October 8 would have been the late Harvey Pekar’s seventy-first birthday, so some of his collaborators gathered at New York Comic-Con to share their memories of the writer. Jeff Newelt, the editor of the Pekar Project moderated a group that included Jonathan Vankin, the Vertigo editor who oversaw “The Quitter” and two volumes of “American Splendor” while he worked for the publisher. They were joined by Pekar Project artists Sean Pryor, Rick Parker and Joseph Remnant, who is currently working on the Pekar-written graphic novel “Cleveland,” along with “The Quitter” artist Dean Haspiel and Peter Kuper, best known for his work on “Spy vs. Spy” and “World War 3 Illustrated.”
Newelt began the panel by noting while most of people who packed into the mostly-filled room knew who Harvey Pekar was, but for those that didn’t, he explained Pekar made an artform of taking the minutiae of daily life and bringing magic to the mundane. It was clear from the tone of the men on the stage that while they may have had their differences and they may poke fun at Pekar, they were never making fun of him. One got the sense that this is how they would have spoken about Pekar amongst themselves while he was still alive.
Peter Kuper grew up in Cleveland and was twelve when he first met Pekar because they both loved comics. “This is before ‘American Splendor.’ He was just a curmudgeon who was into comics. He pulled out this Robert Crumb drawing of a guy with a big penis peeing. I’d never seen genitals on a cartoon character before,” he said laughing. Not long after, Kuper’s parents had a tagsale and were getting rid of some old 78s that Pekar wasn’t interested in, but that he thought Crumb would like and Kuper offered a trade.
“I said, we’re doing fanzine and could we interview him? Many months went by and I got this call. Something had shown up and there was a page from one of Crumb’s comics and the interview. We printed this interview in our fanzine and we sold out of the 100 copies. We needed my dad’s secretary to type it up and she stopped and refused to continue. We asked what his hobbies were, and he said taking drugs, fucking. We had this huge space where we asked, ‘Could you give a rundown on the history of underground comics?’ He said, No. He ended with, ‘Don’t take the comics so seriously, go out and get laid.'”
Years later, Pekar asked Kuper if he’d be interested in doing a story together and Pekar sent a script about two guys playing basketball. Kuper said he hated sports and asked if he could draw something else. “[Harvey] was insulted and never offered me something again,” Kuper laughed. “Until we did the Gary Snyder chapter of ‘The Beats’ a little while ago.”
Newelt then turned to Dean Haspiel, one of the people responsible for getting the “American Splendor” film made.
“I was working as an assistant to [producer] Ted Hope,” Haspiel said. “One of my jobs was to pay bills and file things. I came across an ‘American Splendor’ film script. Rob Schneider was slated to play Pekar, but that didn’t happen. I also came across a Chester Brown screenplay. I discovered a bunch of comics and that [Hope] was a fan. I had done two or three one-page stories with Harvey and I felt like I could ask Ted Hope if he was interested in an ‘American Splendor’ movie. He said ‘Sure!’ I called up Harvey, and he didn’t know who this guy was and what his movies were. He said, ‘Sure, have him call me.’ A year and a half later was this amazing, Sundance Award-winning movie.”
As for how Haspiel first met Pekar, that also proved to be a colorful story. “For many years, I have had a very good rivalry with my friend Josh Neufeld, who I went to high school with,” said Haspiel. “He was working with David Greenberger on ‘Duplex Illustrated.’ Then he got a gig working with Harvey. I sent samples of my work to Harvey and got no response. I did a story for a two-man anthology Josh and I did called ‘Keyhole.’ My dilemma was that I was sending Harvey artwork and everything he could possibly think that would make him not want to work with me. I sent that off. Two years later, I get a phone call.
“When you first hear Harvey,” Haspiel continued, “he seems like a parody of himself, from Letterman appearances and other places. I thought it was friend playing a joke on me, so he finally told me to fuck off and hung up. I called Josh immediately and he was like, ‘That’s Harvey, you idiot!’ I called him later that night and apologized and he said, ‘What do I have to do to convince you I’m me?’ I said give me the job, so he did. After the movie, because we’d only done a few pages of stuff, I said I wanted to do a graphic novel, something substantive, and [Harvey] was cool with that.”
Jonathan Vankin said for him, the hardest part of his job was getting Pekar into DC/Vertigo. “It’s not where you expect to find Harvey Pekar,” Vankin recalled. “To preface this, I got the idea from Dean. He emailed me and said, ‘Let’s have lunch.'”
“I’d gotten wind he was working at Vertigo,” Haspiel explained, “and I thought I had an in with Vankin because I’d done some short stories in two of the ‘Big Books.'”
“My first week there, I went to Karen Berger and said, ‘Wat do you think of Harvey Pekar?'” Vankin recalled. “She knew Harvey and Joyce, of course. She was a little skeptical, but we worked it all out. Originally, the first thing he proposed was the history of Jewish boxers. Somewhere along the line it became about Harvey’s childhood. Anyway, Karen said yes, Paul Levitz said yes. Then Harvey and Joyce went on a world tour.”
“What I heard after was that they saw Alan Moore,” Vankin said after joking with Haspiel about the long delay in which Pekar was out of touch. “They’d known each other for a while. Apparently, they’d met with Moorel who told them how terrible DC was. To Joyce, this was music to her ears, so they decided not to do the book. At some point, I talked to Harvey and said, ‘Alan has his business, but here’s your contract. It’s honest and it’s a lot of money.'”
The actual editing of “The Quitter” was no less colorful, as both Vankin and Haspiel talked about how Harvey originally wrote a 64 page graphic novel but there were eight to twelve panels on each page. When they explained that there were too many panels, Pekar blamed Haspiel for being too lazy to draw that many.
“Dean and I sat down and broke it down into ninety-six pages,” Vankin said. “By that point, he was cool with it.” What Pekar wasn’t cool with was when they tried to cut one panel for space reasons. “There was something about these two Czech butchers. There was no mention before or after about these guys. Dean and I called and put him on speakerphone. We want to take out this one panel. Harvey just exploded and hit the roof. It took us a good fifteen minutes to calm him down.”
“At one point,” Haspiel recalled, “[Pekar] screamed, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to quit Marvel!’ I went and closed the door.”
“The Quitter is, as Dean likes to say, Harvey’s origin story,” Vankin told the audience. “We left that panel in there. That’s what it meant to edit Harvey Pekar. After, when it got a good reception and did well and he took a liking to it, he would actually let me edit him. The last thing I was working on with Harvey was this Cleveland book. At the time, with the then-recent economic crisis, I wanted to do a book about the decline of an American city. He took feedback from me on it and it was great. Even though it’s not coming out from Vertigo, it’s great, and I’m glad the Cleveland book is coming out”
Newelt said that for him, editing Pekar entailed being read the stories over the phone. “I’m in my apartment and Harvey calls. Out of the blue he asks, ‘So what kind of Jew are you?’ I’m like, I think my family is from Vienna. He gives me a twenty minute lecture on Jews from that area and how saying you’re from Vienna is like being from Yonkers and saying you’re from Manhattan. Then he calls me up and says, ‘I’ve got a story. I’m talking to you and…'”
The story, which appeared in the Pekar Project, was autobiographical, but it wasn’t literal, which is how many of Pekar’s stories were told. In the story, drawn by Joseph Remnant, the conversation takes place face to face. Newelt turned to Remnant and asked how he first came to work with Pekar and Remnant explained that he had been doing comics for “Arthur” magazine and one piece on underground comics got a good response from people and Jay Lynch sent Remnant’s work to Pekar.
“Harvey likes to call people around eight A.M.,” Remnant explained, “but I live on the West Coast, so it was five A.M. I recognized the voice immediately and I’m terrified. He said, ‘Jay Lynch sent me a bunch of your stuff and I don’t know why. Do you know why?’ I said, ‘Well, he thought we might work well together.’ He said maybe, and when the Pekar Project started, he brought me on.”
Remnant is currently working on a graphic novel that Pekar wrote before his death, the aforementioned “Cleveland.” “Harvey saw the first fifteen pages,” Remnant told the panel, “he said, ‘It’s nice, you’ll get a good response. Probably won’t do much for your career, though,'” he said laughing, explaining he was roughly halfway through the book.
Newelt turned to Rick Parker who said that Pekar always said that Parker was a really nice guy, but complained that Parker always drew Pekar in his trunks and finally said put his foot down on that particular portrayal. “At least he didn’t call me at five A.M.,” Parker joked.
“One thing I’d like to be known for is as a nice guy,” Parker continued. “I thought [Harvey] was a sweet guy and gentle and he had only nice things to say to me.” Parker went on to explain that, in order to personalize the first story he and Pekar did together, in which Pekar walked around his house, Parker drew Pekar in his underwear. “I do that, don’t you?” Parker asked the audience.
Rick Parker asked how many Pekar Project stories are left to run online. “Rick Parker has a fifteen page one coming out next,” Newelt answered. “The most recent one was a guest strip by Vanessa Davis. Sean Pryor is on part two of a four part conversation with Harvey and Doug Rushkoff. Sean is doing an incredible job of not just drawing two people talking.”
Remnant described “Cleveland,” due out next fall, as a book broken into two parts, the first detailing the rise and fall of the city and the second part of Pekar and the people around him and they events they were involved in.
“Crumb did ‘Genesis,'” Haspiel joked, “Pekar did ‘Cleveland.'”
Newelt closed the panel saying there was another book Pekar did about Israel in addition a book collecting all the Pekar Project stories. In addition, Harvey and his wife Joyce wrote something called “The Big Book of Marriage” and another, “Harvey and Joyce Plumb the Depths of Depression.” “The same topic,” Haspiel added.