It’s sad, but fitting, that I hear the news through Warren Ellis. His six words fire across my twitter feed like gunshot, instantly stopping every writer, illustrator, reader and thinker I know in their tracks. “Harvey Pekar reported dead. Very sad.”
Thump. It takes a beat. Ellis’ words don’t seem to match up somehow; but the brevity is fitting. After all, Ellis named a book after something Pekar once said; “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.”
No-one ever tells you where Pekar said that, but everyone tells you that, yep, he did. I don’t mind. Apocryphal or not, Pekar’s words sit at the heart of why people find something more in comics than four colours and lots of ink, why it’s so special a medium for so many. Meanwhile it is his life’s work that’s compelling every comic creator I know to click the link, share the news, wait for their heads to catch up.
It’s strange to understand that, collectively, we’ve kind of lost something of our field’s heart and soul.
I’m in a library in Hampshire. I’m pretty young and I’m furtively glancing at some Robert Crumb pages I can barely remember now. I skim the pages quickly, swallowing the voluptuous grotesques guiltily. I’m not going to explain more in print.
On the shelf nearby in a library that, surprisingly, files this stuff near Dan Dare, is Pekar’s Our Cancer Year. The mood change is staggering. I stop flicking through and start reading, swimming in the words of a man who took the threat of death head-on. It’s emotionally tumultuous as he visualises his fears, has them realised, and staggers out of it the other side, totally thumped but not beaten.
I was way too young to absorb all of that – I still am – but the confessional, the honesty, was just searing. It changed comics for me, made them things to read, things you let sink in. If I was used to seeing comics made to reflect the impossible scale of superheroic feats then this was me seeing that comics could be used to level you emotionally.
A few years later, and I’m using Pekar to do more things again. I’m taking American Splendor, the multi-award winning film that tours Pekar’s incredible life, and I’m using the opportunity to get my University class to think about comics. This proves a much harder feat than one might imagine. It’s a film theory class, looking at U.S. independent cinema, and they don’t quite get why the pictures aren’t moving.
The thing is, Pekar’s a fabulous call to help illustrate what Scott McCloud calls ‘closure’ – the process of moving between comic panels and, essentially, filling in the movements in between. Pekar created comics from the point of view of someone who really just wanted to spit out stories. The transition, the movement, was at the core of what he wanted his work to do, because Harvey Pekar could not have cared less whether the comics you were reading were pretty or not.
They just had to tell a story.
His comics had moments where you literally moved with a blinking eye, where his face would sit still for what felt like pages at a time in total isolation. Then he’d flip, focusing on only the language, letting it flow and using the words to hang tiny illustrations off.
I haven’t got his books to hand, and it feels like huge disservice to say these things without scans, but The Pekar Project – an online home for stories by Pekar and fellow Cleveland creators – helps join some dots.
Pekar was always about Pekar. American Splendor was always about Pekar, even when it wasn’t quite about Pekar. He filtered his experiences through crude illustrations and trapped conversations in speech bubbles, immortalising his interpretation of the lives around him. He becomes a harbinger of what the internet would do for a self-mythologising populace, his pen a lens for all of the most beautiful parts of his life, along with all of the ugliest.
Pekar’s this weird cultural filter, a human bridge between multiple strings of entertainment, pulling in the counterculture he started out in and the pop culture he stomped all over. By tangling his life into his work it was inevitable that his work would begin to create a feedback loop on his life – autobiographical creators everywhere get that – but he folded all of that right back into his work.
I can’t see the comics I love today without seeing Pekar’s invisible hand, and I’m not sure their creators could either. I can’t quite see Ellerbisms – British writer and illustrator Marc Ellerby’s nuanced take on his own life – without American Splendor. I can’t see Alec – Eddie Campbell’s thirty-year-long self-mythology – without Pekar. I really can’t see Fun Home or Lost At Sea or Meanwhile or Scott McCloud or Kill Your Boyfriend or Jimmy Corrigan or Tamara Drewe or every other comic that thumps down and proves something I haven’t seen done with a pen and paper before that doesn’t yet exist.
It was late one night in the dying part of summer 2008. I’d been sending ideas back and forth with artist Julia Scheele for a few days about trying to do something around comics, something more than just writing and drawing, something more than telling stories. We wanted comics to seep through our lives and into others, in the way that we all know music or film can.
I was trawling the internet searching for names and there it is, staring up at me, Pekar’s quote: “You can do anything with words and pictures.” Real or imagined, it doesn’t matter; only Pekar could have joined up that exact combination of letters to sum all of the big and beautiful things that comics can do with the simplest tools.
We Are Words + Pictures, the group we formed, is heading to the a music festival on Thursday, bringing comic strips and illustration to families in a field in Suffolk. We’ll be there for Pekar, using just a pen and paper to teach people that they can do anything.
Harvey Pekar, Comic Book Writer, 1939 – 2010