Shortly after Harvey Pekar died last week, at 70, YouTube videos of his infamous quarrels with David Letterman got a dizzying number of views. Pekar was already a cult hero for his underground “American Splendor” comic-book series that began appearing in the mid-‘70s, but it was the Letterman appearances a decade later that catapulted him into fame.
In one of the most watched YouTube videos, Pekar walks on Letterman’s stage with a T-shirt that reads: “On Strike Against NBC,” Letterman’s network. Throughout the interview Pekar rails against GE, a corporate sponsor of the show, and stubbornly refuses to play the foil to Letterman’s condescending jibes. Pekar is by turns inspiring and infuriating. But the cynic in you can’t help wondering, Is this really Pekar?
All signs are now saying yes. In the days since Pekar’s death, whose exact cause is still unknown, an outpouring of articles has reinforced the fact that his cantankerous, staunchly anti-establishment comic books — many of them autobiographical — were entirely true to self.
But there is another truth about Pekar that the mainstream press has lightly skated over: he identified deeply as a Jew.
“I think he relished the opportunity to do some explicitly Jewish work,” Abe Socher told me last week. Socher is the editor of The Jewish Review of Books, a Cleveland-based quarterly that Pekar began contributing to earlier this year, when the magazine debuted.
As was well known, Pekar was a ubiquitous presence in Cleveland, and when Socher first had the idea to have Pekar review R. Crumb’s “Book of Genesis,” he was told to try the phonebook. E-mail and a cell phone were useless, but you could easily find his number there. “Why don’t you just give him a call?” a friend told Socher.
He did. And to his surprise, Pekar, a longtime friend and collaborator with Crumb, did not hesitate to contribute. In fact, Socher said, Pekar had a whole lot to say about Judaism. For one thing, his father was a Talmudic scholar in Bialystock before immigrating with his wife to Cleveland, where he ran a grocery store.
Tara Seibel, a local Cleveland illustrator who collaborated with Pekar on the Jewish Review of Books strips, told me that Pekar also was a long-time member of the local Workingman’s Circle, too. She actually first met him at a panel of Jewish authors a couple years ago. She arrived late and the only seat left was next to Pekar. “I asked him if I could have a seat,” she told me; he said sure.
Soon they were collaborating. (Pekar only writes; he does not draw.) She told me that they were currently working on another project, and the last time she saw him was on Sunday, the day before he died. He did not look particularly ill, either, and when she told him that, in the wake of LeBron James’ decision to leave for Miami, a local Clevelander posted a Facebook message that said, “We still have Harvey Pekar!” Pekar’s face lit up. “It was the best I’d ever seen him,” Seibel said.
Socher mentioned that Pekar talked a lot about Yiddish authors, too. He loved Yakov Glatsein, and hated I.B. Singer. When Pekar came around the magazine’s office two weeks ago to pick up the newest issue with his work, just 10 days before his death, he told Socher he was watching the recent fight over Chaim Grade’s papers particularly closely as well.
But Pekar could be just as stubborn in his opinions as he was on Letterman’s show, Socher added. Pekar has been quietly working on an illustrated history of Israel with JT Waldman, a young Jewish illustrator. Waldman told me that he still plans to publish it, but since Pekar’s views on Israel were particularly harsh, they turned the book into a sustained debate between Pekar and Waldman, who holds less critical views.
Which is not to say he was un-self-critical. Quite the contrary, Socher suggested. His self-loathing was perhaps his most identifiable trait. The last comic he drew for the Jewish Review of Books, in fact, features Pekar as himself trying to one-up a Jewish family on their way to shul. “I’ll show them they’re not the only Jews in town,” Pekar says.
In the next frame, he waves to the family and says, “Gut yontev!” “Gut yontev?” the family thinks to itself, looking puzzled. Gut yontev is only for special holidays; gut Shabbes is for the weekly Sabbath. Realizing this, Pekar then says: “Oy, I’ve made an ignoramus of myself.”
The self-criticism was as much a part of him as his stubbornness, Socher said, noting that when he had suggested a few changes to one of his strips, Pekar adamantly refused. “I’ve never had anything like this!” he said to Socher, not taking the criticism well. “What do you mean, Harvey?” Socher replied. “Everyone saw you on Letterman.”
Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.