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A Survivor’s Story : In ‘Our Cancer Year,’ Cartoonist Harvey Pekar Chronicles His Struggle With Lymphoma

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For those who have witnessed any of comic-book author Harvey Pekar’s eight appearances on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” it’s an easy call: This man must be a raving lunatic.

With his unkempt appearance, rolling eyeballs, street-hip Cleveland accent and confrontational personality, Pekar is a far cry from the usual sea of self-congratulatory Ultra-Bright smiles and plasti-glam demeanors.

Pekar, in his steadfast refusal to play by the rules and, instead, to question the very meaning of Letterman’s existence on the air, has been the only person to genuinely consternate the usually unflappable master of cool. Once, when Pekar was in a particularly feisty mood, Letterman resorted to shouting, name-calling and a public proclamation that Pekar would never be invited back to the show. (He’s since returned twice.)

But those who know him only from these encounters don’t know the real Harvey Pekar.

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He is a superbly gifted writer, possessing a sense of impressionistic immediacy that harks back to the best writers in the Beat tradition. A hero to the intellectual working class, Pekar’s work has spawned a sea of imitators whose work rarely approaches his meticulous honesty and sense for essential, if cloaked, particulars.

Since 1976, Pekar has authored and, until recently, self-published the autobiographical annual “American Splendor,” which details the events of his life in Cleveland, from the mundane to the traumatic. He consigns his stories to some of the best and most respected underground comic artists, including Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Chester Brown and Jim Woodring.

Three volumes of his work have been released by Doubleday and Four Walls Eight Windows publishers, and a play based on his work, starring Dan (the voice of Homer Simpson) Castellaneta as Pekar, was a popular attraction in Los Angeles a few years back.

Last fall, Four Walls Eight Windows released “Our Cancer Year,” Pekar’s first book-length work, co-authored with his wife, Joyce Brabner, and illustrated by longtime confederate and underground comics pioneer Frank Stack.

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The meat of the book covers the couple’s struggles when Pekar was found to have lymphoma in 1990, but also goes into Brabner’s work with refugee children from war-torn nations, the couple’s reactions to the Persian Gulf War, the hassles of buying a first home, and relationships with friends, family and associates during the period.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing work, full of unvarnished humanity and often brutal honesty. Pekar didn’t react well, physically and especially emotionally, to the disease and chemotherapy/radiation treatments. He whined and cowered, fell apart and contemplated suicide, while Brabner fought to keep her husband, herself and their world intact.

“I (soiled) my pants when I was diagnosed,” said Pekar in a phone interview from Cleveland, with Brabner on the line. “I think that’s the same reaction most people have. You know, ‘God, this couldn’t happen to me.’ I completely freaked out.

“And I wasn’t ready for what a toll really heavy, aggressive chemotherapy can take on you. I mean, they’re pouring poison in your body, you know? It weakened me to the point where I thought I’d never get my strength back.”

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Among the most memorable passages is a scene in which Pekar is at his lowest, hallucinating from a chemo treatment and believing himself on the verge of death. In a moment of sheer terror, he thinks time is running backward. Pekar’s panic here is palpable, conveyed expertly by his existentialist writing style, and by Stack’s impressionistic artwork.

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Ultimately, he triumphs over the big C, but this is not a tale of heroics, nor does it revolve solely around the cancer. It’s a harrowing account of a particularly eventful year in the life of one couple, when everything seemed to fall apart--and how, eventually, it all worked itself out.

“This is a survivor’s story,” Brabner said. “We lay out the fact that it’s tough, but you get through it. We had a lot of people who were looking at this in progress who really didn’t understand what happened at all. The publishers wanted this grim book about one man’s battle with cancer and depression, where Harvey would lift the scab off this painful experience and wallow in it. But cancer happens to everyone around the person that has it. They weren’t prepared for all the stuff that was going on at the same time.”

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The ambitious scope of the book is one of its great strengths. While Pekar’s cancer is the focus, how the disease affected every facet of the couple’s life together, and how they reacted, makes for a compelling, inspirational read--even when their responses to one another sometimes seem irrational.

They’re an odd couple, Pekar and Brabner. They quibble constantly, with Brabner interrupting or berating Pekar for seemingly every other thought, while he sighs in resignation and moans “Yeah, sure, Joyce, whatever you say,” in his most condescending tone. The book is scripted in the same fractious manner.

“We wrote the book in the same voice we use when we tell people what happened,” Brabner said. “We step on each other’s lines, we interrupt each other, we contradict each other. That’s the way it is. The book sounds like the way we talk.”

Still, their love and devotion is always apparent. Among the most touching are passages where Brabner ferociously guards her husband from negative forces, be they cavalier doctors, misguided friends or Pekar himself. Equally moving is Pekar’s constant concern over how his illness is affecting his wife.

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Illustrator Stack shares no small responsibility for the book’s success. His abstract but emotive style perfectly complements the story line, particularly in the scenes that depict Pekar in the throes of chemo-induced torment.

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Throughout his career, Pekar--who is also a free-lance jazz critic--has had to defend the medium of comics from naysayers who see them as an illegitimate vehicle for a writer of his talent.

“People still don’t realize how versatile and how good a medium comics is,” he said. “If you look at the stuff I’ve written, they’re like play scripts. You write the dialogue and direct it for the artist. But comics are undervalued because they’ve been used in such a limited way. People judge by what they know, and what they know is ‘Superman.’ ”

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People still always ask, ‘Why didn’t you do a real book?’ ” interjected Brabner.

But Pekar and Brabner remain committed to writing comics, and their dedication is beginning to pay off. “Our Cancer Year” has been the most acclaimed project either has worked on, with positive reviews in such publications as the Nation, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, New York Newsday and Entertainment Weekly, which deemed it “Graphic Novel of the Year.”

Pekar has a new issue of “American Splendor” slated for release later this year. Brabner, past editor and writer of the leftist political comics “Real War Stories” and “Brought to Light,” has written “Activists!” a nonfiction comic to be published by Stabur Press on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in ’95.

Pekar’s fans may also want to know if the Madman of Cleveland will return to the Letterman show, but he’s hedging his bets, saying he doesn’t know. In any case, he’d prefer to be judged by his work rather than the persona he developed for television.

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“That’s one small side of me,” he said. “On some of the shows, I was doing a deliberate self-parody, and now there’s a lot of people that think I’m some sort of maniac, you know? I think that’s unfortunate--I’d rather be liked than thought of as a crazy man, but with Letterman, I’ve been in a situation where you either lay down and let him insult you, or you do something about it. Most people keep their mouth shut and let him dump on them. I don’t wanna do that.”

It’s coming up on five years since Pekar’s lymphoma was diagnosed, an anniversary that brings with it an official proclamation that he’s been cured, should his final examination be clear of any further evidence of cancer.

“Cancer didn’t kill me, so it isn’t the worst thing that could happen,” he said. “Whatever it is that ends up killing you is the worst thing that can happen to you.”


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