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On Harvey Pekar

I’d like to honor divergent traditions and share a couple of thoughts about Harvey Pekar, the comic-book writer, cult celebrity, and jazz lover, who died on July 12 at age 70.

In eulogistic tradition, I have some nice things to say. Pekar cared deeply about music and made a life-long study of jazz. He came to the genre, as many of his fans came to him, in pursuit of a kind of anti-heroism that reinforced his self-image as an outcast marginalized for his superiority. “There were these stories I heard about jazz musicians and how crazy they were and stuff like that,” he once explained in an interview, “so I bought some jazz records, and I started listening to them.” Once smitten with the music, he worked at learning how it worked, and he eventually wrote some very good jazz criticism for The Village Voice, Down Beat, and elsewhere. A few years ago, the writer Paul Buhle, who was friends with Pekar, set up a lunch for the three of us. (Buhle was trying to package a series of graphic books about jazz musicians, with Pekar’s participation, and I was thinking of doing one about Lester Young in collaboration with an artist I admire, the painter and cartoonist John Carey.) After seeing Pekar’s compliantly humiliating performances with David Letterman on The Late Show, I was expecting to be subjected to uncomfortable rants and was surprised to find Pekar upbeat and open-eared. When we got to the subject of Duke Ellington, Pekar spoke knowledgeably, if intemperately, about fringier characters from Ellington’s career, such as Arthur Whetsol, a trumpeter who had left the Ellington Orchestra in 1937. I served for five years as president of The Duke Ellington Society, and I’ve never heard heard anyone but Harvey Pekar discuss the record “Dicty Glide” at length—great length.

Despite his association with arts of the 20th century—comics and jazz—Pekar was, as a creative artist, a 19th-century figure. His form was the monologue. The comics he wrote were, for the most part, strangely indifferent to the visual and were non-dramatic, even anti-dramatic. They were almost radically conventional declarative accounts of his experiences or extended statements of his opinions, some of which (such as his views on jazz) were well-informed and some of which (such as his notions about the avant-garde) were simplistic or naive. The fact that Pekar’s ramblings always rang true to their source speaks to the sincerity of his writing, but not to its authority. In the tradition of blunt candor that Pekar held dear, I will admit that I have found much of his work overrated—indulgent, didactic, and verbose. Not long before he died, he wrote (in collaboration with the composer Dan Plonsey) the libretto to an autobiographical chamber opera called “Leave Me Alone.” Perhaps it is time to give him his wish.