From "Snake," written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Jim Woodring, American Splendor #16 (Pekar, 1991).
A couple of weeks ago, in my post on the death of Harvey Pekar, I wrote about how my friend Tim Madigan and I discovered Harvey's work together: I loaned Tim my copies of American Splendor, and he suggested that we write Harvey a fan letter. A sustained correspondence ensued, and Tim and I traveled from Buffalo to Cleveland to visit Harvey and his wife Joyce Brabner a few times in the mid-1980s.
After Harvey died on July 12, Tim and I exchanged e-mails about Harvey and about what American Splendor meant (and means) to us. Tim was, predictably, wonderfully eloquent in those e-mails, so I asked him to write up his memories of Harvey for Thought Balloonists, and his tribute is below. Thanks, Tim, for the memories. --Craig Fischer
*****"Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."--Harvey Pekar
I first met Harvey back in 1985. At the time I was a graduate student in philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As a child I had been a big comic book fan, but had long since put them aside and felt I had given up such childish things for good. My friend Craig Fischer, then a student in English at the same institution, convinced me that comics were worth reconsidering, and that several important works were expanding the field in ways previously unimaginable. When Craig showed me American Splendor I was convinced that the comic book world could indeed develop narratives in a mundane but nonetheless exciting way. How could someone growing up in Buffalo, New York not love a work that dealt with stories about old cars not starting on a winter's day? That was something I could truly relate to, and something I'd never before seen in a comic book.
Craig and I took several pilgrimages to Cleveland to meet the master. I well remember the first occasion, when we burst into his apartment--which was crammed wall-to-wall with record albums and books--holding up a six-pack of beer and offering to take him out to get an order of chicken wings. We were shocked when he told us that he neither drank alcohol nor ate meat. Thus were our preconceptions shattered. He also told us at the time that he had been invited to appear on Late Night with David Letterman. This seemed to us a great opportunity to alert the world to his work, but Pekar astutely said that the only reason he'd been asked to come on was to make fun of him, and that instead he was going to come out and aggressively attack Letterman. It seemed to me that this was exactly the wrong thing to do, and I can well remember watching, with fear and trembling, the first appearance of Pekar on the Letterman show. His strategy, it turned out, was spot-on--it was so unexpected, and so entertaining, that he appeared several more times, which itself became grist for the American Splendor mill, and led to some memorable television appearances.
I stayed in touch with Harvey, on and off, over the years. We mostly talked on the phone about avant-garde literature and jazz (he hated Ken Burns' PBS series on the latter). I kept encouraging him to put together an anthology of his jazz criticism, but he grumbled that it would be too much work and not lucrative enough to be worth the bother. I also closely followed what seemed to be the quixotic efforts of getting American Splendor made into a film. One memorable event occurred at a Toronto restaurant in the early 1990s, when I drove up to meet him and a potential producer. While standing around with a group of Pekar acolytes, Harvey burst into a profane diatribe about how the producer never showed up, and that it was all futile anyway, since nothing ever came of such meetings, and the guys was probably nothing but a lying jerk. Suddenly one of the people standing by said in a quiet voice, "I am here." It was none other than the potential producer. The rest of us fell into stunned silence, and Harvey, awkwardly, put out his hand and said, "Hey, man, good to meet you." I recall staggering out into the Toronto night, nonplussed and yet happy to have witnessed a genuine Pekar moment.
A few years later, while flipping through Entertainment Weekly, I saw a still for an upcoming movie. "That looks like Harvey," I thought, and then learned that it was actually Paul Giamatti, portraying Our Man. So a film was indeed made, and it very nicely captured the complexities of the Pekar world. When I called him up to congratulate him, Harvey said, "Well, we'll see how it does." After the film won several awards, and made Pekar the center of media attention, he told me, "We'll see how much I'll be talked about a year from now." And, as usual, he grumbled about how everyone had thought the movie had made him a lot of money, which was NOT the case.
I last met up with Harvey about a year ago, when I stopped by his--surprise, surprise--cluttered home to catch up on things. Joyce--whom I hadn't seen in five or so years--came home and, without a word of greeting, threw us both out. We then wandered over to a hamburger joint and even though I offered to pay he insisted on picking up the check. "I'm doing alright, man," he said. Most of all he seemed if not happy then at least immersed in work, which was probably the best thing for him.
I last spoke to him in April. I had arranged to bring him to give a talk at my school, St. John Fisher College, and he called a month or so before to say "Hey, man, I completely forgot, I'm gonna be in San Francisco then." With anyone else I'd have been pissed, but Harvey being Harvey I shrugged it off and was planning to bring him here in the fall. Now all I have are the memories of my meetings with him, my Harvey Pekar bobblehead, and my dog-eared copies of American Splendor. It's still difficult to think of him in the past tense, for he was a vital part of my life for 25 years. I wish he could have seen all the tributes for him, for I suspect he relished the recognition he did receive for making his life his life's work. He was a genuine inspiration to me and to countless others who continue to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Thanks to American Splendor, we can all better appreciate our own Pekaresque moments.
Tim Madigan's greatest regret in life is that he never appeared as a character in American Splendor.
From "What Happened to Your Parents?," written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Ty Templeton, American Splendor #1 (DC/Vertigo, 2006).