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Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Our man on the street
Catching up with the king of kvetching, Harver Pekar
Disclosure: I've been following Harvey Pekar's work for 24 years, ever since a mutual friend and former editor of the Cleveland Edition, a long-defunct alternative paper, sent me his fifth American Splendor comic to review in 1980. I compared Pekar's autobiographical stories of ordinary life in the city to the naturalistic novels of Theodore Drieser and called him an "original." He has a brilliant ear for off-the-cuff comic wisdom and from-the-street revelations that sound more found than created, and that nonetheless stayed with me long after the review went to print. I became a fan, buying new issues of American Splendor on my yearly trips back to Ohio.
I later met Pekar in Cleveland, soon after his marriage to Joyce Brabner -- but before he unloaded, at Joyce's insistence, a collection of jazz records stacked from floor to ceiling on all four high walls of a large room in his apartment. (The collection is only hinted at in the movie -- a decision saving the lucky set designer dozens of hours of labor).
We talked about Japanese literature (he made a list of "must read" authors from my suggestions) and comics. He was, I realized, more of a book-hoovering intellectual than he gives himself credit for in his work, in which he often comes across as an obsessive-compulsive muddling through crisis after comically mundane crisis. I also saw that his approach to housekeeping was less laissez-faire than cosmically indifferent, like a hurricane sweeping through a lifetime's accumulation of stuff, letting telephone bills and reading glasses fall where they may.
Seeing him again in Tokyo, after an interval of more than a decade, I wondered if he would remember me. (He did -- barely.) He looked thinner than I remembered him and a bit grayer, but was otherwise still the same Harvey, wearing a T-shirt and jeans that looked as though they had taken up permanent residence in his closet. He had just hurried down a snack and some of the evidence still remained on his lips and elsewhere -- but I decided not to mention it.
I worried about how to make my 40 minutes with him -- all that his publicists would spare me -- somehow different from the dozens of press interviews he had given since the success of the "American Splendor" film at the Sundance and Cannes festivals last year.
I shouldn't have sweated it. After rebooting his memory, while drilling me with an unnerving stare, Harvey unwound, glad to find a semifamilar face from home. I got out a few interview-type questions, but mostly we just talked, or as we say in Cleveland, "shot the sh*t" -- a favorite Pekar occupation.
Have you gotten any different takes from your Japanese interviewers on your work or the movie?
No they seem to get it OK, like I wanted it. They tell me that in manga they do stories about all facets of life. It's not just this Action Boy kind of kids stuff. But I haven't seen it. Apparently the more serious manga stuff hasn't come to the States. I think they know what's happening, they know what's up. They don't seem to think it weird that I do comics.
[A PR woman gives Harvey a damp cloth to wipe the food crumbs from his face -- he accepts it gratefully.]
You see how they take care of me here -- my wife won't do that. [laughs]
So people here understand where you're coming from.
I haven't had any problem with the critics. There was one hysterical lady who came in yesterday -- I don't know -- if you talk to 50 critics maybe one is going to be unusual.
What did she say?
Oh, she was saying there are about 90 suicides a day in Japan, so what advice did I have for the young men of the country.
What was your advice?
Keep breathing -- and maybe it will get better. [laughs]
Do people look at you in a funhouse-mirror kind of way? Some see you in the movie and think "that's Harvey Pekar." Some see you in the comics and think "that's Harvey Pekar." And of course, neither is you, exactly.
I imagine some people do, but when I have contact with them I present myself pretty forcefully so they know who I am. Like, I'm not always as gloomy as critics apparently think I am.
Have you had any Harvey Pekar-like moments since you've come here -- any disastrous encounters with the subway system?
No, [my Japanese handlers] have been watching out for me. I'm an incompetent guy. Like I've got food on my face -- I do that kind of thing all the time.
You've said you need to make something out of this [movie], in terms of getting work.
I do -- I'm begging [laughs]. I've got some responses. There was a guy in Westchester County [New York] who heard me making my plea. He called me up and asked me to write some literary criticism for him. It's been OK.
By the way, are you a staff member of the paper?
That's kinda rough.
Yes and no -- I don't have to go into the office.
Do they have health insurance over here?
Yes, it's universal.
The States is the only industrialized country that doesn't have it.
I sometimes think about going back [to the States] -- but reading your work, I wonder. You're still worried about making it, even though you have social security and a government pension.
You'd better take your time about going back. You know, the government's going further and further right. And Republicans have been running this thing -- especially in Ohio. They've been there forever.
[We go on to talk about the situation in Cleveland in general. Harvy says, "It's in real bad shape. They've had to lay off a bunch of policemen and firemen and a bunch of teachers too."]
Which leads to the next question. You hung out with Robert Crumb in the '60s and of course, he went off to San Francisco and you stayed in Cleveland. Did you think about that then? About 'Why am I still here?'
I know why -- I couldn't make a living with my stuff, with my writing. I've never been able to -- it's never been real popular. So I stayed in Cleveland where I had a civil service job, security. It's a big point with me.
You might have made [the comics] more commercial by making them funnier -- but you resisted that.
I can only do it one way. Maybe I would sell out if I could, but I don't know how to do that. I can only do it one way. I don't jump from style to style.
The artists do that for you.
They change things -- they change the look of the book. I make my choice based on who's available of course -- but then I make my choice based on who can do a good job doing this, who can do a good job doing that.
Now that the movie is a hit do you
have the feeling you can do anything? Do you want to do something really ambitious?
I have a few ideas in mind. There's the companion volume to "American Splendor." And there are the two Doubleday books -- the anthologies. The [companion volume] sold real well. Ballantine, which put it out, has given me a contract to do four more books. I'm working on them and they're pretty ambitious. I'm trying to do stuff that is not less than 150 pages. I can do trade paperbacks now, rather than the comic-book size. And I'm going to try to get it in regular bookstores, not the comic-book stores.
First of all, the comic-book stores have been suffering -- the stuff hasn't been selling too well and a lot of them have been going out of business. Secondly, my stuff doesn't appeal to the kids who go to comic-book stores anyway. It appeals more to older people.
A lot of the people from the underground comic movement in the '60s are still working, but there hasn't been much change, really. You go into a comic-book store and 95 percent of the stock is still fantasy and science fiction.
It's amazing. They proved that you could do other stuff -- you'd think other people would get involved in it -- but that hasn't been the case. It's worse than in the '60s when the underground movement started out. I don't know why because so much good stuff came out in the '60s and early '70s. There are still some good guys out there, but not that many. Publishers of underground comics have gone out of business.
Are you doing more television now?
Well, Howard Stern, a couple things -- but not like [my appearances on David] Letterman any more. But I'm into doing speeches at colleges. I've got a guy in California that books me. I make out real well -- that's real good money.
I do a little bit of that myself.
In the States?
I don't know what they pay you -- but maybe they pay you better in the States.
I tell him my standard lecture fee -- he recoils in disbelief.
I get more than that.
Yeah, well, you're famous [laughs].
I get paid in the thousands, man. It seems almost criminal to make that kind of money, but I take it.
What do you do exactly?
I give a speech about how I got into comics and how the movie came about. I sort of segue into that. And I answer questions. I try to be real nice to everybody. I sign all the autographs, I answer all the questions, I take pictures with everybody. I try to be humble because I am very appreciative of making that kind of money. If the comics sell consecutively, then maybe I could keep my name before the public -- maybe I could keep that going on for a longer time.
When I assure him that his stuff is going to last, he says, dubiously, "I hope so." Our 40 minutes up, he signs my copy of the "The New 'American Splendor' Anthology," while telling the PR people about "the crazy lady" from yesterday who was "talking all this crazy sh*t" and complaining about his interpreter. "[The interpreter's] been great -- and I want tell to her bosses that," Harvey says.
Another day, another crisis.
We ride down together in the elevator -- he on his way to lunch with his PR reps, me on my way home. "Man, I'm a f**k-up," he exclaims out of nowhere, with an "I can't help it" grin on his face. I grin back.
I finally have my Harvey Pekar moment.