When Smith Magazine debuted the “Pekar Project,” the star of the show was writer Harvey Pekar, but the central artist of the series is a woman with few comics credits to her name but who has quickly demonstrated that she has her own vision.
Tara Seibel is a Cleveland native with a lengthy resume in illustration and graphic design, but with only a handful of comics credits, including writing and drawing the last story in “Smith Magazine’s” “Next Door Neighbor” series and comics in “Heeb Magazine” and “Chicago NewCity” and other outlets. Though the “Pekar Project” is clearly a collaboration between Pekar and many artists, Seibel has emerged as the central artist of the series, illustrating roughly one third of the stories to date. Her style, which is a departure from the typical look of “American Splendor” stories, has helped to define the “Pekar Project’s” own unique identity.
CBR News: You wrote and illustrated the last comic in “Smith Magazine’s” “Next Door Neighbor” series, which was about how you and your husband met. Take us, if you will, from meeting this guy to your meeting a few years later with Harvey Pekar, which in turn led to your involvement in the “Pekar Project.
Tara Seibel: Not to get too complicated, but when I first met my husband in Chicago, we dated then we moved to Cleveland, got married, then we moved back to Chicago. I was freelancing as an illustrator and I saw the movie “American Splendor” when I was in Chicago. I was from Cleveland originally, and when I saw the movie, I was homesick and I just felt this major connection to [Harvey] and I started getting into “American Splendor” and getting into Crumb’s work and getting into other cartoonists. I was attracted to the narrative part of graphic novels. I was doing editorial cartoons for this magazine in Chicago. Then my husband got a job transfer and we moved back to Cleveland again. I’m sitting in my parents’ house, because we don’t have a house yet and my husband’s reading the paper and says, “Harvey’s going to speaking down at Lakeland Community College, you should go.” I went, and when I came in, there was only one seat open and it was the one next to [Harvey], so I sat down and we started talking and we just hit it off immediately.
Speaking with Jeff Newelt before the “Pekar Project” debuted, he mentioned that one of things Harvey liked about your work is that they don’t look like typical comics pages.
No. I know they don’t. I’m coming to comics saying, “I’m a graphic designer, I know how to lay out a page, I know how to lay out a narrative.” It’s probably unorthodox to a lot of traditionalists, but I’m not the only one doing that. Harvey was attracted to the fact that I’m kind of pushing the envelope.
You worked at American Greetings a little back, which is funny because that’s where Crumb worked when he lived in Cleveland and he and Harvey met.
When I watched the movie and I saw that Crumb worked at American Greetings, it just hit me so hard. I can’t even explain it. I felt like I found my place on the map, even if it was in a movie.
What’s the process of putting together a comic for “Smith Magazine?” What does Harvey give you?
Harvey gives me the same script that he gives everybody else. It’s his storyboard chicken scratch script with little stick figures and bubbles. I read the story and I try to picture it as to how it’s going to move from frame to frame, because the format for “Smith” is you have about a 7 1/2″ by 10″ frame. You can have as many of those as you want, so you can divide it up into panels within that area or you can use the whole area. I like to use the whole area for one panel, because it’s a large space and that’s just how I like to work. For instance, [Harvey] just gave me a story and it has six frames, or six panels you’d call it, and it will end up being six frames on the web. I might even add another one, just an illustration that maybe doesn’t have any text in it at all.
Does Harvey give you the freedom to change things around when you think it would work better?
If I feel like the timing is okay and I think that he would approve of it, I will. If he doesn’t like it, then I’ll just take it out. I usually show it to him before I send it to “Smith.” He’s never said anything. I’ve changed some things. Once you start reading it and the story starts coming to life, you get a feeling.
Do you like working for “Smith” and having that freedom with regards to space and length that you don’t have with say, standard magazine illustrations?
Yeah. I’ve always done editorial illustration and spot illustration and half page illustrations, but I’ve never done a full series, although Harvey and I had a strip in Chicago’s “New City” magazine. What happened was, when I first met Harvey and he asked what I did, I told him I was an illustrator. He said, maybe I can hook you up, and he wrote his number down for me to give him a call. I called and asked if we could get together and I could show him some work. Somebody asked him a question at the panel we met at, why he stayed in Cleveland. I thought it was such a great question, because he’s such an intense artist. One of the reasons is, he stays true to himself. He doesn’t try to be anything that he’s not. I was taken by that. He really enjoyed what Cleveland has to offer him, and I took those answers and made a comic out of it. He wasn’t going to give me work right away, I was going to have to prove myself. So I made that comic, and he really liked it.
There certainly isn’t a typical style to “American Splendor” stories, but your work does stand out, and not just because of the color.
Harvey saw that I had a different background, I wasn’t your typical comics person. I think Harvey’s always trying to push art forms. He’s always trying to take something to the next level or marry different forms together and try to come up with something new, and I’ve always been into that, too. I think that’s the major thing we have in common when we’re working together. It’s funny, because lately I got him into all these fine art books. We’ve been going down to the library to get these art books for like a buck a piece, and we’re both getting into art history and looking at all these early late nineteenth century stuff. He’s my buddy. I feel so lucky to have someone to work with and look at these things and explore art forms with.
When you were talking about new art forms, I thought of the first “Pekar Project” you two did, the conversation between Harvey and Crumb and the struggle of creating a new form. Does he talk about and seem to think about form and content and those issues?
Absolutely. There was a story that we did for “Heeb Magazine” called, “Are God’s Children Too Stupid?” Obama was elected and I read the story again and I said, “You know, the story didn’t seem dated at all.” He said that when he writes, he writes so that the work never gets dated. I think he said he writes for eternity.
If you think about it, his stories aren’t dated. I think some of the art is dated, but the words aren’t. That was one of the reasons I wanted to work so badly with Harvey. I was itching to work with him because I was reading “American Splendor” and I thought, “There’s an opportunity here,” because I just felt like I could do something different with it.
There is this perception of Harvey Pekar as a curmudgeon. As someone who spend a lot of time with him, I have to ask you, is he?
It’s funny. Every once in a while I’ll see that come out and I’m like, “What is that?” It’s like his shtick or something. I’m going to tell you, the guy’s an absolute sweetheart. He’s just such a nice guy. I don’t see the cranky side of him. I see the sweeter side of Harvey Pekar.
On your website, you mentioned that you’re working on a graphic novel about Woodstock. On your blog, you posted a few pages illustrating the lyrics to the Joni Mitchell song. I don’t know what you want to say about a work in progress
That was part of the intro of the book. I have the first chapter done but I’m not finished with some things. I have a publisher interested. I got thrown off with that big forty year reunion and that movie came out, so I’m trying to regroup and re-get excited about it again. Harvey’s on my case to finish it. I have so many other things going on. I just have to get over the hump and get going with that again.
You mentioned that one of the things you loved about comics was the narrative possibilities. As an artist, was that what you really wanted to explore when you entered the medium?
It’s a complete world that opened up for me. I started to write children’s books. I got an agent and got into editorial meetings in New York. I rhymed the book and they said something like they couldn’t do anything with it because rhyming was not the trend for marketing. I just got so frustrated. I really put my heart and soul into this book and shopped it around and then…
I’m a stay at home mom. I’ve got a lot going on. I don’t have a whole lot of time. If I get into something, I want to make something happen with it. After the kids book, I decided I was going to take a year off and just regroup. That’s when I started going into Barnes and Noble and going through the graphic novel section.
And here you are.
Yeah. I’m just starting out. It always seems like I’m just starting out, but that’s fine. I’m really excited about the “Pekar Project.” Jeff [Newelt] is great to work with, and we work really well together. We worked for over six months trying to figure out how to get the “Pekar Project” off the ground, so we worked real closely before it launched. It’s just magical how everyone’s coming together, because everybody has different styles and we all complement each other and Harvey seems really happy.
It’s a lot of time and energy for an undetermined outcome.
I was willing to do it, though, because this is it for me. I’m in comics for life. I’m not going anywhere else. If it takes me fifty years to get something out there, then it does, but I’m in love with this medium and I’m going to stay with it. Just being able to work so closely with an artist like Harvey Pekar on an almost daily basis over a year and a half… I’m sorry, but this is a full blown education.
That is very cool. Also, Harvey’s seventieth birthday was the other month and “Smith” has been publishing Harvey heads from dozens of cartoonists.
Yeah that took off. It was fun. He’s seen himself drawn so many times in so many different ways it doesn’t phase him anymore, but sometimes I’ll say, “You’ve got to check out the new Harvey head.”
Does Harvey spend time online?
When he goes to the library, the librarians he’s friends with help him get on. He comes over here and I’ll show him the latest story online. He’s been going to the community center over in Cleveland Heights trying to learn how to taking some computer classes over there and he came over here one day and I was really surprised. He wanted to navigate through himself, and he did a really good job. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this. Maybe I’m wrecking his reputation.
First you’re practically calling him warm and fuzzy and now…
Now I’m telling everybody that he’s great on the computer. I don’t know. It’s a different situation with me. He’s real close to my family. He loves to play with my kids. He’s like a grandpa over here. He comes over and I feed him like everybody else. I see a different side of him.