2009 was a big year for Harvey Pekar. The writer behind “American Splendor” turned seventy, a number of books he worked on, including “The Beats” from Hill and Wang and a comics adaptation of Stud’s Terkel’s “Working” from New Press, were released and the jazz opera “Leave Me Alone!,” for which Pekar wrote the libretto, had its debut.
The biggest news, however, was the debut of “The Pekar Project” in “Smith Magazine.” After Vertigo dropped “American Splendor,” there hasn’t been an outlet for Pekar to tell the kind of small tales that he made his name with in stories that remind readers that Pekar is as funny as Larry David, as erudite as Woody Allen, and possesses an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue as good as anyone.
Everyone from Warren Ellis and Alan Moore to Joe Matt and Dean Haspiel is a fan who has sung Pekar’s praises. Pekar’s influence on the comics industry and art form is so widespread that it’s hard to define, and yet, there is no other writer in comics like Harvey Pekar, and no one else’s stories sounds quite like his.
CBR News: First of all, I wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday.
Harvey Pekar: Oh, thank you.
Are you much of a birthday person?
I’m really not into celebrating, but I’ve got to admit, what Jeff did, getting all those people to send in drawings of me, was surprising and flattering. It had to be one of my more memorable birthdays. I’m not big on celebrating anything like that. I’m a stay at home guy. I don’t go out much or party much.
In the past few years, your focus seems to have been on book-length projects like “Ego and Hubris,” “Macedonia” and “The Beats.” What keeps you returning to smaller, more personal stories like you did in “American Splendor” and the ones you’re doing with The Pekar Project?
Well, I’m trying everything these days to stay afloat. I started out as an autobiographical writer, and I kept that up pretty much exclusively for a few decades. When the “American Splendor” movie came out, I found to my amazement that, not only were they reissuing my stuff, but it was selling. Just the fact that somebody would make a movie based on a comic book that was losing money every year seems so improbable. People had asked me about making a movie a couple times, but nothing ever came of them and I didn’t expect that anything would. It still amazes me. I don’t know how the producer put it over, but it certainly was a stroke of good luck.
Anyway, I found my pension from work plus social security was not enough to support me and my wife. I’d had some very good luck with graphic novels, so I decided I would try and support myself with them, but I figured I had to write about four a year to get by. I couldn’t write six hundred pages of autobiography every year. I think people wouldn’t want that much. And I’m interested in a whole lot of other stuff which is why there’s “Macedonia” and stuff like that. I’m really genuinely interested and enthusiastic about it. In the past I wrote one “American Splendor” comic a year, and that was it.
Now, I was doing this and I met Tara [Seibel]. She had an interest in doing comics, and she had a fine arts background, and she was graphic designer and I’d never worked with anybody that had that kind of background. About that time, Dean Haspiel called me up. He was doing some stuff with “Smith Magazine,” and he told me about “Smith” and I got hooked up with Jeff [Newelt], and I thought it’d be a pretty good time to do some stuff with Tara. So we just started doing stuff.
You’re writing a webcomic for “Smith Magazine,” and yet over the years you’ve portrayed yourself as disinterested and even hostile to computers and modern technology in general.
It’s not a matter of my disliking it as much as, ever since I was a little kid, anything that had to do with doing stuff with your hands or anything that was technical, my brain would just freeze. If somebody was giving me instructions on how to do stuff, I just totally shut down. It was so bad that I joined the navy in 1957 and I lasted less than a month there. Why? Because I couldn’t do a good enough job washing my clothes.
I’ve seen the stuff. There are plenty of people that have computers that will show me. The local public library really takes good care of me. They’re always helping me with research. I’m totally inept.
After so many years of working with comics and writing stories that fit onto a comics page, have you had to do anything differently because you know that people are going to read the stories differently?
First of all, the way I usually see the strips first is as print outs, so I see them on paper first. Whether it’s with Tara or one of the other people I’m working with, they just print out a copy of the story, so it’s like I’m seeing it first as a printed thing. The second thing is, it really doesn’t matter to me that much, as long as it gets over. It’s strange. I’m seventy years old and I’ve been reading newspapers my whole life, and when people start talking about, you know, how newspapers are going to be wiped out by this thing and that thing. At first I felt really lousy about it, because it didn’t seem like the internet could be an official means of transmitting the news like newspapers could, but I’ve gotten used to it. I really can’t say that there’s any kind of disadvantage. I see the stuff, and it’s fine. I’m being treated well. I get along with everybody. I’ve had to go through harder things.
It’s still “American Splendor” autobiographical stories. It’s a good thing, now, because even though they amazingly sold pretty well, Vertigo’s not going to put out any more comics. I was getting better royalties from them than just about anybody. But they decided that they didn’t want to put it out, so now there is a place for my life for “American Splendor” type stories and autobiographical stories. I mean, all I’ve got to do is just live and talk to people. It’s not a big imposition on me to write them.
You and Tara Seibel have become friends and work closely together. Do you write differently for her or write different stories for her knowing her style and approach?
No. I don’t write stories for her any differently than I do for anybody else. I usually don’t write with a particular artist in mind, because throughout my entire career, I’ve always had a lot of trouble just finding anybody to illustrate my work. I think she and the other people I work with can handle just about anything I can throw at them. I suppose if I came up with a topic that requires specialized knowledge or something like that, it’d be one thing, but I haven’t run across that yet.
When I interviewed Josh Neufeld a while back about “A.D.,” I asked him about what he had learned from working with you on “American Splendor.” He said about you, “he really underplays drama and sentimentality and really just lets quiet moments speak and doesn’t force drama onto a story.”
I like that. I’d rather underplay stuff than make a big deal out of it. I’d rather let the stuff sneak up on people, and after they’ve read something, think, “Oh yeah, I had an experience like that.” I’m trying to get people to identify with my work, but I’m not trying to jam it down their throats.
You’re writing about the ordinary and quotidian aspects of life.
I’m an ordinary guy. I felt like people would find it easier to identify with me if I just showed myself as an average guy having experiences like everybody else has, but that nobody considers important enough to write about. There aren’t too many people concerned with writing about mundane things. I didn’t exactly have a lot of competition.
I got disgusted with comics when I was about eleven years old. I read the normal stuff that came out on the stand, and I liked it for a few years. The superhero stuff and Donald Duck and Little Lulu. One day, I was just walking down the street and, I don’t know if I had a Captain Marvel in my hand or what, but it just struck me that I knew how the story was going to end. Sure enough, it ended that way. I just realized how formulaic comic book writing was and how hardly anybody was challenging themselves to do anything, so I just gave up on them. I got interested again when I met Crumb when he was a young guy. Of course I’d seen “Mad [Magazine].” That opened my eyes to what comics could do. They could do anything that any of other [art] form could do, but people weren’t using them that way. There wasn’t even a realistic movement in comics. Every other art form has got a realist movement. Comics haven’t even had that. It’s really a neglected field.
Reading through older issues of “American Splendor,” it’s interesting how the quotidian aspects really lend them a certain a timelessness.
It’s the only life I know. I’m not going out and overthrowing gangs of criminals or stuff like that.
You’ve stopped donning masks in the middle of the night.
I didn’t even used to put one on for Halloween.
That’s interesting, because, of course, the opening scene of the “American Splendor” movie featured a young Harvey Pekar trick or treating as himself. Did that actually happen?
Yeah, I used to go out trick or treating with my friends, because I really liked candy, but I just thought that all this dressing up was just kids stuff. Even when I was a little kid, I thought it was kids stuff, so I didn’t do it. Now, in the movie some woman says, “Who are you supposed to be?” and I say, “I’m Harvey Pekar.” They wanted to get that out there that I didn’t dress up for Halloween, but nobody actually asked me why I didn’t get dressed up for Halloween, they just handed me a snickers bar.
Another project that came out this year was an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book, “Working.” Was he someone whose work you were familiar with and knew before you began working together?
I’ve got to admit that, when he got started, I really didn’t follow his work too much, but later I really got into it. I think we’re trying to do some of the same things. When I adapted his stories, I broke them into panels but I didn’t change one word. I just thought Studs was fine the way he was. I didn’t want to mess around with that.
I wanted to ask you, the Pekar Project has a Twitter account that Jeff Newelt has been using…
I don’t know anything about it. I don’t even know what Twitter is. I haven’t taken the trouble to learn because I might get depressed if I found out. Let him do it. By and large, he’s been real good to me, and if he wants to put me on Twitter, okay, I probably won’t get arrested or anything.
I was talking with Nick Bertozzi about his most recent book a few months back, and I asked him about the biography of Lenny Bruce that the two of you worked on together. He wasn’t sure what was going on with it. I was wondering if you had any news.
Houghton Mifflin, the publisher, has had some rough times lately and they haven’t been able to devote the amount of attention to the piece that they’d wanted to. They’re really concerned about getting sued, so they want to get all this stuff checked out that I wrote about Bruce. I didn’t make any of this stuff up out of thin air. I’ve got sources for all of it. I don’t know. I’d like to get it out.
“The Pekar Project” is still ongoing, but I know that you’re working on a number of other books. What are you in the midst of right now?
One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.
I’ve got something at Vertigo. When I found out that the “American Splendor” comic was being canceled, I said, “Can I do anything else for you guys?” The editor told me he’d like me to do something about the history of Cleveland and my history in Cleveland. How the town had changed and how it felt being in a town with a baseball team that was a perennial loser. Stuff like that.
I’ve got a graphic novel about Israel. I’m Jewish and I started out when I was a little kid, all I heard was pro-Israel stuff from my family, and then as time went on, I followed what was going on in the Middle East pretty closely and I just think they’ve painted themselves into a corner now. I just wrote about that process of getting disillusioned.
I’m trying to sell a history of jazz to somebody. I’m supposed to do a film project with a fellow about that. I had previously worked with this guy. He’s an Irish guy, and he came to the states to do a film on the guy who was Miles Davis’ producer, a guy named Teo Macero, who I had a great interest in. Not so much as a producer, but he was a really interesting avant garde musician before that, and nobody knows about that. I guess he knew that I was one of the few people who was qualified to talk about Macero as a composer and tenor saxophonist. So now we’re trying to do something else and so far so good. Beyond that, I don’t want to be any more optimistic than that.
When I spoke with Jeff Newelt, he mentioned that you’d written a story about your appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s travel show “No Reservations.” What was that like?
He was going to do a feature from Cleveland, so they called me up and asked, did I want to go on the show? It was a nice experience. He’s a really nice guy. He seems kind of sarcastic on TV, but he’s just a pleasant guy. We went around to a few places together. The thing that I really got a big kick out of, we’ve got a bookstore here in Cleveland that may be the largest used bookstore in the world. The guy doesn’t buy remainder copies and stuff like that, but he’s got three big buildings that he houses all this stuff in. One of them was former Hostess bakery, another was a wholesale florist and another was a printing company, and he’s got the places loaded up. The Hostess bakery was funny because the building has these pipes going through it. There’s some the stuff they fill twinkies with still in there, and it’s still edible, and we show a guy actually eating some of it. He didn’t die, to my knowledge. I think I would have heard about it by now.
It’s funny that you mention that Anthony Bourdain in person doesn’t come across how you expected based on his persona.
I just thought he’d be a little bit edgier than he is, but to me anyway, he was just really nice. I couldn’t ask for a better guy. I didn’t know anything about him and I was really very pleasantly surprised.
I bring that up because you have a reputation as a curmudgeon, but everyone says you’re one of the nicest guys.
Well, I’ll let you judge that based on this conversation.