Friday, June 9, 2017

A Talk with Harvey Pekar

I was instantly taken with the irascible, hilarious, and irrepressibly forthright Harvey Pekar upon seeing him, in the fall of 1986, on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. This streetwise Cleveland comic book author, literary and music critic, and all-around raconteur became, after his rascally debut appearance, a regular visitor to Letterman's show. But, though the late-night icon reliably gobbled up Pekar's aggressive humor, a 1987 guest shot got Harvey temporarily banned (for nearly six years) from the show after he lambasted NBC owners General Electric for being a purveyor of nuclear energy threats and an enemy of the unions (Letterman, I should say, had deeper issues with Harvey's unruly reaction when faced with changing the subject to rants more suitable for a comedy show). But, thankfully, Pekar's dynamic early Late Night appearances led me to his comic book American Splendor, which resolutely changed my worldview in its artful dramatization of his own "ordinary" life. By design, Harvey encouraged all artists, assuring us that lauding sometimes mundane but often profound human existence was a noble intent, especially amongst the hoi polloi. Such illumination is THE ultimate goal in art, and Pekar's work needles us with the notion that. even in a blandly corporatized era, light can still be shed into everyday shadows. 

While working as an editor at the Georgia State University newspaper The Signal, I became determined to get an interview with Pekar, which I landed by simply tapping the Cleveland information line. I cold-called Harvey and he, in his own low-key fashion, was immediately welcoming. From my beginnings as a Pekar fan, I commenced to imagining the big-screen version of his work, and harbored ambitions aimed at being the filmmaker that would complete such a project. That outcome wasn't to be, but I was there in the fall of 2003 as the movie version of American Splendor, after becoming a chief feature at both the Sundance and Cannes film fests, unspooled as the opening night feature for that year's Atlanta Film Festival. I made a hundred copies of my original Georgia State University-published interview and distributed them to the Atlanta screening's attendees. This was a wispy ghost of my original goal, but at least it proved I was way ahead of the curve in appreciating Harvey Pekar's wisdom.

Two years after I talked with Harvey, I met both he and his wife Joyce Brabner at a comic book shop in NYC's East Village. Harvey and I had a genial chat, during which he signed a couple of my comics, and then I met Joyce. I was wearing a military bar on my jacket that day, and Joyce, being an expert on all thing martial (seeing as she was doing her own comic Real War Stories) notified me that this piece I'd purchased at an Atlanta military store as jewelry actually signified that the wearer had fought in a particular Vietnam battle. She sternly informed me I shouldn't be sporting it if I hadn't done the fighting. I was immediately concerned, but not convinced. But, on the way home by way of the NYC subway--and I still cannot comprehend the reality of this stunning coincidence--I was approached by a disheveled homeless man who'd glimpsed the bar I was wearing and mistook me for a Vietnam cohort. "Hey, man, I was at Khe Sahn. Where were you?" Mortified, I let him know I wasn't a military veteran, and I could see the hurt and confusion on his face. I took that tiny but so significant bar off when I got home and never wore one like it again. 

When the film version of American Splendor finally arrived on movie screens in 2003, I was impressed with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation (which earned them a well-deserved Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination). Their deft blending of documentary, narrative and animated storytelling registered as remarkable to nearly everyone who saw the film. After my first viewing, I recall thinking that, aside from a few minor quibbles, I could have done no better, especially with a brilliant cast that included Paul Giamatti (as Harvey), Hope Davis (as Joyce), Judah Friedlander (as his nerdy co-worker/best friend Toby), and James Urbaniak (as Robert Crumb). Pekar would go on to win a Harvey Award--the Oscars of the comic world--for his 1994 graphic novel Our Cancer Year (about his hard-fought battle with the disease). Now, thirty years later, I can see that Harvey Pekar was THE original blogger, letting the world know what was going on in his churning brain long before the Internet existed as an outlet for us fellow schlubs. As he liked to say "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." After achieving his aim of being a distinguished writer and husband obsessed with literature, jazz, comics, and his own far-from-humdrum life, Harvey Pekar died in 2010.

Here is a reprint of my original interview with this lustrous artist, published May 19 1987 as the cover story for Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine (the particular Pekar comic I used as the cover ended up acting as the script for the film's opening scene): 

The moment I first mentioned to my editors I was going to do an interview with comic book writer Harvey Pekar, I was warned not many people know who he is. Some might recognize him from his admittedly memorable and always funny appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, but that would be about the short extent of the mass audience's recall. Then I thought "Well, so what?” and realized anonymity might be a necessity for Harvey Pekar's proper function.

Not that he lacks ambition. He's got a following of adoring comic book and/or literature aficionados (he reviews books and music for various publications). But one need only to take a look at his comic American Splendor to see how important Harvey Pekar's "humdrum" life is to both the meaning of the work and to the man himself. American Splendor is very probably one of the most original and brilliant uses of pop culture since Andy Warhol started silk-screening portraits of Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s. The 47-year-old Pekar frankly states that, in it, he just does what most writers do anyway: he writes about himself. Only Harvey is lot more blatantly autobiographical than most of his colleagues. (It should be mentioned that Harvey does not draw the comic. He simply writes it. Such renowned underground artists as Robert Crumb, Gerry Shamray, and Gary Dumm, among others, do the fantastic artwork, based on stick-figure drawings provided by Harvey.)

You see, American Splendor is not a bloody war epic or a schlock horror collection, as comics are wont to deliver; it is, quite simply, a chronicle of one lone man's relatively uncomplicated but stressful life. It literally follows Pekar through the streets of Cleveland through the days of his tough youth, and through the everyday routine of his 21 years as a file clerk at a VA hospital, through lunches and dinners and lazy Sunday mornings, even through his sometimes troubled married life (his present wife, Joyce Brabner is, incidentally, also heavily into comics; she is producing a Marvel Comics-style book called Real War Stories, which will be sort of a cross between Platoon and Harvey's work, with real-life veterans relating sometimes dull, sometimes exciting stories about the horrors of Vietnam). American Splendor is a detailed, scathingly sincere examination of a single, very intelligent human surrounded by fellow humans, some smart and some clueless, but all separate and alone. More than that, though, his work is an essential glorification of the Everyman and the typical days they endure, in which nothing special happens and everything special happens simultaneously.

Recently, I shared an hour-long phone conversation with Harvey Pekar. He was watching a televised basketball game at his Cleveland apartment when I called. 

First of all, when did you start writing American Splendor?

Well, it was first published in 1976. But I started writing comic book stories in 1972.

Why did you choose comic books as your artistic outlet? Why not novels or screenplays or something else?

First of all, I think comic books are as good an artistic medium as any that exists. I mean, I have said...they are words and pictures and you can do anything with words and pictures. In fact, you can do anything with words alone. But there's a great deal to be explored in the medium and that excited me.

Why do you focus on non-fictional, everyday events?

Because, um, not enough people have. I think that, you know, like, 99% of your life is involved with so-called everyday events and I think there's a whole lot more drama, a whole lot more funny stuff, that occurs over the course of an ordinary day than people seem to realize. I want people to relate to my work. I want to write about my life and how it parallels their life. I want them to say "Oh, yeah, something like this happened to me," you know.

Does it bother you any that some people may see American Splendor as an act of narcissism?

Not too many have. Because, for one thing, I show myself in an unflattering light a lot. I don't want people to think that I'm just doing this as an ego trip. The most important thing to me is to do good art, not to make myself look like a great guy. Look, I think I make myself look like a worse person than I really am and that's fine.

Is it difficult for you to be so honest in your writing,  to expose so much of yourself? I mean, just to let everybody know about your personal life,  you know--to let people know how your marriages are going and so forth?

See, that's the thing. In order for me to do good work, I have to be honest. It's not only that, though. I think a lot of people can be honest. But I think what's more difficult is to analyze things correctly and to describe accurately your reactions to things. So, to me, the big challenge is to write with accuracy and clarity, not...I mean, the honesty part, there's no problem there.

Are you ever afraid that you'll become so well known that the routine feel that makes the comic appealing will be destroyed?

Yeah, I've thought about that. You know, I wrote that story "A Hypothetical Quandary," and I wondered what would happen if I made a living as a writer and not as a file clerk, how that would affect my writing. Still, I think, in all lives, interesting things happen, things that other people can relate to. I don't think that you necessarily have to come from one social class or one group of people to, know, to write good stories. There are stories about rich people and poor people that are interesting.

Do the people who know you feel the need to watch what they say around you for fear of their remarks ending up in the comic?

Not that I've recognized. In fact, more often, they're buggin' me. "Why didn't you put me in that last issue?" You know, they wanna get in the comic book just like they want to get on TV. It's like "Say anything about me, but spell my name right."

How do you get along with your artists?

By and large, very well.

Do you stand over them as they draw or do you just hand them a few pages and say "Here, go to it?"

Well, it's sort of in between. I mean, obviously, I can't be there when they are doing all the drawing. What I do is I write these scripts and storyboard them, you know, with panels and stick-figures and balloons and I write directions on the stories about what the background should look like and what the characters should look like. Then we discuss know, most of the guys live in Cleveland. Sometimes there will be a disagreement about something and I'll just let it slide. But there are certain things that I will put my foot down on. I think that from what I can tell, I'm not too hard a taskmaster. I try not to be, for one thing, because I don't pay that much. I can't afford it.

Okay, so every bit of this—the art, printing and publishing—is coming out of your pocket. How much profit do you see? 

Well, I haven't made any profit off of the book until...well, if you include the Doubleday advances--I've had two collections of my work published by Doubleday, for which I got advances that I split up with the artists. So, if you throw in the Doubleday advances, last year and this year I did make a profit on the books. All the other years, I didn't.

That must get very tiring. Do you ever sit down and say to yourself "Wby do I do this? I'm losing money, can't find any time." I mean, you must be pretty pressed...

I am now, but that doesn't have so much to do with putting out the book. It has to do with the fact that I'm writing more and more articles. You know, I write literary articles. Also, I've been on TV a lot and, for example, people coming around and. interviewing me. Not that I resent it; I'm flattered and I appreciate it. But as far as writing stories goes, that doesn't take me very long to do. What takes me longer is to cajole the artwork out of the artists.

How often do you publish?

Just once a year. But it's a pretty long book by comic book standards-sixty pages with no ads. That adds up to being, like, a ninety page Marvel comic or something. But it takes that long for the sixty pages to be illustrated. These guys do the work mostly after their regular jobs are over. A lot of them are not full-time illustrators. They have other jobs, they come home and then they do it.

I know that you're still working as a file clerk at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. You seem fairly attached to that job. Why is it that you like it so much?

Well, for one thing, it' has been real hectic, but now, as long as I keep working at a pretty steady pace, it's okay. It takes me all over the hospital; I'm always moving. I'm not in one place. It's not what people think, that I'm a file clerk all the time...

Where you're JUST sitting and filing things...

Right. I'm always moving around. It's a big hospital. I know a lot of people there, and you can more or less do my job without thinking too much. I mean, you gotta know SOME things to do the gotta be a detective or something to figure out where some files could be, you know. So you just go around and talk to people as you do your job.

And it helps your writing as well?

Yeah, sure. And you know, I like the people at work. I like the patients a lot.

Do you feel lucky to have a job that you feel so good about?

Yeah, I think most people don't have that. I think I'm lucky. But I think that, if you got a kind of crummy job, and you go to work day in and day out for forty years, that's a real heroic thing to do.

You know, when I told people I was going to interview you, a few of them said "Oh yeah, that really rude guy that's been on the Letterman show." But when I talked to your wife, she implied that your rudeness was just sort of an act. Or, at least, on that show, it is.

Well, I'm generally not as rude as I am on Late Night.

Do you like David Letterman?

He seems like an okay guy. Personally, I haven't had much contact with him at all. He helped me over the first time I did the show, he sent me a letter about an article I had written, praising me for it.

You always seem annoyed at his sense of humor, though.

Well, when I was growing up, I was sort of a street comedian and I guess there is a lot of kind of hostility in me that's kind of pushing to get out. You know, I'm kind of bitter about the fact that it's taken me so long to even get this far in comics, that there's a lot of stuff I can do well that I haven't
gotten recognition or enough recognition for. So what I do is I sort of let it run wild on that show and it gets me laughs. And they want me to do it. But I don't have any grudge against Letterman.

You're the only person on the show, and I watch the show faithfully, who really consistently catches him off-guard.

Well, the reason I do that (although I don't want to keep on acting like that, I should mention) is because I'm really down on the cult of celebrity. Now, Letterman is probably more intelligent, a more witty person than most, but he doesn't strike me as being a remarkable person. But people just worship this guy, like he discovered some kind of medicine that would cure the Black Plague or something like that. Letterman's a guy who just found his niche, who was in the right place at the right time. I mean, he bombed on morning television. So, when I mess around with Letterman, I'm just trying to say to people "Hey, look, this guy's an ordinary person just like you and me."

Much of American Splendor is pretty downbeat. You even advertised the first few issues as being "More depressing stories from Harvey Pekar's humdrum life." Are you feeling that same sort of bleakness in your life now or was that just a phase you were going through? 

Yeah, it was a phase I was going through for 47 years. No, things have gradually gotten better for me, actually. I'm still looking for my golden years to pop up. You know, my last marriage is still intact. But, you know, some people think actually, overall, the books are kind of uplifting.

Yeah, I definitely think that, too. They walk a tightrope between optimism and bleakness, but they side more with the former. Do you subscribe to any religious beliefs? 

No. I mean, my background is Jewish, but I'm not religious. I just think that a lot of that stuff is based on bullshit. I don't believe in an absolute moral code. I mean, I believe people should have morals, but I think the golden rule is a pretty good basis for morality. You know, how can I think the world is 6000 years old or that everything is run by some old man in the sky? A lot of people HAVE to believe. I just don't have to.

Okay. Now, you've been married three times?


And you enjoy married life?

Yeah. Better than being single.

Why so?

Because when you're single, you're alone all the time. I don't have much of a support system. I don't have any close family relations or anything like that.

Have you ever considered having children?

No, no...

Why not?

It's funny, the question should be why do people want them. But I guess I'm in the minority with my attitude. Um, I don't know. I like kids okay, like I like other people, but to have somebody off the street and support just seems like such an economic liability or something.

What is your IQ? Have you ever had it tested?

I suppose so, but I don't know what it is. I don't really put a lot of stock in those so-celled intelligence tests anyway.

I know you went to college, but did you finish?

No, I completed about a year and a half.

Why'd you quit?

Oh, well, my mother was never know, neither of my parents were ever really satisfied with anything I did, no matter how good I did it. I always had this burning desire to succeed and I was really pessimistic about doing it. So, after high school I didn't go to college right away. I worked for a while and then went back to school. And I started getting real good grades. I started hanging out with a different kind of crowd to which that kind of thing meant a lot to. You know, then I started putting such pressure on myself to get good grades, to get a hundred on every test, that I freaked out. I became almost catatonic and I couldn't study. So I dropped out of school. It was just too much.

I read that someone made a play out of American Splendor.

Yeah, there's this guy named Conrad Bishop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a company called The Independent Eye. He dramatized stories of mine.

How heavily were you involved with it?

In terms of staging it, not at all. I mean, he used pretty much my dialogue intact. He just made pretty minor changes here and there.

Were you satisfied with the final outcome?

Yeah, I was. The play...about five people reviewed it and they all gave it good reviews.

Have you ever thought about making a movie out of the comic?

Yeah, I've been contacted by a few people but nothing has ever happened. To tell you the truth, I'd rather do a movie than a play.

It would work better, I would think.

Yeah, you have the changes of scenery and you have the fact that the people don't have to shout the lines to be heard. You know, you can do more subtle things in a movie.

How would you go about it? I mean, would you make it a narrative film or would you do skits or a documentary or what?

Well, one guy contacted me and actually I started on an outline for a treatment. What it involved was my splicing together various stories and writing passages to connect them up. It would've started in the 1960s and then would've ended on an up note with the publication of my first comic.

In the most ideal situation possible, in the best of all possible worlds, what would you be doing or where would you be in your life right now?

What would I like to do? I don't know. I think I'd like to make my living as a writer. I've paid my dues.

What would you like people who read your work to come away with?

I would hope that it has clarified something for them or that they have learned something or that they were amused or entertained. Any of that stuff. That they felt deeply about something that I wrote about, maybe if I wrote about some painful situation that would alleviate their pain. I mean, one of the nicest things is when people write me and say "Well, I thought I was the only person in the world who was going through this stuff and it has really helped me to know that other people are going through it, too," That's always real gratifying.


Lisa said...

You really connected with him -- such a great conversation and how fortunate that you were able to interview him. ❤️

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks, Lisa! Yeah, he was a really good guy. One of my favorite interviews ever!