Harvey Pekar: Where Do I Start?

There might be other comic creators out there who are smarter or defter with the turn of a phrase or a line, but Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar had the comics industry covered when it came to heart. The Navy veteran documented his life through the seminal autobiographical comic series American Splendor that was published from 1976 up until 2009 shortly before he passed away.

Unlike some creators who seemed to shift with the current tastes, Pekar walked a narrow line and had an intensely singular focus on life and how it’s lived. “[American Splendor is] an autobiography written as its happening. The theme is about staying alive. Getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet,” the writer said in an interview. “Life is a war of attrition,”

Over the course of numerous American Splendor collections and other works digging into the lives of others, he got to the heart of life and showed how people live it. With numerous books, documentaries and movies to try to find out who Harvey Pekar is, we’ve narrowed it down to five works to get you squared away on all things Pekar.

The Best of American Splendor: By the terms of super-hero comics, Harvey Pekar’s life was relatively uneventful. But the way Harvey and his talented crew of artists parlayed his life, every moment was an event worth discovering. This 2005 collection covers the peaks of Pekar’s 30+ years in comics up until that point, from his home life to his multiple appearances on David Letterman. Reading Pekar relates his conversations with an African-American jogger about the depictions of his race in his comics or his interactions with an overseas fan are truly interesting and evocative.

Our Cancer Year: After years of anthology work, Pekar broke out of his comfort zone with a full-length graphic novel covering the spiraling years discovering, understanding and coping with his lymphoma diagnosis. The sickness careens Pekar and his wife Joyce into a new perspective on life as they both wrote the story and illustrated by long-time collaborator Frank Stack.

 American Splendor: This is the first time we’ve recommended a film in our Where Do I Start? Series, but it’s because of the unique nature of this scripted/documentary motion picture that it bears witness despite its lack of comic credentials. Using acted scenes, real-life moments with Harvey as well as animated moments, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Carrying on in the tradition of Crumb and even Annie Hall, this flick is worth seeing – and worth seeing again.

American Splendor: Our Movie Year: A literal companion piece to the 2003 film, this graphic novel tells of how Pekar and his family coped with unique reality that his life was being turned into a major motion picture. Some of the stories within are repeated from other anthologies including The Best of American Splendor, while others show Pekar revisiting the same moments but with new introspection and vitality. Also of interest are the collection of bio comics on cultural figures by Pekar and a host of artists that show a real breadth to Pekar’s work.

The Quitter: Although not Pekar’s last work, the DC/Vertigo graphic novel The Quitter is for me a fitting closing chapter on Pekar’s comics work. Partnering with long-time collaborator Dean Haspiel, this book digs into Pekar’s early life and his tendency to shuck responsibility and the long road he takes to right that character flaw.


  1. I grabbed the movie a while back, and watched it with my sister. We were both absolutely floored by it. Fan-freakin-tastic film.

  2. Thanks a bunch for this post. I have been procrastinating sending an email on just this subject for a while now.

  3. Pekar had a strange charisma in his work. It came down to his honesty, it made his take on the world endlessly compelling and him compelling as well. If you like the movie I’d recommend picking up Our Cancer Year as the movie takes a lot from there.

    The highlight of Fan Expo this past weekend for me was picking up an original from the story he did in Strange Tales II with Ty Templeton. It is Ty’s original for the last panel of the story, the Thing holding Harvey’s number in his hand as Harvey walks off down the road. I think it might be the last thing he ever wrote or at least close to it. Ty drew it after Harvey’s death and changed the panel from the script to have Harvey walking away as a way to say goodbye. I am very honoured to have it.

  4. I was probably way too young to see the movie when I did (12) but it really stuck with me. I didn’t actually rad any of his work until the Best of collection was published and I’ve probably read that a hundred times since then. Pekar’s work definitely hits me in the same place as Bukowski. It got this hard edged, raw honesty to it.

    • Honesty is the word. Pekar’s genius lies in his honesty. One of my favourite pieces was just about how angry he would get waiting in the queue in the supermarket, that plagues me too but I doubt I could be as honest about it as Harvey was.