated into English. He had just never read those before, and he went down to the bookstore of a friend and bought some, and went to the library and got a bunch of others, and read them with enormous pleasure.
Likewise, with Beat Generation stuff. Of course he was familiar with Beat Generation stuff. But he hadn’t really sat down, at least not in recent years, to read it carefully as literature, and read the biographical treatments of these various hipsters and so forth, and he did it as a form of self-education, quite as much as he did it as a way of creating a comic. And the same thing would go for Students For a Democratic Society. So those are some good examples. And I don’t think he was all that familiar with Studs Terkel when we started on the Working book. He was aware of him, he’d read Working, but it wasn’t as if he, although very Terkel-esque himself, was a big aficionado. Doing it was a learning experience.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation remembering Harvey Pekar, in which we discuss his politics, and the wisdom therein.