Harvey Pekar's life is an open book, and an illustrated one at that. A Cleveland file clerk, vaunted misanthrope, and avid record collector born in 1939, Pekar launched a unique career in the mid-'70s, when he started documenting his life in grim, detail-oriented comic books. He was never an artist himself–from the beginning, he scripted his pages using stick figures, then turned them over to artists such as his old friend, underground comics legend Robert Crumb. But Pekar put his indelible personal imprint on every issue of his American Splendor series, as he told stories about his frustrations over slow supermarket checkout lines, uncooperative cars, dating, work, jury duty, money, and more. Never one to smooth over his own rough edges, he consistently portrayed himself as an embattled but defeatist curmudgeon, primarily concerned with financial survival, the occasional scrap of fame or respect, and the seemingly impossible task of finding happiness in a depressing world. Although Pekar won the American Book Award in 1987, his work never caught on big with the mainstream. But his pioneering style earned him respect in the underground-comics scene, and his contentious personality led him to repeated appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, until he spoke up too often about his opinion of NBC's parent company, General Electric. Pekar has appeared in the documentaries Comic Book Confidential and Vinyl, written award-winning radio commentary, and reviewed music and books for publications from The Boston Herald to Downbeat magazine. His collected work includes American Splendor: The Life And Times Of Harvey Pekar, The New American Splendor Anthology, and Our Cancer Year, a document of his battle with cancer, co-written with his wife, activist Joyce Brabner. Pekar's comics finally made it to film this year, as writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini collaborated on a movie bearing the American Splendor name. The result is a daring, creative cinematic biography in which the real-life Pekar alternately provides narration for actors portraying his life story and appears onscreen to fill in the details and answer questions. While touring to promote the movie, Pekar was characteristically glum about his prospects, as he spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the film version of American Splendor, his reasons for writing comics and criticism, and why he can't portray himself more heroically.
The Onion: Why did you originally call the comic American Splendor?
Harvey Pekar: It was an ironic title that I got from… There were all these DC comics in the '40s called All-American Comics, or Star-Spangled Comics, or whatever. You know, patriotic comics. So I got "American" from that, and "Splendor" from the movie Splendor In The Grass, and I sort of stuck 'em together. Seemed funny to me, because I thought most people would think my life was hardly splendor-filled, you know?
O: All these years later, are you still happy with the title?
HP: Yeah, I'm still happy with it. I'm still not doing that great.
O: In the comic, you've depicted yourself as only interested in television appearances and articles about yourself because of the attention they call to your comic-book work. Was that true about the movie American Splendor, as well?
HP: Well, I couldn't answer that until I had seen the film. Now that I've seen it… It's an excellent film, and I'm interested in it in its own right. I'm very enthusiastic about it.
O: What was the process of making the film like for you?
HP: It was easy. I mean, I didn't really make any decisions. They chose the cast. The directors had a special vision for how they wanted to do the thing, so they were the only ones who could write the script, and I didn't have anything to do with that. I wasn't used as an advisor, or anything like that. I just used to go down to the set and hang around and mooch free meals and talk to the people there that I liked.
O: At what stage did you realize that they wanted you to be part of the film?
HP: That was just about when they started. I had heard from Bob and Shari, the directors, that they meant to use me, but I didn't realize how much double-casting they were going to do, and how much they wanted to use me, until I actually got down there and started to see what they were doing.
O: Were any of your interview segments pre-scripted?
HP: They asked me questions and led me through a lot of it. I mean, I think some of the narrative sections might have been pre-scripted, but with the stuff with Toby [a coworker of Pekar's, and a self-avowed "genuine nerd" featured prominently in the American Splendor movie], and stuff like that, they asked me questions and I improvised the answers.
O: Has Toby seen the film yet?
HP: Oh, yeah, he's here in New York promoting it. He's seen it multiple times. He loves it.
O: How accurate was the film version of your history?
HP: There were some changes made to protect people's identities, and to make it possible to get the whole thing into the time they had allowed. They telescoped a few events and stuff, but it's quite true to the feeling of the story, and to the actual facts of the story. As improbable as that may seem. All the stuff about Joyce and me and our courtship, that's true.
O: It did seem like that was cut down a bit from the version in the comic.
HP: Well, we spent an awful lot of time on the phone, and corresponding… In the movie, you don't get the feeling of how long we knew each other before we finally met. We'd been talking for months before that. But getting engaged on the first date… That's not even the first time that's happened to me.
O: You've gotten engaged on the first date before?
HP: Yeah, or second date, something like that. I've been married three times. That kind of stuff happens to me. This one's lasted 20 years, so Joyce is a great wife. I love her, and I'm glad I married her.
O: How long does it typically take you to sit down and script a story? Do you do a lot of revision, or is it more of a stream-of-consciousness first draft?
HP: It doesn't take me that long. I revise as I go along. I'll write a few panels, I'll look at it, I'll think about it, and maybe I'll change something. Usually, I don't write something complete and then completely rewrite it.
O: When you started out, did you ever question why other people would be interested in the mundane details of one man's life?
HP: Yeah. I mean, I never thought that I had it made commercially with this kind of writing. But I thought I would try and do it anyway. I figured I'd lose money, actually, which I did at first. Even then, there wasn't much of a market for alternative comics. But, you know, I figured, "I'm writing about everybody. The stuff I'm writing about happens to everybody, so maybe there'll be an audience for it."
O: Given your famous attitude toward money, what made the comic so important for you that you were willing to take an almost guaranteed financial loss on it?
HP: Just doing something creative and being an artist. Doing something innovative. I was spending a lot of money on record collecting and stuff. I'm cheap, and then I squander money, too, on some things. So I was spending a lot of money on record collecting, and I decided I would cut it out, that this was more important. So I just shifted the money over. It didn't make that much difference in my overall standard of living. The money I eventually lost on the comic, I would have just spent on records anyway.
O: In one of the comics in the first American Splendor compilation, you portray yourself as stopping your story, turning to the audience, and saying, "What am I saying in this story? What do I want you to come away with? I dunno." When you're writing, do you often think that way, about what you're trying to get across?
HP: It depends. It varies from story to story. Sometimes I want to convey something complex philosophically, and sometimes I just want to portray myself in a situation that I think other people have been in many times, but it hasn't been written about much. So I can just sit down and write it and hope people get the message, which may be, "Don't be upset about this, because it happens to a lot of people, including me."
O: Has it ever occurred to you that you're too hard on yourself, that you're judging and portraying yourself too harshly?
HP: I don't want to play myself up as a hero, because it would make me unbelievable. I'd rather settle for people thinking that I'm a bum, but digging my stories, than liking me and not being able to believe in my stories. That's one reason I've been hard on myself, because I want my stuff to be believable. I mean, I'm not being… Some people think I'm even worse than I depict myself in my stories. [Laughs.] I'm not saying everybody, but some people think I'm maybe more eccentric, or something like that.
O: What do you hope to get out of the film?
HP: The best thing I can reasonably hope for is just to get more work. More freelance writing work.
O: Do you read other people's comics? Are you a fan of anything in particular?
HP: Not much anymore. I've gotten more and more cut off from the regular comic-book world, from straight comics and stuff like that. Once in a while, I'll take a look at something. There's good stuff out there, though there's not much being published now. Comics, especially alternative comics, are in bad shape.
O: How do you feel about the other media you've been involved with?
HP: I can only do… I'm not real versatile. I can't write in a whole lot of different styles, trying to please the highbrows one time and the lowbrows the next. I pretty much have a basic style I employ. And I need to make extra money at this point, to support myself and my family, because I'm retired and on a pension. So I'll take a job from just about anybody, and I'll try to do it to the best of my ability. I've got this weird combination of… I like a lot of esoteric and avant-garde fiction, for example, and music, too. But I write about it in kind of stubby little sentences. It's like the opposite of pretentious. And some editors would like my stuff to be fancier. I've had a problem with that over the years. I'll be talking about technical stuff, but in a simple, comprehensible way. But I've worked with a lot of highbrow and lowbrow publications over the years, a range of them, in just about every medium I've worked with.
O: What about comic books? Why are they your chosen medium?
HP: Well, there are a few reasons. Today, like 30 years after I started doing them, they're still a really unexplored form. Most of the stories are aimed at kids, or people with the intellect of an adolescent. They're superhero kind of stories, which I don't have a whole lot of use for. I read 'em when I was in elementary school, and I got tired of 'em then. But there's no limit on what you can do in comics. You can use any word in the dictionary, and get a whole variety of different art styles, many of which haven't been used in comics before. There's all kinds of room for experimentation. In other words, there's a lot of room for innovation in comics, and that's what I'm into. I'm really into trying to do something new. And also, I'm into how you can tell stories in comics in a sequential-panel style, the way you can break up dialogue with panels to punctuate a story. I like the way you can time a story with panels.
O: Has your process changed at all over the years?
HP: As far as writing stories? I still use the stick-figure forms and everything. The subjects change as time goes on. I go from being a fairly young guy to being a middle-aged guy, and now I'm gettin' pretty old. Also, the last comic books I wrote were biographical instead of autobiographical. They were about an African-American guy I worked with at the V.A. hospital, that I really liked a lot. [Robert McNeill's story was told in a three-issue American Splendor arc published by Dark Horse Comics in 2002. –ed.] He had been a decorated hero in the Vietnam War. I was real interested in his experiences, and he was an excellent storyteller. He'd tell me stuff, and I wouldn't hardly have to change a word. So that marked a change for me, a departure from autobiographical comics. Though when I was working, people would always come around asking me, "How come I'm not in your latest book?" and stuff like that. I've written other stories with a strong biographical element, where I haven't been the protagonist–I've just been a vehicle for them to tell their stories. I don't look at the comics as there strictly to tell my story. I try to write about the life and times of people like me.
O: Can you pinpoint anything that makes a given person's story worth telling for you?
HP: No. Some of them are dramatic, and some of them are humorous. Somebody's story just strikes me as a story I could do justice to. I think everybody's stories are interesting, actually. But if it's something I could do justice to, I'll try to write it.
O: Your early comics documented a lot of depression and introspection. Did writing them, or reading them afterward, ever help you put your problems into perspective or deal with them?
HP: Not really. I mean, I knew I was going through that stuff. What would help me was reading somebody else's account of going through a bad experience like I was going through. It's that "misery loves company" principle. It put my problems in perspective, and it made me feel better to know that other people were going through the same kind of stuff. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff I was going through was not considered heavy enough for guys to write about. For example, I have this chronic problem with losing things, and it drives me crazy. It's very upsetting, and probably a symptom of a larger problem. But I didn't used to read about people losing their glasses, losing their keys, stuff like that. I also have problems with mechanical stuff. I only recently learned how to type, and I'm still a two-finger typist. The only reason I learned was I couldn't get around it. I've written a lot of reviews, and they wanted me to send in stuff over the Internet. So my wife got me a word processor, and I started writing things on the computer, and she'd send my reviews in on a floppy disc to various magazines. So that worked out until the word processor fell apart–it lasted 12, 14 years–and I needed to get something else. They weren't making this kind of word processor anymore, where you could stick a floppy disc in there. So my wife just picked up a laptop, and I'm trying to learn to use that.
O: Speaking of using computers, you've been keeping a web-log for a few months at harveypekar.com. What has that been like?
HP: Oh, it's been okay. Fine Line pays me for it, and I'm supposed to turn in two stories a week, or something like that. They just want diary-like entries. At first, I was aiming at something more ambitious, but then I found out that they don't really want anything that ambitious, just what happened during my day. So I try to come up with interesting stuff to talk about, like stuff that happens not only to me, but to my daughter and wife. Or stuff that happens on this tour.
O: Has it been rewarding, other than financially? Would you be interested in continuing it after Fine Line stops paying you for it?
HP: No, probably not. I'm interested in writing, but I'd probably want to develop the stories more and use them in comics, rather than just do little 150-word, 200-word essays.
O: Has having a web presence put you in touch with more of your fans?
HP: I don't get a lot of e-mails from people, and that's probably just as well, because I wouldn't know how to answer them. I'm really limited technologically. I've been like that ever since I was a little kid. I just freeze up when you show me how to use a machine or tool or something like that. I think I've got a learning disability or something in that respect. I never had problems with regular subjects in school, like English and math. But if we had to take shop, or mechanical drawing, or stuff like that… In mechanical drawing, your drawings were supposed to be neat, but mine were always smudged and erased, like a little kid's.
O: In your web-log, you talk about selling off your record collection, and then rebuilding it, and then selling it off again. Where are you in that process now?
HP: I'm mainly trying to get rid of the records. My house is so loaded with stuff, you can barely move. Even now, it's real bad. I've gotten rid of a few thousand records, but I still have many, many more to get rid of. I've got a huge book collection, which I'm less anxious to get rid of, because in the future, I think I'm going to concentrate more on book criticism than music criticism.
O: Is music still a significant part of your life?
HP: Yeah, it is, and I still try to solicit work writing about music. But jazz writing jobs are getting harder and harder to come by. It's not a real popular form these days. I try and do what I can, but it's difficult to find a publication that'll publish my stuff every week.
O: When you do write criticism, are you looking for more notoriety, or to spread your opinions, or just to earn money, or is it something else?
HP: A variety of things motivate me, and it's been different things at different periods of my life. Right now, money is a factor. Before, when I was in my 30s and didn't have anybody dependent on me… But a lot of that stuff I've written, in all periods of my life, has been just for the sheer joy of writing and discovering things. I like doing scholarship, too. Like, I did a lot of work on the origin of stream-of-consciousness writing, the origin of that technique. I followed it back past earlier than James Joyce. I've never read a study exactly like the kind I've done, where I take out examples in 1898 and 1904 of writers writing stream-of-consciousness passages. Joyce's Ulysses came out in 1922, so a lot of stuff had happened before then, and I was really excited to make these discoveries that apparently even academic scholars weren't aware of. At least I hadn't found them in their work. I'm really interested in the development of a certain style, or the development of a certain musician's style in their work. I love making discoveries. What attracts me most about writing criticism and historical articles is coming up with new ideas about what people contributed, or the evolution of a particular art form.
O: Do you have a favorite artist, or a favorite depiction of yourself in the comic?
HP: No, not really. I mean, the people I've worked with, the quality of their work obviously varies. I've had to get books out, and when I was putting out those 60-page books back in the '70s and '80s, the people I worked with all had day jobs. Nobody had time to devote to doing an entire one of those. So I would try to get a group of guys together to do them. It was pretty interesting. I liked the idea of trying to match up a story with an artist who was particularly good at drawing those kinds of stories. Of course, Crumb is a great artist. He's certainly one of the best that I've worked with. Another guy is possibly in a class with Crumb, but doesn't have anywhere near the recognition–a guy named Frank Stack. He illustrated Our Cancer Year. He's brilliant, a superb artist, and arguably the first underground cartoonist. He did a thing in 1960 called The Adventures Of Jesus, which Crumb, among others, considers the first underground comic book. There've been other really good people that I've worked with off and on over the years.
O: Have you ever done a story in the comic that you regretted doing at some point afterward?
HP: I can't think of one offhand, but that doesn't mean I haven't. I guess that's something I'd have to think about more.
O: Are there aspects of your life, or events, that you wouldn't ever write about?
HP: I guess there are a few, yeah. But people always tell me about "Wow, how could you tell people about this or that? How could you write about this thing, or that thing, in your life?" I'm willing to reveal more about myself than most writers are.
O: When people meet you in person, do they comment about how much you are or aren't like the versions of you in the comic?
HP: Not too often. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe they really think I'm a jerk, I don't know.
O: You frequently reference your Jewishness in your comic, and interview other Jews, and tell individual stories about Jews in America. But you don't seem to have written much about the religious aspect of Judaism.
HP: That's because I'm not that interested in it. I'm interested in it from a sociological standpoint, but I'm not interested in religion, really, except as it sparks other things in society.
O: Like what?
HP: Well, it's just the context I grew up in. Aspects of it interest me quite a bit, and I like to write about it. For example, I like to write about the left-wing political influences that I had in the Jewish community in the '40s and '50s, when there were still a lot of Jews who were socialists or communists. They'd become radicalized in Europe, where most of the regimes were anti-Semitic, or at least not very helpful to Jews. Those kinds of things interest me.
O: What do you do for fun?
HP: I don't do a whole hell of a lot for fun. I sit around and worry all day long. I'm just trying to get my life in order again, to get these freelance writing jobs. After I get writing gigs, I try to take care of them as soon as I can. I'm trying to get myself on some kind of schedule, so I don't feel like I'm at loose ends. That's what I'm mainly doing. I'm not having a lot of fun these days, because my life is so irregular, so chaotic. I don't know where my next paycheck is coming from. I want to regularize that, so I can take some stuff for granted, like people getting me gigs, and getting paid for them.
O: It seems like worries over money and scheduling have been a steady theme in your work for the past 30 years. Would you be able to enjoy peace and prosperity if you had it? Would you know what to do with it?
HP: If I got everything I wanted? Well, there have been times I've been happier than others, I'll say that. I don't know, though. Maybe I'm ruined. [Laughs.] Maybe I'm just so screwed-up and flawed that nothing would make me happy. But I'm still tryin'.