The shock of unruly dark hair so familiar from the portraits by all of the various artists who drew him in the pages of his seminal '70's comic book "American Splendor" is mostly gone. So are the angry political and sociological rants that he was so brilliant at writing from his perch as a keen and trenchant observer of human nature, at least of those humans that peopled his universe as a filing clerk in a VA hospital in Cleveland, Ohio over the many decades he worked there.
Nevertheless, the fine and mellow version of Harvey Pekar that took the stage at UCLA's Royce Hall the other night, as part of a double-bill with fellow graphic novelist Alison Bechdel ("Fun House") for a talk that was advertised as "Titans of the Graphic Novel" was as frank, insightful, wise and plain-talking as one would expect from the man whose innovation was to bring a quotidian realism to a medium that - pre-Pekar - had mostly been the place of costumed super-heroes and escapism.
Twain's famous maxim about opportunity invariably knocking while you're out at the neighborhood saloon fortunately did not apply to Pekar's own moment of cosmic serendipity - his discovery that his new Cleveland neighbor and fellow compulsive jazz record collector was none other than underground comic book artist and hero Robert Crumb!
Summoning up the courage to show Crumb some of his own "stuff" (which Bechdel lovingly included reproductions of in her own slide show presentation) consisting of primitive stick figures with descriptions and dialogue balloons scrawled on a yellow legal pad, Pekar became one of the first writers that Crumb agreed to collaborate with as merely an illustrator. Taking Pekar's stories back to the Bay Area with him when he eventually left Cleveland, Crumb shared this unique and unusual voice with other artists that were part of a group that was transforming and expanding the definition of what a comic book could be, and Pekar became an unlikely figure in that movement.
I remember coming across Pekar's work in the early '80's in Chicago but this was the first time I had actually seen him in person outside his appearance as himself opposite Paul Giamatti playing Pekar in my friend Ted Hope's wonderful HBO production of his work "American Splendor", surely one of the best graphic novel adaptations ever to make it to the screen.
Pekar turned 70 last fall and shows no signs of slowing down, as he spoke about a sure-to-be-controversial upcoming comic book project called "How I Lost Faith In Israel".
As a cancer survivor, he quipped to the audience that he looks forward to his next 70 years, and we couldn't agree more!