Harvey Pekar and Alison Bechdel paid a visit to UCLA Live’s Royce Hall last Friday to talk about their autobiographical comics and interact with readers, and CBR was there.
The event opened with Alison Bechdel presenting rejection letters she’d received for her writing before trying her hand at comics, which proved to be a turning point in her career.
When talking about her influences, Bechdel noted that her family had many “Addams Family” comic strip books around the house when she was growing up, and like her own family’s house, the Addams family mansion was full of antiques, with an importance placed upon appearances and secrets. Upon examination, Bechdel eventually concluded that in life, appearance and reality don’t match up, and with her autobiographical work “Fun Home,” discovered, “Language was unreliable and appearances were deceiving, but triangulating both would get you closer to the truth.”
Bechdel read from chapter four of “Fun Home” (the nickname for the family’s funeral home) as slides of the artwork were presented to the audience. She noted that the first chapters of “Fun Home” were primarily about her father’s closeted homosexuality and the process of her own coming out, and also mentioned that her father’s funeral was actually held in their funeral home.
The author followed her presentation of “Fun Home” with “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the comic strip she drew from 1983 to 2008. She said a major theme of the strip was “the conflict between being and outsider and being a citizen,” explaining that while her sexual orientation made her an outsider, she wanted to be a part of her community like anyone else. Bechdel also noted that the strip encapsulated hot topics in mundane scenarios.
Bechdel then explained her creative process for the audience. First, she lays out her text with Adobe Illustrator, using a font based on her handwriting. Bechdel then prints the text layouts on typing paper and roughs in the figures on the same sheet. She also noted that she photographs herself for all the photo reference of people, and Googles any reference she might need for backgrounds. The result is a “tight, clean pencil sketch,” which she then inks and colors in Photoshop.
Bechdel presented a slide of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” illustrated by Robert Crumb, and described her first meeting with Pekar twenty years ago in Cleveland, where Pekar wrote up one of his stick figure comic scripts while they hung out at a diner. A slide of Bechdel’s “Titans of the Graphic Novel” illustration was presented as Harvey Pekar walked onto the stage.
Pekar gave a brief rundown of his history with comics, noting that as a kid he was “obsessed” with them until he had predicted the ending to an issue of “Captain Marvel.” He then stopped collecting comics until the 1960s. Pekar said the problem with comics is that people’s general impression of comics is intertwined with superheroes, which he feels started in the 1930s, when publishers were publishing mostly superhero books because they were one of the few things that were successful in the Depression.
The author noted that he got into comics professionally in 1972, when he met Robert Crumb, a fellow jazz connoisseur who had moved into the building around the corner from Pekar’s house. He viewed Crumb’s comics as “Mad Comics a step further,” satirizing not only current topics and celebrities, but also aspects of the human condition.
Thinking of himself as a street-corner comedian at that point in his life, Pekar felt some of his stories from those performances could inform future comics. He wrote a set of comic book scripts composed of dialogue and stick figures and asked Crumb if the scripts were worth illustrating. Crumb not only illustrated one of the scripts himself, but also gave the others to fellow artists to complete. The finished comics were soon published in various underground titles.
Pekar continued working in the underground comics scene until it began to falter, at which point he decided to self-publish, using money from his job as a file clerk in a VA hospital. With local artists illustrating the new material, Pekar published the first issue of “American Splendor” in 1976. The author continued self-publishing “American Splendor” until 1990, when he suffered a bout with cancer. Kevin Eastman stepped in to cover publishing costs for that year with Tundra Publishing. Pekar later published “American Splendor” with Dark Horse, and remarked that although he and his artists were compensated for their work, the book did not sell well. Pekar faced more disappointment upon his retirement, as he discovered that his pension was insufficient to live on. To make matters worse, doctors found another cancerous tumor.
Fortunately, a huge break came when filmmaker Ted Hope optioned “American Splendor,” which Pekar was initially skeptical about because he couldn’t see a production company “spending two million dollars on a movie about a comic that lost money.” But Hope made the film with HBO in 2002, and it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Pekar joked that actor Paul Giamatti got more leading roles after portraying him in the film, and noted ironically, “Even though I couldn’t sell my comics when I appeared on ‘Letterman,’ publishers wanted to republish them now.” Pekar also remarked that he still feels like he’s “in the game,” despite the economic difficulties currently facing publishers, and would be branching out into new works in history, biology and politics, in addition to the “Pekar Project” for Smith Magazine.
The panel opened for questions and someone asked if there would be another film based on Pekar’s work. He replied that he hopes so, but since the first film covered the first seventy years of his life, he would probably have to live another seventy years to generate enough material for a second film.
On the subject of autobiographers running out of material, Bechdel joked that she’s writing a memoir about the writing of her last memoir. Pekar then mentioned that the lack of material is one of the reasons for writing “Macedonia: The Least Publicized of the Baltic States” and “How I Lost My Faith in Israel,” a critical work about politics in the Middle East that Pekar predicts “will piss off a lot of people” if it’s published.
When someone asked if Bechdel or Pekar had ever written anything embarrassing, Pekar answered, “Sometimes, the more embarrassing the better,” explaining that the more embarrassing a situation was, the more people would probably relate to it.
Some from the audience jokingly asked Bechdel what dykes she watched out for, and Bechdel replied that she would probably keep an eye out for Gwen Eiffel, Gillian from the television show “The Biggest Loser,” and Rachel Maddow.
In response to a fan’s question, Bechdel confirmed that the children’s novel “Harriet the Spy” was also a big influence on her work.
Someone asked Pekar about the power of the mundane in his work, and he responded that the mundane was something that everyone could relate to and joked, “People who think money or murder are the only things worth writing about, those are the people that buy superhero comics.” Bechdel followed up by saying that the extraordinary and the mundane are two sides of the same coin.