Ed. Note: The comix world lost one of its most interesting characters and most important artists on July 12, when Harvey Pekar was found dead in his Cleveland Heights, Ohio, home. No cause of death was reported, but Pekar had been suffering from prostate cancer. A friendship with Robert Crumb resulted in the self-publication of Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor, the 1976 work for which he is best known (well, it’s either that or his contentious on-air relationship with David Letterman, whose show banned Pekar for several years after Pekar went off on GM for it multitude of corporate sins. When he was finally invited back on the air, Pekar greeted a half-hearted Letterman apology with no small degree of skepticism), which begat an endlessly watchable film starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, with the artist himself having a cameo in the movie as well. Always true to the maxim of “write what you know,” Pekar’s own life was the raw material for his comix, and nothing was sacred—following his successful treatment for lymphoma, he and his third wife, Joyce Brabner, collaborated on the graphic novel Our Cancer Year, an unflinching account of the rigors of his treatment; the experience of the movie version of American Splendor yielded American Splendor: Our Movie Year. Occasionally he ventured outside his own personal experience, though, and the results were both memorable and moving, specifically with respect to his American Splendor: Unsung Hero, a biography of Robert McNeill, an African-American veteran of the Vietnam War who worked with Pekar at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital, where Pekar was employed for 30 years after coming out of the Navy in the late ‘50s. He retired from the hospital in 2001. His discomfort and frustrations with people and the workplace, “the 99 percent of life that nobody ever writes about,” were the foundation of his art, but he also captured touching little moments that forged friendships or begat love, or simply made something better of an ordinary day. Deep down, Pekar was a pure humanist.

“The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV,” Pekar was famously quoted as saying. “It’s the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there’s no routine and everything is unexpected. That’s what I want to write about.”

At the time of his death Pekar was working on several projects as part of the “Pekar Project,” an online series hosted by Smith Magazine that paired him with a quartet of artists. According to the Project’s editor, Jeff Newelt, a new Pekar graphic novel titled Cleveland will be published in the summer of 2011 by Zip Comics and is “one-third history of Cleveland, one-third Harvey’s experiences there, and one-third biographical sketches of Cleveland characters. It’s drawn by Joseph Remnant, one of the definitive Pekar artists.” In addition, Newelt said the Project has “a number of comics” completed and ready for publication. (Source: MTV News, http://splashpage.mtv.com/2010/07/13/the-pekar-project-editor-explains-whats-next-for-harvey-pekars-unpublished-work/)

One of the most comprehensive interviews ever conducted with Harvey Pekar was conducted by a gent who calls himself Zeitgeisty and was published in February 2008 by Walrus Comix, more recently at Zeitgeisty’s own website (see links at end of interview) and now here in tribute to an American original. –David McGee


Who Is Harvey Pekar? Drawn by R. Crumb

Who Is Harvey Pekar?
By Zeitgeisty

I'm not even going to try and list all of Harvey Pekar's accomplishments in some neat little opening paragraph, with links to sites and stuff like that.. In the first place Harv doesn't even use the computer, and in the second place this kinda goes beyond that...I wouldn't even know where to begin really.. I think all I can do is write a personal note of warm thanks to Dino Haspiel for setting the interview up.. It's a rare thing when you get the chance in life to meet a real bona fide hero of yours.. It's rarer still when he turns out to be such a down to earth, sweet and yes LOVABLE guy...

I gave Harv a call on my lunch break.. and we talked for well over an hour.. I was pretty nervous, but he was fantastic... What struck me about him, was how unaware he was that so many people out there loved and respected him so much... I dunno.. I was overcome with the guy I have to say, he's a very special cat!

Who Is Harvey Pekar? Let him speak for himself...

Out of all the comix legends still out there today, you're probably the one that's had the most direct impact on the industry, not only on the artists and how they tell their stories, but on the reader as well, creating a new way of perceiving comix as part art, part entertainment, part literature and all truth. There was stuff going on before you arrived on the scene, but what you created really became the blue print for what we've come to know as independent comix. Not to mention the influence you've had on independent film and music. Do you take great pride in this legacy of yours, knowing in some way you're partly responsible for so much art both good and bad out there today...

Uh, Well to tell you the—I mean, I can't help the bad work, but as far as the good work I feel pretty good about that. Actually, it was a long process for me to develop a concept like I did. You wanna know what I did?

Of course!

pekarOk when I was a little kid—I told this story before so if it seems like its old and corny you don't have to use it. When I was a little kid, between the ages of 6 and 11, I used to read comics like a fiend. I've always been a fiend for one thing or another, either sports or a comix or, you know, jazz, different kinds of literature. Anyway, so when I got to be like in the sixth grade or something like that, I just, you know all the comic book stories, I could see that they had recurring elements and they were a lot of clichés, like the most obvious being that good always wins and other things beside that...anyway...  So I just gave up on comix from then until the underground stuff started coming out in the ‘60s with the exception of the fact that I really liked Mad Magazine a lot, I mean Kurtzman's (Harvey) work, and that was a big influence on underground comix.

So in '62, Robert Crumb moved to Cleveland from Philadelphia, and he lived about a block and a half from me and he's the guy that sort of—he and his roommate—hipped me to the underground scene, you know, and he stayed in Cleveland; he worked for the American Greeting Card company for about four years and then I guess he figured he went as far as he could go here and then moved out to San Francisco in the Winter of '66 or '67. But by that time—see I was really into underground comix and I was mainly doing jazz criticism then—I started thinking that comix were generally, you know especially in those days, people looked down on comix, if you said something was like a comic book you know, you were putting it down. But I saw there was no reason to think that they were intrinsically a limited form. 'Cause you could choose any word that was in the dictionary. You got the same choice of words as Shakespeare, and you got a huge variety of art styles that you could use. Comix are words and pictures, words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures.

So I just realized that comix at that point had never got beyond the superhero stuff, mainly because of the publishers. They were just in it to make a buck and this is what sold and they didn't want to get away from that formula. Which, I guess, if you're a businessman and you don't care about art too much, then that's what you can expect.

So anyway, I started thinking about ways that comix could expand and one thing I thought about was more realism. 'Cause comix never had a realist movement like just about all other art forms had. So I figured if I could do some realistic comix, even if people don't like 'em, then maybe I would've gained a footnote in history. And so then I thought about doing stuff about the quotidian life, you know, "everyday" life, because, for one thing, that's all I knew. I always had a flunky job and lived in these little cramped apartments and was unrelieved at that life. Day after day. But you know, I got excited about things like other people and stuff. You know, maybe I got worked up over a hundred dollars where someone else would get worked up for about a million, it's the same thing. It's all relative. It's still a lot of money; it's just a question of scale.

And also the quotidian life just is not dealt with very much in any art form because it's thought that if everybody can identify with it, then people think it's too common to write about. But I don’t.

People don't write about things like how fucked up they get when they can't find their keys or something like that so I thought people could really identify with that and would be really fresh.

American Splendor trailer—Harvey meets Joyce. 'The way Crumb draws you, with all these wavy, stinky lines...'

You invented the entire genre. So many artists, like Joe Matt and Chester Brown, for instance, took your blueprint and ran with it.

Yeah well, I think they've cited me as an influence.

But, yeah it was a long time. I didn't even start doing the comix until 1972. Crumb was visiting me, he was living in California, and I decided to write a bunch of comic book stories. These were stories that had been in my head for years. These were stories I used to tell. I was kind of like the class clown or the street corner comedian. So I had all these stories in my head and I wrote down about ten of 'em and I gave 'em to Crumb and I said, "Whaddaya think? Are these viable?" And he came back and he said, "Yeah, I'd like to take 'em home with me and draw some of this stuff" But he not only did that, illustrated some of my stories, which I think I'm about the only guy he ever did that for, which is something that really makes me feel good, 'cause I have a lot of respect for Robert's work, but he also told other guys about me and showed these stories around.

There was a guy named Willie Murphy, a real good cartoonist who died young, who did some of my stuff and that came out real nice; and some of the stuff that Bob Armstrong did. Armstrong was in Crumb's band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. He's a good cartoonist and he did some stuff, and then as time went on I started getting more ambitious and I started thinking of writing longer stories and more complex stories and they were so long that they were longer than the normal comic book of that day—some of them would be like 35 pages long. So I decided—and the comic book business was in bad shape and everyone was having a hard time placing their work—so I decided in 1975 that I would put out my own comic book—American Splendor—and I assumed I was gonna lose money on it, but I figured that I'll quit spending all this money on all these rare jazz records and it'll come out about even, and that's what happened!

And after that, I got some nice articles written about me like in the Village Voice, not a whole lot, but it was encouraging.  And so I just kept on going, that's all, and it got to be more and more important to me.


I've always found it interesting that you would continue to work at the hospital after all those years. Was it some form of Stockholm syndrome? For such a creative, intellectual guy, what was the draw? I mean you couldn't have gotten any kind of stimulation from it.

Well, I mean, first of all, there's not a whole lot of things that i can do to make money. I mean, I can't type, I mean I'm really limited. Like, Crumb can't drive, or he won’t drive, but I mean there's a lot of shit that I can’t do so I had to have some kind of a simple-ass job. So I got a simple-ass job that was not only a simple-ass job but it was steady work with the Government, so I didn't have to worry about getting laid off and I got nice fringe benefits; then I wound up with this job that was so easy that I could do it and do it well and I got praised for it, you know, some plaques for doing good work. But I mean, I was practically doing it in my sleep. It wouldn't even be bumming me out or anything 'cause it wouldn't be consuming all my attention, putting these papers away and thinking about other stuff, and bullshitting with people I worked with. My job was to go around the hospital and find lost charts and give them to medical clinics and stuff so that meant I was constantly on the move so I saw a wide variety of people and I had all kind of relationships going with different people. It wasn't really that bad.  If you're in one place and you gotta concentrate really hard on what you're doing and stuff. I don't like that. If it's stuff you don't like to do, but if you can move around and you don't have to think about the work 'cause it's so easy that that’s fine.

I can totally relate to that myself, having a job that doesn't tax your faculties. So you can just concentrate on your art...

The only thing is, after a while, you received so many critical accolades and success. You never had the opportunity to write for a newspaper or a literary magazine and have that be your steady job??

Nahhh, I never made any—(a phone rings in background) Can you hold on one second?

(returns in literally one second) Anyway, it was very, very few comic book guys that were actually making a living at it. There were a lot that were doing it, but not making a living at it, and it was important stuff but they had to do other jobs, live with their girlfriends, do something like that. I didn't come close. The most I made in a year when things were going good when I used to go to comic conventions and drag along my books and sell them to people in a booth was something like three thousand bucks. There wasn't a whole lot of interest in comix. I mean I hung around with people who were interested in them, but around the world nobody gave a shit about 'em.

Does it surprise you, your influence on the medium? I mean, what you set out to do, you actually achieved...

Yeah,  it did surprise me! Because I mean, you know, for someone to sit down and draw up a plan and then actually have it work...you know, I wasn't used to having things work out for me. So it was hard to believe that I was making that kind of progress.

It's well known you're a jazz guy. How much of an influence would you say it has on your writing? It seems a lot of your storytelling cadence has the same ebb and flow, push and pull, of a great jazz record.

Well, I just try to write economically and to the point and try to put in humour. I think what's real important to me is clarity. I want people to know what I'm talking about and not have to wrack their brain to figure out what I'm saying.

Harvey Pekar on Late Night with David Letterman: 'You're a dork, Harvey. Relax.' Letterman refers to American Splendor as 'your little Mickey Mouse magazine, your little newsletter, your Weekly Reader deal here...'

Has there ever been a time, with one of your stories where you felt you crossed the line and revealed too much about yourself or someone close to you??

Nahh. I don't think I've done anything to be ashamed of. I mean, I've got a lot of faults, which I will readily admit, but I've never murdered anybody, I've never robbed anybody or anything like that. That's serious shit. But being cheap, I'll cop to that. OK, I'm cheap, there are worse things. Who doesn't have faults?

How closely do you collaborate with your artists. Do you make graphic suggestions?

Yeah, well, when I write the scripts I'll write captions and I'll write the dialogue and stuff. I'll put the thoughts in balloons and I'll make a note in there of what I would like to see. I'm not real specific about it. I'll say, "Draw two guys talking on a street corner.” I wouldn't, I mean, if you ever seen any of Harvey Kurtzman or Alan Moore, those guys are like, they talk about every damn aspect of it, you know; they just see everything, how everything is supposed to be. Well, most people aren't like that, and I think it might actually get in the way with some artists, like I was being condescending or something. Like, "Hey, I can do this.”

You're depicted in the press as a curmudgeon/eccentric, yet your work reveals a great empathy and sensitivity. Do you feel you've been misrepresented and to what extent do you feel you've played a role in perpetuating that image?

Well, I mean, I'm depressed a lot of the time. I've actually been diagnosed as having major depression, you know. I mean, for a short period time over a year and half I was really fucked up, when I just retired and I didn't know what to do with myself. The movie hadn't come out and I was really messed up. Um, I don't know. Am I a curmudgeon? I suppose people can get that impression because I'm not a kind of guy who goes around slapping people on the back and tickle you under the chin or something but I just leave it up to other people. I don't think I'm particularly mean or anything like that. If someone calls me up out of the clear blue sky, not just for an interview, but if they want to talk to me, I mean they can invite themselves over to my house and I’ll talk to them. And some of these people, I don't know what they want from me, but, you know, I don't mind that.

Going back a bit to your job as a file clerk, you make mention of the fact that it's where the bulk of you income comes from. Your stories many times are based on your financial concerns. At the same time you're completely opposed to commercialism and “selling out.” Have there been any opportunities you've given up that might have been financially beneficial to you that you turned down based on artistic integrity?

No. Actually, I don't know how to sell out! I mean if I knew how to sell out...I mean I haven't given in to commercialism because i don't know how to give in to commercialism. If I did, I might have done it a long time ago!

Really? No one has ever made an offer, like to make an animated version of American Splendor?

Ahhh, nooooo. I mean, there were a couple of people interested before HBO, in doing a movie based on my stories and nothing happened. And it just seemed real implausible that someone would wanna spend even as little as a million dollars on a movie based on a comic book that sold a couple of thousand issues a year.

But you were a celebrity on David Letterman. I've known of you since I was a kid. the name Harvey Pekar has always been a big name to me. No one has ever thought of cashing in on that?

Nahh, I never got any kind of offers. In fact when I went on Letterman's show, the main reason I went on his show was to improve the circulation of my book and find more customers.. But the sales did not improve.


But, with the movie they did improve. I dunno, the movie made a bigger impact than my appearance on Letterman, I guess. It got hundreds and hundreds of reviews and, I'm not taking credit for it, but it was a pretty good movie and it won a Sundance Award.

Which just shows you that your story is compelling. It would stand to reason that an animated cartoon based on your stories would be a success.

Well, I mean right now I'm doing OK. Of course I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know, for something bad to happen. I'm always fearing that there's something bad around the corner, something I got from my mother, you know, pessimism. She's always telling me "There's another Hitler around the corner." Always stuff like that.

You've never left Cleveland, you continued to work at the hospital, your entire legacy is based on elevating the daily struggle to literary heights or as you say the “Quotidien Life.” Youe entire existence has been shaped by the routines you've entrenched yourself in. It's a pretty common phenomenon with geniuses. Have you always been a creature of habit? Do you consider yourself a genius?

I've never seen a satisfactory definition of the word genius, so I just as soon not get into that.

Okay, literary genius.

Yeah, I know, but I mean, it doesn't really mean anything to me to be a genius. I'll accept when someone says you really did a good job on something or even a great job on something. OK, that's fine, but if someone tells me I'm a genius, well, I don't really know what a genius is. It's used very loosely and maybe it should be cut out of our vocabulary. I'm thinking that some people think a genius is someone who has a high IQ even though he's not creative.

Everyone has their own idea of what a genius is. What was the other question?

Have you always been a creature of habit?

Yeah. I've always been kind of compulsive. Obsessive and compulsive. Always ruminating, thinking about stuff over and over...

That's tied into depression. I have the same thing. You started your odyssey off creating a new paradigm, taking what the underground comix movement did to the next level. Your early stuff was existential, powerful, filled with yearning. How has your work changed/impacted by your wife and kid?

Well, not too much. I mean, I don't think they had any...the direction that I chose to move in was already established before I met them. My wife originally contacted me because I was, in her eyes anyway, an established comic book artist. She wanted me to get her an issue of one of my comix that had gotten away from her. So that's how we started corresponding and then finally met each other.

How has your work been changed/impacted by your health crises?

Well it made me more fearful. I worried more than I usually did. Now I'm 68 years old and I'm not running any faster, so I guess I'm in physical decline, and that sort of depresses me, when I can't jump over something like I used to be able to.

The way you documented your health crisis through your work was remarkably brave. Did you surprise yourself at all during that process? With your courage, your perseverance? Did you think you had it in you?

I had cancer twice, the second time was after I retired. But the first time I was off of work for months,  and I had built up so much sick leave that I didn't miss a pay check 'cause I never used to use my sick leave and stuff; and sure enough, it was like having a lot of money in the bank when I finally did have a problem. I just kept getting my sick leave and I went back to work when I felt OK. Like I said, the work wasn't all that demanding, so it wasn't like it was messing me up

Your life was made into the movie American Splendor. That must have been a surreal experience. You got a taste of the whole Hollywood machinery. Did it leave you wanting more?

It wasn't made by Hollywood-type film makers. They were independent film makers like Ted Hope. I don't know if you know him.

From Good Machine?

Yeah, right. He tries to make really good arty movies, you know, artful, and he's worked with Ang Lee a lot, the famous Chinese director who's so well thought of and did a version of The Hulk. He-he-he!!.

It wasn't one of my favorites..

Nahh. And Bob Pulcini and Shari Berman were the ones that wrote the script and directed it. They were just starting out. They had been to school and everything and had made a couple of short documentary things, but they hadn't had done any kind of commercial work at all. And the thing was shot within a month and was shot all in Cleveland, so there wasn't really anything glamorous about it. I just used to go down there every day 'cause I liked to eat the food that they made for the crew. (laughs)

But it went to all these major festivals. Surely you must have gotten some kind of tertiary Hollywood experience from it all?

I mean, to the extent that I didn't like it, I thought I wouldn't like it, and I didn’t like it. You meet a lot of shallow, kind of fucked-up people who don't have anything together. There's people that are really pathetic. Like the guy who was the distributor of the film threw a big party and he invited Paris Hilton. My kid happened to be outside and it was pretty cold in the wintertime, even though it was L.A. And here comes Paris Hilton arriving at our party and she fell into the pool! I mean, I feel sorry for her...

I mean, I can eat what I want, I got the stuff I want, I guess she got the stuff she wants maybe, even though the stuff she wants costs more. I mean I'm satisfied with my material stuff. I dunno. But she's portrayed as a buffoon, you know, a stupid rich girl and all that kind of stuff. It’s pathetic, man.

I know your wife is very political, Do you share any of her fervor? As we're in another one of those election years, I have to ask the question: Are you throwing your endorsement towards any particular candidate?

Yeah I'm into politics, I always have been, but you know, I'm not an activist. But I vote in every election and stuff like that.

So the Ohio primary is coming up. Who are you going to vote for?

Who do I want?


Well, Obama.

For one thing, I wouldn't be dissatisfied with Hillary Clinton, but I don't think she could beat John McCain. I mean, there are people that really, really hate her! You know, for no good reason. She's like a regular kind of politician or something like that. But I don't know that she's ever done anything that horrible! But Obama, I mean, I dunno what kind of President he would be but he's certainly handling his campaign intelligently, even if that just means he knows what people to pick. He's picked up momentum and the areas he wants to improve are areas that I think need improving, and I think he stands the best chance of beating McCain.

McCain's not the worst Republican, but he wants to stay in Iraq, he said, like a 100 years. I dunno if he really meant that, but he just thinks that we gotta win the war there, or something like that. He may just continue Bush's policy in the Middle East; also he's a fiscal conservative and I don't think that's a wise thing to be. He doesn't talk about problems like the growing gulf between the rich and the poor in this country. That's an issue that's real important to me. I think you have to try and improve society from the bottom up. So if you wanna cut the income tax, you cut it for poor people. The rich people can fend for themselves. What you gotta do, is you gotta fix what's broken.

You gotta guy who’s making good money, you know, pays a thousand, two thousand, maybe even ten thousand more in income taxes, he can still get along.. But there are some people that are so fucked up that, I mean groups of people and stuff, I think they should be the priority.

Would you ever consider doing a book strictly on politics?

pekarI have, although, not about domestic politics. I did a book called Macedonia and nobody was writing about Macedonia at all in prose. I thought what was happening over there was pretty important, so I wrote that with this woman who went over there, Heather Roberson, and I just got a book out. I didn't do the whole thing, but I made a pretty significant contribution to it, about SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that just came out not too long ago, and I wrote a thing about the history of the Beat Generation. Now the guy who wanted me to do the SDS thing and the Beat Generation thing, he asked me to do a history of the Middle East, which I can do, which I actually have done, and I don't know whether anyone will actually like it or not, but I've got a structure. I don't have a conclusion yet. I sent him what I've done so far and I wanna swap ideas with him about how he thinks I should tie it up. So that's another project that I'm involved in.

I've also written a biography of Lenny Bruce. It's just been delayed and delayed.

Is it going to be turned into a graphic novel?

Yeah, yeah, these are all graphic novels.

So you're working on a lot of stuff then.

Yeah, I'm trying to work as much as I can, because this is really my only serious source of income. I can't make it on my pension and my Social Security combined, and I don't know how long I'm gonna keep on being able to make these comics. I'm gonna try and get as much work as I possibly can while I can, see what happens. I don't really have much choice.

That's an amazing thing to hear, because you're a living legend. You would think you would be this rich successful guy...

But my stuff is not real popular. I mean, look at James Joyce—he never was rich.

But Crumb, who I think has been directly influenced by you—I mean, he influenced you as well, but in turn you influenced him—and he's living in a chalet in France!

Yeah, that he bought with a boxful of sketchbooks.

You couldn't sell your original manuscripts?

Nahh, I don't think that there's any market for that. I never heard anything—

I would think that it would probably go for a lot of money.

I dunno. I guess that's something that needs to be looked into. (laughs)

Put some signed stuff on Ebay and it'll go for a lot of money I can tell you that!!

Well, I'll tell my wife, I can't use the computer. But I'll tell my wife to put something on Ebay and we'll see what it brings...

Yeah, you should.

But I'm saying there have been people that have been considered successful artists that really haven't made much money. I mean Joyce's books didn't sell!  Who was gonna subsidize him?  Not too many people did. You know, he wasn't exactly poverty-stricken, but he lived in pretty modest circumstances, you know.

Do you think It's better to live in modest circumstances and be a creative force than to be rich and be like a Paris Hilton?

No I don't think it's good to be like Paris Hilton under any circumstances. She's just adrift; she doesn't seem like she has any kind of values or anything.

Do you think that's endemic of the current generation?

No, I guess, there's always been spoiled rich kids. She's not new in that respect; she's real naïve. She doesn't know anything about anything but the people she hangs out with—her class of people. I'm perfectly satisfied to live in modest circumstances and if I can be creative then fine. What I'm kinda worried about is how long will I be able to do this stuff? For one thing, I see some economic hard times coming up; I see less people reading; and I worry that the demand for my work, which is not tremendous at this point anyway, that there won’t be any demand.

I don't see that. Everyone I know knows your work, first off, and is a big fan across the board. You're a beloved figure.

Well, I hope you're right. 'Cause I'm not meeting people like that. I'm just sitting at home and writing. You know, I go to the post office, I go to the grocery store. That's what I do.

You were never interested in going to places like New York, where people know who you are and appreciate you so much?

I hate traveling. Especially since they got all that crap at the airports and everything, they make you check everything and., you know, and you wind up forgetting stuff at the station and you come home without your coat, something like that 'cause it was a warm day and you took it off and draped it over a chair and forgot you were wearing it. No, I don't like to travel and also I got a really rotten sense of direction.

If I was always with somebody that could keep me from getting lost, or something like that, I would feel a lot better about traveling. I kind of dug the fact that when I was going around publicizing the movie they always had some nice looking young girl, they sometimes called them "handlers,” that they'd assign me and they would take me around to all these different places, shlep me around so I didn't get lost. They knew what subway to take, bus, taxi, whatever. So if I could get a situation like that going, someone to lead me around, that would be pretty good.

bourdain-pekarJust to mention how beloved you are, that episode of the Anthony Bourdain show, No Reservations. You know, the Cleveland show. You do know that that was the most popular show of his ever. That was the one that people talked about. Everyone says, "Oh I loved the Cleveland show with Pekar!!"

You know, it's funny. I thought that show came off good, and it wasn't just because of me. I thought there were a lot of good things about the show and I like Bourdain an awful lot. I think he's a real nice guy. But you know in Cleveland, some people really hated it. Because of the fact that they showed these crumbling factories and stuff like that and lousy neighborhoods, which that's all there is in Cleveland. (laughs)

There's not even many straight middle class—I mean everything is falling to pieces here. The population has been cut in half and..,

Anyway, so people got mad because, they said, "Well why didn't he talk about the Cleveland Orchestra,” cause that's one of the world's best orchestras; or "Why didn't he talk about the Art museum?” 'cause we got a good art museum. You know, there's some things about Cleveland that are kind of nice like that.

But it was a show based on your work, seen through your eyes.

Yeah, we discussed ideas about where to go and everything. That book store (Zubal book store, former Hostess Twinkie factory, http://www.zubalbooks.com/), that was a real nice experience...

Yeah that looked amazing.

Especially that 50-year-old Twinkie filling.

Anthony Bourdain meets Harvey Pekar: one  of the most popular of Bourdain’s No Reservations episodes.

When I heard about that I flipped. They said, "Yeah, that stuff is still good, you can eat it. Go ahead." Some people would just turn on the thing and eat some of that Twinkie filling...

What role has cinema played in your work?

I don't know that it's had a tremendous influence on me. I mean there are some films that I really like. I guess the stuff that I think is the best stuff I've ever seen is the Italian neo-realist films, like The Bicycle Thief. That's really moving to me.

Do you believe that print comix is a dying art form?

Well, I don't think that books should die. It doesn't say much about the human race that people much prefer television and the internet to books. I mean I'm not saying there's not a place for stuff like that, but you can't duplicate the experience of reading a book by watching something on television.I mean it's a unique experience, a real private experience, an intimate experience. You know you're holding the thing in your hand and reading it at your own pace.

Yeah it's a completely different gestalt!

Yeah, whatever that means. (laughs)

Harvey Pekar as illustrated by Comix legend Bill Griffith

Are there any artists out there today that you enjoy at all?

I don't read too many comic books. You talking about comic book artists?


Well, there's some guys that are good, sure. I mean a lot of people I like. Still today I think the best alternative comix were done in the ‘60s; people like Frank Stack and Spain Rodriguez. But there are guys today like Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, a bunch of people—Joe Matt...

Well, he loves you. We did an interview with him and he mentioned how big an influence you were on him.

Yeah I know. He told me. I wrote a blurb for this book called Spent that he did. Yeah I feel like, you know, he feels like he's so much in my debt that it's embarrassing.

I'm sure a lot of people feel that way.

"Without you, there wouldn't be a Joe Mattt!” You know, that kind of thing... Well, I dunno, anyway…

So three quick questions: Favorite muscial artist?

Oh, I don't have a favorite musical artist. There's too many. I mean if you wanna talk about favorite traditional jazz artists, you wanna break it down, maybe I could say Louis Armstrong.

Favorite Modern Jazz artist?

Probably, like the best guy was Charlie Parker. He was very talented...

Any albums spring to mind?

Yeah, tons of them. A lot of stuff Miles Davis did. Charlie Parker.  Coltrane. Thelonius Monk, and then, you know, Duke Ellington. I was into all periods of jazz and I really think I appreciated all of them. I liked all of them. I didn't have one that I didn't pay attention to. I listened to them all and I learned about them all..

Whose record collection is more impressive, yours or Robert Crumb's?

Well, mine is gone. My wife got rid of it all.

She got rid of them all?

Well, they were sitting around and I wasn't listening to much music at all. They were taking up a lot of space and it was driving her nuts. She couldn't turn around without bumping into a pile of records. She kept on me and on me, and records became less important to me, so that finally she got a decent price from some guy, for the CDs anyway. She sold those. Crumb only collects 78s and he only likes music from 1933 and before. So you be the judge! (laughs)

I guess it depends on what you think a good record collection is. For me, Crumb's tastes are pretty narrow. He gets along. One thing about him is if it's old, he doesn't seem to care about the genre, he just likes it. He likes old folk music and old pop, corny old pop stuff.

Do you still hang out?

Nooo. I never see him. He doesn't come around here anymore. He's always in France...and um...he used to come to the midwest. There’s still a lot of people that he knows. It's probably just depressing for him. He just goes to New York and then he goes to…he's got some girlfriend in Oregon that he goes and sees sometimes.

I can't remember the last time I talked to him. We’re still on good terms as far as I know. I wish him the best of luck and he did me a tremendous favor by getting me into comix. It’s one of the turning points of my life, no doubt about it. And it probably wouldn't have been possible without his encouragement.

Speaking of friends, do you still hang out with Toby (Radloff)?

Nahh, not anymore. I used to hang out with him a little bit. I mean I worked with him. We would be in the same place, but he moved all the way to the other side of town, for one thing, and I just gradually lost connection with him. Although, whenever I hear about a movie being made here, I try and get him into it. Like that Bourdain thing, you know... I got him into that... God has he gotten fat! Did you see that when he was in the cafeteria line, and the first thing he got was two huge pieces of cake? (laughs) Dessert first.

Genuine Nerd Toby Radloff

How did you relate to Toby? On what level?

Well, you know, see I think, I'm almost sure Toby's autistic—

Yeah, Asperger's Syndrome.

Which is a form of autism. In some ways it’s kind of hard to relate to him, 'cause he doesn't, well, if you tell him a joke, for example, he won't get it, He'll just stand there and look at you and then he'll get off on something that you don't see any point in. But he's high functioning, he's a good worker, he was a pretty good student when he was in school—and, you know, he's a real entertaining guy, intentionally or not, and so I liked being around him. You never knew what was gonna come out of him...

He really would like to make it in, uh, get in as many movies as possible. I got him in some stuff. He doesn't care if they pay him or not, not really.

Being a depressive type of guy—I'm one as well so I'm speaking from my own perspective—was working in a hospital with someone like Toby, in that vibe, ever get you down?

No Toby never depressed me. He used to delight me. You never knew what he was gonna say.

So he was a lift...

When he first got on the media, what happened was I had just been on the Letterman show. And MTV sent somebody out to do a story on me at the VA Hospital and I was just taking them around and showing them different things. I introduced them to Toby and after five minutes with him they kicked me to the curb! I can't compete with that guy...

There was one guy who was really in Toby's corner, this one producer. He did a whole bunch of stuff with Toby, but when he quit working for MTV, I guess nobody picked up the ball.

Toby (Judah Friedlander) talks to Harvey (Paul Giamatti) about White Castle burgers and driving 260 miles to another town to see Revenge ofThe Nerds: 'I consider myself a nerd, and this movie has uplifted me.'

One final question: Who's your favorite cartoon character? Is it yourself?

Well, it has to do with the artist, not the character. When I was a kid I used to like Captain Marvel, but since it was revived. it's probably shitty. But the original guy who created him, it was sort of like a satire on comics, you know, I dunno. I like an awful lot of stuff.

Well your stuff is our favorite.

Well, thank you...

So many people were so excited when they learned Walrus Comix would be interviewing you—

Well I hope it goes over good.

I know it will. Thank you so much, Harvey, for this opportunity again.

No problem. Call me any time.

February 2008, Walrus Comix (http://www.walruscomix.com/pekarinterview.html)

Reposted on February 5, 2010 by the author, who goes by the nom de plume Zeitgeisty, at The Zeitgeisty Report.

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