On October 5th, 2005, one of the highlights of my life occurred as I got to interview the brilliant Harvey Pekar, the creator of the comic book American Splendor, which literally changed the world of comic books with its unique, autobiographical bent and frank discussion of life and what it is to live it.
American Splendor inspired a movie, and Pekar was able to leverage the greater awareness the movie gave him to create a number of graphic novels he might not otherwise have been able to get to market. Harvey spent his lifetime getting his lyrical everyman stories out into the world, despite frequent challenges presented by his personal life, his full-time job and his health. American Splendor is without question one of the greatest comic book series in history, and Harvey’s passing is a sad day for anyone who loves good comics. I loved Harvey Pekar’s comics, and I was lucky enough to get to tell him that during the course of this interview, conducted around the time his hardcover Vertigo graphic novel The Quitter was released. The interview was transcribed by Michael Rhode and appears in Rhode’s book Harvey Pekar Conversations, published by University Press of Mississippi.
Alan David Doane: Comic book readers have known about Harvey Pekar for many years following your life and times through your series American Splendor. The greater public at large learned about your story through the American Splendor movie a couple of years back. Tell me what effect the movie had on your life and your approach to your comics?
Harvey Pekar: Like I say, I’m just living the way I used to live. I live in the same house, I eat the same food, I dress the same. Y’know, there’s not much difference. I’m trying to do as much writing as I possibly can – you know, comic book writing and prose writing because I do reviews and some essays.
Which do you enjoy more – the comics writing or the prose writing? Or is it just two totally different…
I mean comics writing is more important to me than prose writing most of the time because in comics writing I fell like I sort of have kind of an innovative style, and I want to extend that. It’s important to me to do kind of new things. The prose stuff that I do – stylistically it’s pretty straightforward, although I get really worked about some of the stuff, you know like politics or music reviews or book reviews – things like that. But nobody would have heard of me if it hadn’t been for comics. I’m very lucky, and very thankful that I got a few breaks that enabled me to have a career in comics.
Since the movie came out, there have been quite a few really big collections of your previous comics work in addition to your new book, which we’re going to talk about in a few minutes. Do you think these collections are helping you to expand your readership?
Yeah, I know they are because they’re selling fairly well, and that’s something I should say – since the movie, my book sales have really, you know, skyrocketed. I mean going from practically nothing into respectability. I mean I actually for the first time in my life, and I’ve been doing comics for many, many years, I’m actually making royalties. I feel like that’s quite a luxury.
Yeah, but it’s a luxury you’ve certainly worked for with all the years … just from reading your stories… all the years of worrying about paying bills and trying to make the comic successful, it must be quite gratifying.
Yeah, it is very gratifying, but it’s like I’m too old to really believe it. You know, every time I get a check or something like that, it’s a joke. I go back into my old way of thinking, my pessimistic way of thinking, which is not good. But I dunno. I guess after you get to be a certain age, some people can’t change.
Have you received any feedback from new readers? People that have maybe started picking up your stuff since the movie came out?
Oh yeah, I get a lot of positive feedback all the time. Yeah, from new readers. And I enjoy it. My number’s in the phone book, so that in case somebody wants to call me after they’ve seen the movie at 4:30 in the morning on HBO and tell me how much they enjoyed it, they can do that. I hate to miss out on some praise, you know.
Sure, I think all creative people like to hear what people about their work. Who do you think the average reader is that you’d like to reach with your comics work?
I think I have a larger audience in the general book-reading public, than in the comic book area, because comic book fans are, for the most part, superhero fans and my stuff is not about guys going about in spandex suits, punching people and stuff. And so they tend not to be all that interested in my work. I mean, it’s not escapist, and that’s what they’re really looking for is escapism. General readers – since my stuff has come out in trade paperback and it’s been available at regular bookstores – that’s when my sales really started to go up.
Your work is sort of the opposite of escapism —really completely immersing yourself in the human condition rather than trying to forget about it or ignore it.
Yeah, that’s what I try to do. You’re exactly right. Thank you.
And I have to say, one of my favorite scenes, and maybe this is a chance to ask you about that, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is that scene right at the beginning with little Harvey going trick-or-treating in just his regular clothes and all the other kids dressed up in superhero costumes – that seemed to me like it was a comment on your place in the comics realm.
Yeah, well, actually, I didn’t script that. I just told them… the credit for that scene should go to Bob Pulcini and Shari Berman, the writer-directors. But what I told them was when I was a kid, I didn’t go much for playing around and for frills and stuff like that. I used to go trick-or-treating with the other kids, but I wouldn’t wear a costume, you know, because that seemed like it was kind of childish or something, or I was above it or something like that, so that’s where they got the idea for that.
Paul Giamatti did such a wonderful job in the movie channeling your character, and I’m just wondering, did you stay in contact with him? Did you enjoy his performance?
Oh, I enjoyed it. Yeah, he’s great. Yeah, I’ve stayed in contact with him, although, you know, the more time that elapses between the end of the movie’s run and the present, the less I see of him, or have contact with him and the other people in the movie. That being said, I just had breakfast with a couple of HBO employees. I mean, it was just a marvelous experience making that movie. I get asked a lot of times about how Giamatti went about learning to play me, and how he did such a great job, and people assume that he came out to Cleveland, you know, a few weeks early or something, and just shadowed me all the time, and you know, picked up my gestures and things like that, but in actuality, he just got that from videotapes of me, I guess on the Letterman show, and the written work that I’ve done. He’s really a master.
Yeah, that one scene in the movie, where he is watching you… he’s sort of semi-off-stage and watching you… he seems to be taking such delight in being in your presence that you got the feeling that he really developed a great affection for you. I think that really came through.
We like each other a lot. He’s very nice guy, and a real likable guy. There’s no doubt about that, and still, although he’s gotten more acclaim, still an underappreciated actor, I think. I think he’s one of the best out there.
Yeah, I think the first movie I saw him in was the Howard Stern movie [Private Parts], if you’ve seen that. He played this vile character, but he did it so well.
Yeah, yeah, the guy where he put on a slight southern accent. Yeah, I remember that.
Well, your new book is The Quitter. It’s published by Vertigo Comics and with illustrations by Dean Haspiel. It’s described at one point, I think maybe on the back of the book, as sort of a prequel to the movie and having just finished it last night, that seems really apt. It does cover the period from that Halloween scene up until where the rest of the movie really begins, covering a large chunk of your childhood and really filling in a lot of holes. Can you tell me how the idea for finally doing a long-form autobiography like this came about?
Yeah. Actually what happened was the illustrator, Dean Haspiel, was the person who put me in touch with Ted Hope who was the producer of the movie. He was doing some freelance illustration work for Hope and he told him that he had done some work me, and Hope said that he liked my work and he’d be interested in doing a movie based on it. So, my wife and I called and we had a deal with them. I thought, “Good, we’re going to get some option money.” I didn’t, in my wildest dreams, think that we’d be able to sell this movie because who’s going to invest a couple million dollars in a movie based on a comic book that sells maybe 3,000 copies a year. But amazingly, Hope was able to sell HBO on the thing, and it’s like a storybook kind of tale after that. I mean, it won awards and everything, so at the end of it all, I called up Dean and said, “Look, I really appreciate your tipping Hope off to me. Is there anything within reason that I can do to pay you back?” And he said, “Yeah, let me illustrate a long work of yours.” So I said OK, but I didn’t off-hand know of anybody who would be interested. He had contacts with DC Comics, more specifically with their Vertigo line which is supposed to be their more intellectual kind of stuff, and because people were still talking about the movie, he was able to interest some editors in my doing something. At first, I thought … they were telling me that they wanted me to do something that was fiction, y’know, and they even said something with a romantic interest and stuff. I tried to do that, you know, like write fiction based on my own experience, but I just saw where for me it would work so much better if I just was as accurate as I could be and didn’t gloss over anything. So I wrote the comic like that and just hoped that they would see that it was better that way. And happily they did. They liked it a lot and they really got behind it and the promotion they’ve done with this book is just incredible. I mean, you know… they’ve gotten it publicized so well and sales so far have been just terrific, even before the thing’s been released. I mean, it’s staggering to me.
I have to say, that it’s surprising — you mentioned that Vertigo’s sort of the intellectual line of DC, but even for a Vertigo title, it really is a strikingly touching and human work that really offers some profound insight into your life. I for one am grateful that they published it. I’m grateful that you took the time to write it.
Well, I think that Vertigo’s looking for more stuff like it, in case anybody out there is interested. Some of the stuff that they’ve done actually hasn’t really varied that much from standard comics, but I know that the editors there would like to develop a lot more independent lines. I’m hoping that comics do continue to expand. I was just at a Small Press Expo a couple of weeks ago and I saw some really fine stuff out there, but it was like it was all self-published or the publishers were really small, and I wasn’t aware of anybody. Guys were coming up to me and handing me examples of their work, and when I got it back home and got a chance to look at it, I was really impressed, but then I was kind of depressed because nobody knows about these people.
But is that not where you were in, say, 1975-1976?
Yeah, that’s where I was… well, I actually thought with the coming of underground comics in the late ‘60s, well mid-‘60s actually I guess it started, that comics would be forever changed. I thought when people saw that you could write about just about anything you wanted to in underground comics, they wouldn’t be so under-utilized. In fact, nothing much has changed, and that’s pretty distressing for me, that still superhero comics are at the top of the heap, you know, like so many years later. Ok, if people want to like superhero comics, that’s fine, but the superhero sub-genre doesn’t dominate any other art form, and it certainly shouldn’t dominate comics.
And I think we’re really in a transitional period right now, and have been probably for the last couple of years, where the greater comics industry, including stuff like the stuff that you do, is expanding into areas like mainstream bookstores and libraries, but the comic shops are kind of entrenched and dug in and continuing to emphasize the superheroes. Meanwhile, also comics from Japan, I think, is another area that’s seeing some expansion everywhere except the comics shops. I dunno, I’m starting to see a pattern where perhaps the comics shops are going to be the ones that are left behind as everybody else gets into all the other kind of comics that are out there.
I think they have been hurting. I know a guy who worked with one and lost his job – the place went under. Statistically, there are a lot fewer comics shops now than there were maybe a couple of decades ago. It looked like there was going to be a kind of revival in the eighties, but then it just slowed down again.
Well, there’s got to be hope though if DC sees a place for The Quitter in its lineup, don’t you think?
Well, but people have to offer them stuff like that. And they have to accept it to. Some of the stuff that I saw, that I was impressed with, would impress a lot of regular comic book readers as being pretty avant-garde. There’s a lot of free-association and things like that in it, and I mean, people haven’t even accepted James Joyce’s Ulysses after all these years and if they see stuff like that in comics, they’re going think it’s not commercial. There are these commercial considerations. A large company like DC will just go so far; they want to see something proven. If my movie hadn’t gone over as well as it did – it made some money and got a lot of artistic approval – if that hadn’t a happened, I wouldn’t a had a chance with DC.
But I do think it’s an incremental thing though. I think that because The Quitter is a success, maybe next year they’ll print two or three like that, and year after that, maybe four or five, if it continues to resonate with readers.
Well, I hope so. But then on the other hand, I look back on all the good work that was done in the late ‘60s by people like Robert Crumb, and Frank Stack, and Spain Rodriguez, and really first class stuff. In my opinion, that was the most fruitful of periods in comic history and yet nothing came of it. The hippies that supported the movement became yuppies after we pulled out of Vietnam and it just went down again. So I’m not takin’ anything for granted. I’m gonna to try to take advantage as much as possible of the opportunities I have to write varied kind of stories, like I’m doing one about a woman who went to Macedonia to find out why there was peace there, and there wasn’t peace anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia. I’m trying to do quite a variety of things, but I dunno, a lot of people are sort of afraid of that thing. Especially the publishers are afraid of them.
Is there any chance perhaps, some of the artists whose work you encountered at the Small Press Expo, maybe you’ll do some work with some of them?
Well, that would be just … if I did, they would just be illustrating it, I’d be writing the stories. I sincerely think that some of those people out there are very good and deserve to be recognized nationally. But with all avant-garde art in the past century, it’s been very hard for the general public to accept. I mentioned Ulysses, I could mention Arnold Schoenberg’s work – 100 years after he started doing the stuff — it’s still not accepted – atonal music that is. People still don’t like non-objective paintings. There used to be a time lag that used to be overcome between the time a piece of art came out, a challenging piece of art, and the time the public would be able to figure out where it was coming from. But now, it’s like a permanent time lag. It’s like there’s just no acceptance by the general public of anything that was done after like 1925 or something.
At least as far as comics go, I guess maybe I have a little more of an optimistic view, and again, looking at as kind of a transitional period over the last couple of years, where we’ve seen companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly start to pick up business in the bookstores and start to make some inroads with libraries and things like that. I really think that there’s an awful lot of good comics that are being published today especially by companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Pantheon, the publishers that you’ve been working with… I’ve been reading comics for over thirty years and it does seem there’s always, if you know where to look, and it is sometimes hard to find it, but there always is good quality work being done and it seems to me we’re seeing a lot more mention of it in the media and the press in the last couple of years, and that kind of gives me hope, I guess.
Well, I hope you’re right. I have a tendency to be pessimistic, and I hope you’re right, and I’m not convinced. I’m just going to try to do as much as I can to put out good work. I also try and interest editors in some of these young artists I run across and I hope that some of their work will be more widely read.
Well, as far as your own work, what does the future hold for American Splendor as a brand? Will there be any more single issues? Or just books for a while?
Yeah, I think so. I’m working on something with DC… we’ve just laid the groundwork for a deal … they wanted me to do like four 32-page comic books a year, and maybe collect them at the end of the year, or something like that, in a trade paperback. So I need a place to do shorter stories – that’s mostly what I’ve done are shorter stories — but I want to continue to write, now that I’ve had the opportunity, continue to write the longer pieces too, and I have two more works, longer pieces, in the process of being done and I plan to write more.
I’m very, very glad to hear that, as somebody who’s been reading your work for about twenty-five years now. As long as you keep writing it, I’ll keep reading it.
Well, thanks a lot. I appreciate that very much.
It’s really been an honor and a pleasure to talk to you Harvey. I appreciate it and best of luck with the new book.
Thanks very much for your kindness. Take it easy.
Thanks, you too.