Harvey Pekar is dead, and we miss him a lot. A long time ago, he decided to write comics because he thought that comics “could do things”. Harvey was sure that while heroes with super powers made for a great story, there was another kind of comic that people would want to read, comics that didn’t need a gigantic crisis or a super human to be interesting. So he started writing comics about his own life and about the near-inane problems that become huge, like misplacing your keys, and how he dealt with them using no super power other than the ones that amplified his perturbation. But in the end, he and the artists like R. Crumb, Joe Zabel and Gary and Laura Dumm made this new type of comics become widely read and emulated.
As the world of children’s graphic novels expands, it’s interesting to see how Harvey’s influence surfaces. There are tons of great comics about heroic characters in fantastic situations, but there are also the series that are about day to day life, and how much of an adventure that can be. Here’s a few:
Amelia Rules! by Jimmy Gownley
Amelia is a third grade girl recently transported out of Manhattan to a small town when her parents got divorced. She now has to adjust to a new life in another place that’s way different from everything she’s used to. Boys she likes, or likes, girls she gets along with, or doesn’t. She lives with her now single mom and her aunt who offers her advice that adults would normally not reveal (like that no one cares about grades after graduation). Amelia often breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader, something of a trademark of Harvey’s stories. There are four volumes so far.
Owly by Andy Runton
Harvey’s comics were often packed with long, exhaustive passages and explanation of his thoughts. Owly couldn’t be more opposite in its near wordlessness, but it echoes the same honest and genuine expression of feeling. Owly is a kind, but lonely, owl who meets and plays with friends in the woods. Sometimes Owly is afraid, or misunderstands what’s going on, but his sensitivity is rewarded when he helps his friends or tries something new with a very genuine effort. Owly has five books out.
Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes
All of Harvey’s comics were about people in the real world, but the fact that the characters in Benny and Penny, like Owly, are animals doesn’t distract from their humanity. It just makes them furrier. Benny and Penny are brother and sister, getting involved in some very real life scenarios like Penny wanting to tag along and Benny just not having it. Benny and Penny are far from perfect, and having to deal with making mistakes and balancing that with doing things your own way was something Harvey wrote a lot about. Check out all three of their books.
As one last bit of evidence that Harvey Pekar’s work is influencing children and children’s librarians, check out this (graphic) article from the latest issue of School Library Journal, a professional journal read by school and children’s librarians. Does the artwork look familiar? It’s rendered by none other than Gary and Laura Dumm, the artistic team behind a number of American Splendor stories.