A few days ago, the city of Cleveland lost a truly great and important man. And I'm not talking about LeBron James. A hundred years from now, few--other than a few sports nerds--will remember him as much more than statistics on a long ago basketball court.
They will, however, remember Harvey Pekar, whose life and works will surely remain an enduring reference point of late 20th and early 21st century cultural history. Like those other giants of their eras, Twain, Whitman, Dos Passos, Kerouac, Kesey, the times he lived in cannot adequately be remembered without him.
It is true enough to say that he was the "poet laureate of Cleveland" or to describe his American Splendor as "Homeric", but those descriptives are still inadequate. He was the perfect man for his times, straddling...everything: the underground comic revolution of the 60's, the creation and transformation of the graphic novel, independent film, television, music (the classic jazz he championed relentlessly throughout his life).
He was famed as a "curmudgeon", a "crank" and a "misanthrope" yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic--his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, "what happened here?"
His continuing compulsion to wonder what's wrong with everybody else was both source of entertainment and the only position of conscience a man could take.
After all, Cleveland, the city he lived in and loved, had, he reminded us, lost half it's population since the 1950s. A place whose great buildings and bridges and factories had once exemplified 20th century optimism needed its Harvey Pekar.
"What went wrong here?" is an unpopular question with the type of city fathers and civic boosters for whom convention centers and pedestrian malls are the answers to all society's ills but Harvey captured and chronicled every day what was--and will always be--beautiful about Cleveland: the still majestic gorgeousness of what once was--the uniquely quirky charm of what remains, the delightfully offbeat attitude of those who struggle to go on in a city they love and would never dream of leaving.
What a two minute overview might depict as a dying, post-industrial town, Harvey celebrated as a living, breathing, richly textured society.
A place so incongruously and uniquely...seductive that I often fantasize about making my home there. Though I've made television all over the world, often in faraway and "exotic" places, it's the Cleveland episode that is my favorite--and one about which I am most proud.
That show was unique among over a hundred others in that everything--absolutely everything--went perfectly and exactly as planned. Unlike every other episode, pretty much everything had been "written" (or at least planned out) in advance: the look, the American Splendor graphics, destinations, subjects and content. In the middle of a blizzard in the dead of winter, we got exactly what we were looking for. We wanted American Splendor and that's what we got.
This is due entirely to Harvey (and the incredible Joyce). Harvey may have had a reputation as cantankerous, TV-averse and difficult but from the very first minute he and his family were a delight. They opened up their lives to us in every way they could. They were exactly as they appeared in the great graphic novels and in the film--only warmer and even nicer.
The look, the tone, the sound, the whole feel of the episode that followed was Harvey's. There was a moment at Sokolowski's I'll always remember as quintessential Pekar--that perfectly encapsulated the way we all felt absorbed in to PekarWorld. We'd just finished shooting a scene with Harvey, Toby Radloff and Michael Ruhlman--and Danielle, Harvey's daughter, who'd been hanging out off- camera, temporarily went missing--out of Harvey's watchful gaze. I remember looking at him, swiveling his head frantically, the very picture of parental concern and exasperation and actually SEEING comic book curlicues, exclamation points, question marks and smoke emanating from his head. He had made the world around him his world. We were--all of us-- just passing through.
A few great artists come to "own" their territory.
As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do the best they can--and in spite of the vast and overwhelming forces that conspire to disappoint them--go on, try as best as possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that most difficult of ideals: to be "good" people.
"Our man" as Harvey often referred to himself in his work, was a good man. An important man. A "great American" is an expression that has been cheapened with over-use, but if these words ever meant anything, they surely describe Harvey Pekar.
He was great. He was American.
For him to have come from anywhere else would be unthinkable. He will be remembered. He will be missed.