Writer Harvey Pekar died this morning, at the age of 70, in his Cleveland home. After years of a cult following for his work in the comics world, Pekar gained mainstream attention with the release of his – sorta kinda – biopic, the terrific American Splendor (2003). What I, like many others, never realized was that Pekar was also a prolific jazz and book critic. This first came to my attention in September 2003, when Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black wrote:
At Sundance, as [American Splendor] received a deservedly thunderous reception, Harvey was almost smiling. But some things never change. Chronicle Film Editor Marge Baumgarten and I walked up to pay our respects and offer congratulations. We talked to [his wife] Joyce first. The second thing she said to us was, “You got any work for Harvey? He needs the work.” When we went over to Harvey, of course he asked the same question. In this issue, Harvey writes of his experiences with American Splendor, the movie. I mean, how could we say no? Especially when I’m rarely prouder of the Chronicle than when it offers Pekar’s work.
Pekar would go on to contribute a few jazz reviews later that year, but this piece in the Austin Chronicle, is a worthy read for people who didn’t always follow his stuff:
I guess Good Machine gave me a copy of the Berman/Pulcini script to look at, but I certainly didn’t scrutinize it and didn’t have a good idea as to how they planned to use my material. I can’t remember much of what was going through my head at that time, except that I wanted the movie made, and I wanted to get paid for it. Anything on top of that was a bonus. But I used to go down to the set frequently to watch the shooting, partly because I liked everyone connected with the project so much and partly because I could get good free meals. So, that went on for weeks, and then it was over, and I was thrown back on my own resources. I didn’t have a job to give my life shape, or a social life to speak of. I fell apart at the seams…
I was really afraid to go to Sundance. I thought the movie might get a so-so reception, despite how much the people at Good Machine and HBO liked it, and I’d go home crushed. But I also knew that if the movie was well-received, it might turn things around for me. I might get more and better-paying writing gigs. There might be more interest in my comics. So, on Jan. 19, 2003, Joyce, Danielle, and I packed up and headed for Park City, Utah. On the plane, which landed in Salt Lake City, was Al Gore. What was he doing there? Oh, well, more about him later. Or maybe not.
From Salt Lake City we were driven out to Park City, which was full of restaurants and art galleries. They settled us in a condo stocked with food and a Jacuzzi. That night I visited neighboring condos housing various employees of HBO and Good Machine. Good Machine had split in half, Ted Hope’s portion being called This Is That. (The other half, Focus, was doing a movie based on another comic book — The Hulk.)…
[After the successful premiere] we went to a couple of more screenings, and the crowds were just as enthusiastic and friendly. It kind of blew my mind, because my comics have such a small audience. Which, incidentally, makes me angry in a way. Here’s this movie, based on my comic-book stories and using a lot of the same dialogue I’d written in them, and bunches of people are thrilled by it. But my own books sell so poorly, it’s a joke. People are always coming up to me, telling me they read my comics and really dig them. It makes me wonder if one person per state is assigned to buy each American Splendor issue as it comes out and just pass it around to the other residents.