Archived Feature: Harvey Pekar from July 2010Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 12 Jul 2011
On July 12, 2010, one of the most revered comic book artists of his generation, Harvey Pekar, passed away in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. As it turned out, Juxtapoz interviewed Pekar a few weeks earlier for a feature in the July 2010 issue of the magazine, talking to Pekar about his newest collaborative endeavor, the Pekar Project.
I remember Harvey being very upbeat in our talk, excited about collaboration, new work, and being able to talk about his career. Today, we would like to honor Harvey's memory by posting our entire talk from that day, in hopes that everyone get a chance to read one of his final interviews. —EP.
Interview by Evan Pricco
Portrait by Seth Kushner
There is an illuminating opening scene in American Splendor, the 2003 autobiographical film in which American comic book artist Harvey Pekar, as portrayed by Paul Giamatti, deliberates the peculiarity of his own name. The monologue proceeds to describe the oddity of three Harvey Pekars in the phone book, all simultaneously living in Cleveland in the 1970s, with Giamatti (Pekar) wondering aloud how shared owners of such a singular name could possibly live in the same city. The pondering leads to the core of the Harvey Pekar comic: “Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name? Who is Harvey Pekar?”
Harvey Pekar was Larry David before there was a Seinfeld. He extrapolated the routine, everyday occurrence and everything in between, and made it the star of the show. Recently, the American Splendor author, in association with Smith magazine, teamed up with project editor Jeff Newelt and four other comics—Joseph Remmant, Rick Parker, and Sean Pryor—on the Pekar Project, a collaborative, ongoing Web comic series. Each artist brings a unique illustrative style to Pekar’s storytelling, with new stories appearing every other week. I recently spoke with Harvey from his home in Cleveland, Ohio, whose mood was upbeat and enthusiastic about the new collaborations. So far Harvey’s more than pleased with the Web-only process. “It’s a chance for me to get more autobiographical work out there.” —Evan Pricco
Evan Pricco: How was the Pekar Project initially presented, and were you okay with something that was going to be on the Web?
Harvey Pekar: Well, the Web had nothing to do with it. I wanted to get some work out there. I heard about it through a cartoonist friend of mine named Dean Haspiel. He’s based in New York and he knew about Jeff Newelt and Smith magazine. He told me something about it. I mean the deal is that you don’t get any money for what you do, but at the end when you have enough pages publishers try to get them together and sell them as a book. You can pick up money that way. You know, through Jeff’s connection I’ve been able to make a couple of bucks, too. I don’t know what else can I tell you. I’m working with four fine cartoonists and illustrators.
Before Rick, Sean, Joseph, prior to this project, were you used to working in a collaborative method, or is it always solo?
When I started in comics, the first two years I was just contributing to independent publications. The business itself wasn’t in good shape, so I decided I would put out my own comic book and it took several people, illustrators, to get the pages together to publish a book every year. So, yeah, I have always worked with at least a few people.
Do you find it at all different now? I assume these artists are a little younger? Is there some sort of renewed energy they give because they are younger and getting into this craft?
Actually, I don’t really think they are a little younger, especially thinking back to the ages of the guys I worked with in the 1970s. One guy’s 63 in this project. I mean the youngest guy’s about 23.
That is pretty young.
Yeah, that’s pretty young. When I was a 27 year old, back then I just needed to fill up the book so I was willing to work with anybody because I couldn’t pay much.
What kind of response have you been getting about this project specifically?
I don’t even have a computer so I don’t really get a lot of direct contact with the people who see this stuff. But I am told pretty frequently that the stuff gets good reader response.
What do you think about the actual stories themselves? Are you personally proud of this project with all four artists?
Yeah! They’re all good. Some of them are more than good. I have been able to write stories. I was, and still am, publishing graphic novels. And when you do a graphic novel there needs to be four per year to get by. I can’t live on my pension and social security, can’t make it that way, so I have to work.
I would hear from people that this stuff was really good. I would hear indirectly that they got some real good emails or something like that. Maybe people were lying to me, but it seemed like it was overwhelmingly a good response. The thing is, when I put out these four books, my best work I always think is autobiographical. But there is only so much autobiographical stuff I can do. I can’t always write four autobiographical graphic novels a year. I guess that would flood the market; but I still want to do them, so this project is an outlet.
I always wanted to ask you something. Ever since I started knowing a little more about the American Splendor series, and the movie, obviously, which was one of my big introductions to your work, I always wanted to ask: If you moved to Los Angeles, do you think all your work would have been different? Is Cleveland essential to your catalog?
I think any city I would live in would be essential to my body of work; although, the cities would be different. I am real interested in urban life and urban politics and working class life, so I would be discussing these subjects and it would vary from one place to another.
Do you think that is a big reason why so many people resonated with you? Because there was a sense of Midwest, working class, blue collar kind of collective consciousness as jobs started to leave a little bit of the Midwest.
The reason that they liked my stuff in the first place was because they could identify with it. I wrote about mundane experiences; I deliberately wrote about that. I didn’t write about somebody becoming a king or something like that. I thought that every day life was very interesting and authors overlooked an awful lot of it. And there was this whole big area left to me to deal with and I saw it. There are huge gaps in comics. There is nothing wrong with comics, they are as good of an art form as any. But the people that publish comics just publish superhero stuff. I guess that sells the best and they don’t want to take any chances. They are playing to an audience that likes these things, that I thought were juvenile when I was 11 years old. I always thought that superhero comics seemed to work very well in an era when TV wasn’t so prevalent. With the war and the following Red Scare, there were these kind of moods and events that made sense of characters like Superman, but as time went on it kind of didn’t really make sense anymore because movies and TV ruined parts of people’s imaginations. I thought the more mundane stuff seem to make more sense post-superhero culture.
People can’t identify with superheroes. Very few of them have X-ray vision, for example.
Do you keep a journal?
No, I don’t, but if I have an experience that will make a good story I will sit down right away and write it out before it gets away from me. Stories come to me pretty easily. I just live my life and I sort of walk into stories.
Do you think that storytelling is an innate quality that people have or is it something you have to work at?
I don’t know. I only have my own experience. And, I mean, I was influenced by a lot of people starting from when I was a kid listening to the radio. Comedians influenced me, the way that they delivered lines, their sense of timing, things like that. I picked up on that and I kind of became a class clown, the guy who would stand up in the middle of class and say something ridiculous.
Who is a good storyteller these days? Is the art of storytelling still healthy?
I might leave someone out. The more that good comics get out there, the more good people are going to want to do them. They will see that it’s possible to do good comic books. A lot of people just turn their nose up at comics and think they have no potential. I think they have a huge potential. I mean I was one of the first guys to do kind of realistic stuff. And this was years and years after comics were founded, and just about every art form had gone through a realist period, except comics. It was still Superman.
That is interesting, I never thought of it that way. What is the classic comic book in your mind? What is the essential comic?
There is no one essential comic. There are people that I think are real good, real good artists, some real good writers. One is Frank Stack, who worked with me on Our Cancer Year with my wife. He’s a very good writer and an outstanding illustrator. Unfortunately he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves, but just ask Robert Crumb about him sometime and he will tell you how good he is. And the other guy would be Crumb—a good writer, an amazing artist, and a sensitive and perceptive guy. I enjoy his work.
What has each of the four artists brought to the project? When you say that you know you are going to be doing something with Rick, is there something specific that you decide you want to bring to the story?
I try and match up the artist and the stories. I have been giving Rick a lot of humorous stories. Joseph and Sean I think can handle a whole lot of things. I feel I am in good shape with all of these people.
Definitely Rick gets the funnier ones. I think it might just be his Beavis and Butthead connection. That’s how I know his work. I was wondering about Cleveland. I have never been there before, but what are some qualities of the city?
It’s a Rust Belt city. It used to be one of the most important industrial cities in the country, used to have a population of nearly a million. It hasn’t been able to keep up with foreign competition basically, so there is a lot of poverty here. It always wins the polls for worst city in the United States. I wouldn’t say that, I have seen cities that I was less impressed with than Cleveland. At least Cleveland, at one time, had a lot of wealthy people living in it who contributed quite a bit to the city. We have an excellent public library because of people like that, and an excellent symphony orchestra.
Is there any other kind of artistic community in Cleveland that people don’t really know about?
We had a pretty good poetry scene here once. It isn’t loaded with amazing undiscovered people, but there are good artists of various types that live in this city. Good musicians. I spend a lot of time doing critical work, music and book criticism. When I look at who gets the big write-ups in the textbooks and who is ignored, it’s just incredible to me. It’s like there is no justice in the world. It was terrible what happened to van Gogh, but who knows how many brilliant artist there were like van Gogh that never got discovered.
Now I feel like with the technology there is just too much. You can get whatever you want all the time. I feel like people get big that shouldn’t be getting big.
But it was always like that. There were always people that appeal to the lowest common denominator and got real popular and their stuff sold. Some of their names stuck around. I think that this kind of injustice that I see in the judging of artists goes back a long, long way. I use to buy a tremendous amount of novels and short stories. I would get them from writers from all over the world and I would run across these fabulous guys that I have never even heard of that you never see referred to.
Who would you consider to be a contemporary of yours?
You mean as far as comic book artists are concerned? I got a late start, and I’m pretty old for an alternative comic book artist. I’m 70 now. Guys around my age that started earlier were Stack and Crumb, and there are a number of really good people back in the ’60s. That was a great time for alternative comics.
Did the movie make your life better or was there too much press because of it?
It definitely made my life much better. You know, my stuff just didn’t sell. There was no way that I was going to make money on that stuff when it came to hitting my retirement age, and then suddenly the movie came out, and for the first time, my stuff started selling. It never sold sensationally or anything like that, but the sales were respectable in some cases. That’s amazing to me. I never thought that would happen to me.
When I was on the David Letterman show, one of the main reasons that I staged that thing was that I wanted to get off that show and go out in a blaze of glory. I was on the show and people seemed to really like me but there was no improvement in sales. And Letterman wanted to typecast me as the Cleveland working stiff and all that. Letterman was really afraid to deal with politics, and the whole thing was just rotten and I wanted to get out of it. I got out of it by causing a big commotion. I thought that it might served me well in the future, and as a matter of fact, it has with the stuff that has came out in the movie.
Which is weird because Letterman is a Midwestern guy, born in Indiana. You would have thought that it might have worked and that he might have wanted to talk to you about it.
Oh, Letterman is a stiff!
Have you talked to him in recent years?
He won’t talk to anyone. He runs away from you. I mean during the breaks on the show you would think that he would talk to you, but he would just ask me if I wanted a cigar. I guess he is clever enough to rack up pretty high ratings and stick around for a really long time. He doesn’t impress me. The guy that I thought was the best late-night guy is Steve Allen.
Do you still talk to Paul Giamatti?
Not too much lately. You know how it is, you are working with the guy and think you are going to be lifelong friends and then gradually you drift apart. One person is going in one direction and the other in another direction. I like Paul a lot and I have a great deal of respect for him as an actor.
Did he do a good job?
I think he did a good job. I think most people thought he did a good job. I think, as the result of the movie and his excellent performance, he was kind of able to get some lead roles after it.
When R Crumb saw the movie, did he say, “That’s just about right on”?
He didn’t know what to make of it. I think it kind of confused him. I don’t know why. Crumb isn’t a big movie fan in general.
You lecture at schools; do the kids enjoy that? I mean it’s great for you and students as well.
It’s great for me because it pays pretty good money. I mean I don’t really know how much I can teach kids in an hour or something. There are certain themes that I keep bringing up. About the history of comics and why I think comics could be a lot better than they are.
But sometimes I think that they need to hear that you can do it, that you can make a career off of comics.
I try and point that out.
What do you think comics can do better?
Just deal with a wider variety of subjects. There isn’t much impressive realism in comics. It could use a lot more realistic stuff. You just got to get smart people interested in doing them, and then you will be okay, just like in any other art form. You get a bunch of smart people that are writing and painting you are going to get a good product.
This interview was first published in the July 2010 issue of Juxtapoz, n113.
For more information about the Pekar Project, visit: http://www.smithmag.net/pekarproject/pekar-project-in-the-news/For the full issue, buy it here.
We also have this special video, of Pekar Project's Jeff Newelt reading one of the collaborative comics of Harvey Pekar and Sean Pryor.