Remnant & Newelt on Harvey Pekar's "Cleveland"

When Harvey Pekar died in 2010, he left behind a number of projects that were at various stages of completion. One of those projects was "Harvey Pekar's Cleveland," a book illustrated by Joseph Remnant and published by Zip Comics and Top Shelf. Two of the people behind the book, Jeff Newelt and Joseph Remnan, both collaborated with Pekar for many years. Newelt works in marketing and PR and helps promote act-i-vate and Trip City, is an editor at Heeb Magazine and was the editor of "The Pekar Project", where Pekar and Remnant first collaborated. Remnant is a young artist and "Cleveland" is his first book, though he's been contributing illustrations and comics to many publications in addition to his own self-published comic "Blindspot." Remnant's style is reminiscent of Pekar's first collaborator, Robert Crumb, but with a style all his own. A quick glimpse at "Cleveland" shows Remnant to be a skilled illustrator and it's hard to imagine another creator so skillfully weaving the history of Cleveland with the life of Harvey Pekar.

CBR News spoke with Remnant and Newelt about their work on "Cleveland," the origins of the project, Pekar's scripting process and bringing the legendary Alan Moore on to write the introduction.

CBR News: Joseph, just to start, could you introduce yourself to our readers and talk a little about how you started in comics?

Joseph Remnant: As a kid I didn't really read comics. Aesthetically they appealed to me in some way but I just wasn't interested in the subject matter or superheroes. I ended up going to art school at the University of Cincinnati and really had no idea what I wanted to do. I was interested in Leonardo Da Vinci. I really wanted to be able to draw like that, which seemed just completely useless in this day and age. I had no idea what I was doing. In the same year of school I saw the Robert Crumb movie that Terry Zwigoff made, "American Splendor" and "Ghost World." The Crumb movie in particular, just the way that movie was edited and the way the drawings mixed with the music, had such a strong impact on me. I instantly realized that this was a guy who was doing the type of art that I loved and so I started trying to make my own comics.

Once you start making comics you instantly realize how difficult it is. I think you see a lot of younger kids putting out comics even though they don't have that skill set and I just wanted to focus on building my drawing skills. I spent most of art school just practicing drawing, filling up sketchbooks of trees and cars and houses and people. I didn't want to put something out that was terrible and that I would be extremely embarrassed of. I'm normally embarrassed by everything I put out. I spent five or six years after art school just practicing drawing, working terrible jobs so I could draw on the job. Ultimately I moved to Los Angeles because my wife works in the music industry. I started sending tons of stuff out for illustration work and the only person who wrote back to me was Jay Babcock from "Arthur" Magazine. He had me doing comics and illustrations for "Arthur" and then I did this long strip about how I got into underground comics. Jay Lynch, a cartoonist, called me and we were talking and he offered to send my work to Harvey. A few weeks later I got a call from Harvey about wanting to work with me.

Was the work you did on "The Pekar Project" the first work you did with Harvey?

Remnant: He called me and wanted to do something with me but just didn't have anything at the time. Vertigo wasn't doing "American Splendor" anymore. A couple weeks later he called me back and said, "These guys are doing this thing called 'The Pekar Project' and if you want you can be a part of that." I said sure. Harvey was a hero of mine so I was just happy to do anything with him.

What was your interaction with Harvey like when you were working on "The Pekar Project?"

Remnant: When I first started working with him I would generally get a call very early in the morning. The first call I got from him was literally at five-thirty in the morning. He didn't realize I was on the West coast, to his credit, but even after that it would be eight-thirty or nine a.m. I would be at work and have to go into a broom closet and scrawl down notes. If it was just a one or two page strip he would just tell it to me over the phone and I would have to keep up with him as he was telling me the story.

Eventually, he started having more trust in what I could do and the stories started getting longer. I visited him in Cleveland once for his seventieth birthday. All "The Pekar Project" people went and had this big art show. I didn't really get to talk to him much at that point. It wasn't until we both went to a convention together in New York and I got to hang out with him and ask him all the fanboy questions I wanted to ask. He gave me the script to "Muncie, Indiana," which is a twenty-page story. It was just a mess of storyboards that he'd done with all these scrawled notes on it. It was really hard to decipher. [Laughs] You see those terrible things that Paul Giamatti draws in the [American Splendor] movie; Harvey's actual ones are much worse than that. It was cool to actually see that. He handed me this mess of papers in a folder with the worst handwriting ever. That was the first long story I did with him and he was happy with the strip. Shortly after that he offered me the "Cleveland" book.

Did he ever say why specifically he offered you "Cleveland?"

Remnant: Well, very early on working with him it was clear he was excited about the work I was sending him. Very early on he was talking about trying to find a book for me to do with him. We weren't getting paid anything for "The Pekar Project" -- the idea was it would become a book that we'll get paid for eventually -- but Harvey was always trying to get me paid work. He was always calling and saying, "I'm going to try to get you a book deal because I really like your work and I want to do something bigger with you that we can both make some money on."

Jeff, "Cleveland" was a book that started at Vertigo, is that right?

Jeff Newelt: Actually, the book was not originally at Vertigo. Harvey was working with editor Jonathan Vankin at Vertigo. They did "The Quitter" with Dean Haspiel and two trade paperbacks worth of "American Splendor" with a bunch of awesome artists. Jonathan developed this script with Harvey, but it wasn't technically at Vertigo because the powers that be never even got a chance to look at it. So, Harvey never got a yes or a no from them. As you know, I worked with Harvey for a long time on "The Pekar Project" and we started talking about some books that we could do together, maybe with "The Pekar Project" artists.

It was a perfect storm because while we were having that discussion there was [Zip Comics Publisher] Josh Frankel who had some funds behind him and was looking to see if he could publish a Harvey Pekar book. I spoke with Jonathan Vankin at Vertigo, who's a good friend of mine, a superb editor and someone who Harvey liked a lot. I went so far as to give Jonathan the courtesy of saying, "Why don't you guys give Harvey an answer in a week or two?" and they still couldn't give a yes or a no, so we grabbed it. Josh raised the funds. We teamed with Top Shelf. It was a perfect combo. If it did come out through Vertigo, I'm sure it would have been a nice book but Joseph Remnant would not have been the artist and a lot of people are pretty confident that he was the man meant to draw that book.

After that point, what was the process like while Harvey was still alive?

Newelt: Once we decided we were going to do this with Frankel, with Top Shelf as a probable partner but it wasn't locked in yet at that point, there was no question that Joseph was chosen to be the artist. You see the work he did with Harvey, particularly "Muncie, Indiana" [LINK], you can see he was perfect to the do "Cleveland." The script was basically done. Harvey and I read the script together again, tightened some things, he worked for a bit tightening it himself, fixing it, then Joseph started drawing it.

Remnant: I think I did 18 pages and that's what he saw. I wanted to get a good chunk done before I sent it to him and he was really excited with what I had sent him. His main thing was this baseball player I put the glove on the wrong hand because this guy was left-handed. [Laughs] But other than that he was really excited with the way it was looking.

Joseph, would you ever change or tinker with Harvey's scripts?

Remnant: Early on, no. I didn't know how he would react to me tweaking here and there. In "Muncie, Indiana" I started playing with the script and breaking up panels where I thought it would flow better. He didn't say anything about it. He was happy with it, so I did the same thing with "Cleveland." If I felt like a panel needed to be broken up, I would break it up but I never changed his words or anything like that. The whole idea of Harvey walking around the city, that wasn't something that was in the script. If Harvey was addressing the audience directly, he would write down the line and say, "I'm saying this," meaning that Harvey's talking directly to the reader. Originally, I had been drawing Harvey in a blank room like Crumb would do a lot and I realized that worked for short strips, but being a long strip about the city of Cleveland it seemed appropriate to have Cleveland in as many panels as possible. Having him walk around the city and drawing the city in the background I thought worked. That was something that I feel like I really brought to the strip on my own. The first page and the last page, which are shots of Cleveland that are all silent panels, I just decided to put those in. They weren't in the script. I was thinking of that movie "Manhattan" where it opens up with a great shots of the city. In a way I was always intimidated by him. I don't know if I would have added these extra things. I would have been nervous how he'd react to them. It was awful when he passed away, but it opened me up to assert myself more into the strip I feel like. Not that he wouldn't have let me, but I would have been too scared to ask. [Laughs]

Newelt: Joseph is super humble. I don't know if he would have asked permission, but I would have. I've worked with Harvey as an editor before. We erred on the side of leaving it the same. There are some things that we were pretty sure both of us from working with Harvey that he would have said, "Fix that," or "That's what I meant." Everyone in a first draft, even Harvey once in a while, has something open for discussion. Also Harvey was legendary for leaving his artists room to interpret so I think actually that Joseph is so humble. I don't consider that changing anything. I just file that under the usual room that Harvey gave his artists to interpret the script so I don't even consider those things a change.

Harvey gave the artists a lot of freedom within the script?

Newelt: Mostly because he worked with guys he already trusted. Harvey being a jazz fan, I think Harvey really thought of his writing as a jazz musician and as a collaborator. Just like Miles Davis would have these sketches for a terrific song and Miles would be excited to see what John Coltrane and Bill Evans and whoever would do to these sketches of a song and turn it into "So What?" As long as it didn't go so far as to change the lyrics or turn it into a different song, he was very happy to let the artists have their freedom. He knew exactly what he wanted, he just erred on the side of freedom. It was freedom within a very clear architecture and vision.

Joseph, I imagine that even if you didn't know a particular ball player was left-handed, you did a lot of research and had to use a lot of reference.

Remnant: Absolutely, especially because this is a book that jumped around so much. The first thirty pages being a very broad history of Cleveland it would often jump around from decade to decade almost every panel. I had to research and figure out what that place in time looked like so half the time I spent on this book was just searching for images online or I got a bunch of books form the library. It was endless research.

Jeff, how did Alan Moore end up writing the book's introduction?

Newelt: Alan Moore was always a huge Harvey Pekar fan. A little-known but easily Google-able fact is that Alan Moore drew a one-page Harvey Pekar story. Alan was a character in an American Splendor story because Joyce Harvey and Danielle visited Alan and Melinda in England and they got along fantastically. What they have in common is that they're so singularly themselves. The other thing is how rooted they are in places. Harvey Pekar is to Cleveland as Alan Moore is to Northampton. When we were thinking whom we should get to do the intro, he was my first choice. I had a feeling that he would dig this specific work, not just the fact that it's one of the last Harvey Pekar books, but that because of the subject matter and the execution, this was an Alan Moore worthy work. I went to the Rio Comic Con in 2010 and three other English speakers there were Melinda Gebbie, his wife, Kevin O'Neill, the artist of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," and Paul Gravett, one of the foremost comics historians, critics and journalists. I was able to get Alan a copy of "Cleveland" for his consideration to write the intro and he read it and immediately said yes.

Joseph, this is your first book. It's completely published and you can hold a physical copy in your hands. How does it feel?

Remnant: I'm really proud of it. It's the first long thing I've done. I look at it now and I'm still really happy with it. I spent a lot of time working on the design of the book. We had big arguments over what kind of paper we were going to use and all this stuff, but I'm just really happy with the presentation of it. I really couldn't be happier with how it turned out.

Jeff, are there any more projects you worked on with Harvey that have yet to release?

Newelt: I know there are other books coming out that have nothing to do with me. I recently got to read a galley of "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me," which I thought was outstanding. "The Pekar Project" is still online and with all the renewed interest in Harvey because of "Cleveland," there are all these incredible stories people can read for free if they haven't read them yet. We have a couple of "The Pekar Project" stories still in the can. The biggest one is that giant ongoing Harvey Pekar and Douglas Rushkoff team-up. We still have two more parts of those that are going to go live -- Sean Pryor already drew part three. Those will be coming out shortly.

Any chance of a "The Pekar Project" book?

Newlt: I hope there's going to be a print collection of "The Pekar Project" stories either in and of itself or perhaps as part of a larger Pekar art book. I know that Joyce [Brabner] has a lot of things in the works. The print fate of those "Pekar Project" stories is still in limbo. They're online and hopefully we'll see a collection one day.

Joseph, I wanted to talk a little about your comic "Blindspot." You mentioned before how you wanted to create a one-man anthology. The second issue came out at MoCCA. Is your plan to self-publish the comics, then connect with a publisher to collect them?

Remnant: That's exactly my plan at this point. The person who really inspired me was Noah Van Sciver who does "Blammo." I was working on the first issue of "Blindspot" and he had already cranked out like three issues of "Blammo." It's really paying off for him now. He's got this book coming out from Fantagraphics. I imagine ultimately there'll be a collection of his short stories too. His stuff is like what I'm doing. We're both really inspired by Clowes and Crumb.

I also have a graphic novel that I'm writing, but I'd rather build a name for myself before I try to put out a graphic novel. I feel like that's what's great about doing cheap stapled comics you can practice writing, practice drawing and build an audience over time. It still makes sense for me to do that. I think a lot of the best younger cartoonists are still doing that. You can do it yourself and show up at conventions with a stack of comics that people will buy and I think people respond more to it if you have something physical rather than just a webcomic. There's something aggressive about the fact that you actually print it out.

I think you're right. You made the point that comics are hard. Daniel Clowes, for example, took almost two decades before he could make "Ghost World," and that's the process.

Remnant: You have to look at it like the first five to ten years of your career (or more), you're just working for the future. You're not going to make any money on comics when you're starting out. You have to hope that your audience can build over time and then when you start putting out these books later in your career you can potentially make some money. I'm probably committing career suicide by even trying to be in comics at all, but it's just what you have to do if that's what you want to do.

For readers familiar with your work, is the graphic novel you're working on similar to what you're doing with "Blindspot?"

Remnant: If you only read "Blindspot" #1, it doesn't give you a very good idea [of the series]. "Blindspot" #2 gets a little more serious. It's really hard to talk about at this point but it's a relationship story between three people. I've put a lot of my own life into it but not in a very literal way. It's about an artist struggling to break through and how you struggle with your own relationships when you dedicate your life to that. That's a very vague description.

I'm working on short stories, but they're getting longer. "Blindspot" #2 is mostly one story and then a couple little filler strips to fill it out. There's one story that's 22 pages long. I just did a story for an anthology that's almost 20 pages long and the stuff I'm working on for "Blindspot" #3 is mostly one story with a couple filler strips as well. I'm trying to get the hang of having more of a story arc and developing characters. That's the other thing; I don't want to just do a book and have it be the first long story I've ever done. Like a lot of stuff, it requires practice and patience. That's what I'm focusing on.

Jeff, you worked with Harvey for many years on "The Pekar Project," "Cleveland" and other projects. What has it been like and what has it meant to you?

Newelt: It's something that I wouldn't trade a second of. It was an incredible honor for me because we became good pals. I've been a fan of Harvey Pekar since I was around fifteen. I didn't feel like I was his editor. It was amazing to work with him and see how open he was to collaboration even though he was the master, Harvey Pekar. He would call me and read me the scripts even though it was absurd that Harvey Pekar was asking me for approval on anything, he would ask me if it sounded good and he spurred me on to give my own ideas. It wasn't just the honor of it, it was the pleasure and the joy of jamming on these stories and offering my two cents here and there and watching a master at work.

"Cleveland" is currently available from Top Shelf Productions.

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