From the streets of Cleveland
American Splendor author Harvey Pekar talks about his life and the movie version of his famous comic book
The deeply cynical blue-collar Everyman of Harvey Pekar’s self-possessed character is a guy right out of a Graham Parker song. He knows damn well that there’s more “suck” in hard-won “success” than there is “excess,” and that the real test of a man’s mettle comes down to how he handles himself in mundane situations.
It was from Pekar’s distinctly pessimistic perceptions and confrontational attitude that he self-published the first issue of his autobiographical American Splendor comic books in 1976, with the illustrative assistance of Robert Crumb, while working his day job as a file clerk at the Veterans Administration.
Pekar’s friendship with Crumb began in the ‘60s and bore tangible fruit in 1972, when Harvey showed the famed underground cartoonist some of his poorly drawn but exceptionally written comics about his depressed life in his hometown of Cleveland. Crumb agreed to illustrate the comic, and American Splendor went on to initiate the autobiographical comic genre (see Ghost World) and eventually win an American Book Award in 1987. But Pekar nonetheless kept his day job for 25 years, until his retirement in 2001.
Inspired by naturalist writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Pekar took to task the social realities around him without pulling any punches, and his roughly annual comic book series had the profound effect of attracting his soulmate and wife Joyce Brabner (well played in the movie American Splendor by Hope Davis). Over the years, Pekar has been represented in his American Splendor comic by a legion of cartoonists, including Frank Stack, Drew Friedman and Doug Allen, but his biggest flirtation with fame would come from a handful of appearances on The David Letterman Show in the late-'80s. Those guest appearances reached an apex of drama when Pekar finally lashed out at his condescending interviewer regarding NBC’s association with its parent company, the environmentally irresponsible General Electric.
I had the pleasure of meeting the now 63-year-old Pekar and his delightful wife for a brief interview about the movie—which won top honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—and about Pekar’s opinions, projects and ideas.
What did you think when you found out that Paul Giamatti was cast as Harvey?
Brabner: We were staying at a motel and we had cable TV, and we watched this blue monkey (in Planet of the Apes) and tried to figure out what Harvey would look like and what the actor looked like under the monkey make-up—this Yiddish-slinging orangutan. But we’ve seen American Splendor done four times theatrically with different people, and there’ve been different interpretations. I think the most bizarre one was this Russian guy who’d won a couple of Tonys for [doing] Chekhov [plays], and he was playing Harvey with Catholic angst, which isn’t really the same as Jewish angst.
Do you stay in touch with Robert Crumb?
Pekar: I’ve been trying to, but I haven’t been able to get hold of him lately. We crossed paths when we went to Cannes for the festival, but Crumb had just packed his bags and come to the States. But we stay in touch. I wanted him to see the movie because one of the things that I felt pretty good about with this movie was that it showed Crumb at his best. Crumb can be a real nice guy—and not just to me, although he was super nice to me, and I’m forever beholden to him because of it—but I wanted to show what he was like when he was younger. I think James Urbaniak gave an accurate representation of him.
A lot of people who see the movie will be exposed for the first time to your David Letterman appearances from the ‘80s, and it’s kind of liberating to see you take on Letterman face to face. Can you talk about what moved you to that level of anger?
Pekar: It wasn’t even exactly anger. It was sort of a calculated kind of thing. After having been on the show three times and seeing that all he wanted me to do was just a parody of myself, and he got upset about it if I wanted to do something else, I figured I had nothing to lose by doing whatever I felt like doing. I wasn’t selling more comics by being on the show, and I wasn’t making more money to speak of. I was just going on there and being a buffoon. I don’t mind going on there and getting laughs, and I don’t even mind playing a buffoon for a while to get ’em, but there’s more to me than that aspect of my personality. I just decided that I could do no wrong by taking up the subject of GE’s ownership of NBC—that I couldn’t harm myself in any way—and so far it’s worked out pretty well.
Well, your comic is based on this average working-class guy who sees the world as it is and calls it as he sees it. The plight of the working class has gotten progressively worse since you started the comic. What do you think these days about that situation?
Pekar: I think it’s terrible. I can’t understand why people would put up with Bush. I’m certainly against what he’s done in Iraq, but just his handling of the economy alone is enough to have a recall. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, he has the wrong people advising him, and I don’t think he has much interest in the economy. I think everybody is feeling the pinch in some kind of way.
How is your battle against cancer?
Pekar: I’m better; I’m in remission.
Brabner: He was profoundly depressed, and it didn’t start to lighten up until we saw the movie in Sundance. That was kind of gratifying—you give somebody who goes through chemotherapy a standing ovation. I think everybody who goes through that ought to get one.
Pekar: When I finally did get my head together and saw the movie at Sundance, I was really happy with it. It really helped me out.
How do you spend your days now?
Pekar: Trying to write, trying to get writing jobs—my main focus is trying to supplement my income from my government pension. I do the comic book writing, book reviewing and record reviewing. We have a “blog” that New Line [the film’s production company] set up for us at Harveypekar.com, so we’re working on that.
Was there ever a point when you were just tempted to just sell out and write for Spider-Man or something?
Pekar: I can’t do that. They came to us and wanted me to do something for Howard the Duck because he comes ostensibly from Cleveland and they offered me incredible money, but I can’t write fantasy stories, so I had to pass that big paycheck up. Joyce and I plan to do an Our Movie Year comic as a follow-up to Our Cancer Year.
Have you sold any more books with the movie coming out?
Pekar: Well, there’s a new Random House anthology—which is the first two out-of-print American Splendor anthologies—and then the three titles from Four Walls Eight Windows Press went back to press. I’ve got the Robert McNeil stories—The Unsung Hero—that I did with Darkhorse Publishing coming out. That’s a book-length paperback story about an African-American Vietnam combat veteran and his experiences in the military.