3rd Degree: Harvey Pekar

On the plague of superhero comics, fighting, and the let-down of being a film character
Harvey Pekar is a comic hero, the hard-luck central character of his ongoing autobiographical American Splendor, an illustrated chronicle of his life so far. He doesn’t draw, but he delivers his words and stick-figure storyboards to a wide range of comic artists – from R. Crumb to Tony Millionaire – who help make sense of the ordinary struggles of an ordinary guy in Cleveland, Ohio. Crumb himself once described the result as “so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic!” But it has touched a nerve for three decades. And it has brought Pekar fame and no fortune.

Not much changed even after his life story was turned into 2003’s acclaimed film version of American Splendor. But, now that he’s retired from his job as a civil-service file clerk, he keeps even busier as a writer. He has a wife and kid to support, he keeps saying. Pekar has just released The Quitter, which recounts the internal struggles of his young adulthood – his first book for the Vertigo wing of DC Comics (which will also publish the next volume of Splendor). He recently contributed a story to author Michael Chabon’s comic book The Escapist, and he continues to write about music and politics for his hometown weekly, The Free Times. The personal stories keep rolling on, feeding his comics pages and bad attitude.

“You gotta go through shit, man,” Pekar says. “You gotta go through it all your life. There’s no end to it.”

–Steve Appleford

CityBeat: I noticed you blogged for a while in 2003.
Harvey Pekar: You want to know why I’m not blogging anymore? Because they were paying me to blog. And I hate computers and stuff like that. They drive me nuts. My kid would get me on the thing, and then I would type out some type of a blog, then she would send it in for me. But when the money stopped coming in, I didn’t keep it up.

Do you think anyone’s life can be made interesting to a reader?
Yeah, virtually anyone’s life. If they live long enough.

How did The Quitter come about?
The guy who illustrated it, Dean Haspiel, hooked me up with the people who made the American Splendor movie. I asked him what I could do in return, and he said he would like to illustrate a long work of mine. He had connections at DC Comics, and they were interested, and they wanted me to do a graphic novel. I’ve been covering my life pretty closely since I started doing autobiographical comic books in 1972. But I hadn’t been doing a lot of stuff about my life prior to that. I decided I would do a narrative about my life, mainly from when I was a little kid to when I was in my 20s. Obviously, for everybody those are pretty important years.

It surprised me how tough a guy you were as a kid.
I was brought up in neighborhoods where the toughest guy was the guy who got the most respect. And I was having to wade through armies of guys to get back home from school every day. It turns out that, as I grew up, I found that I wasn’t a bad athlete and I was real strong for my size. When I had to fight, I just got into it, because I got prestige from it. I’m not into hurting people; I’m not a sadist or anything. But I just like to win; I wanted to get praise for something. Anything.

Did you imagine a time when you and Crumb and the alternative side to comics would become so well known?
I thought it would be better known. I’m not exactly a household word yet. It took that movie to get some people to know me. I thought that alternative comics – once they got going back in the ’60s, there was going to be a big change in comics. Now that people saw you could do anything in comics, I thought comics were going to be transformed. I saw Crumb’s work, and it occurred to me that there’s no limit in what you can do in comics.

It took a while, as it turns out.
It’s happening way too slow. I’m pretty disappointed that at this point superheroes are still the most popular form of comic books. Regardless of my opinion of superhero comics, no subgenre should dominate a medium, like they dominate comics. That’s just ridiculous.

It got caught in a rut that it couldn’t get out of.
I thought everybody would realize that you could do this stuff with comics, and there would be all these good writers and illustrators that would just gravitate to comics. They’d say, “Wow, here’s a new area for us to work in,” you know. I was tickled pink when I realized, “My God, here I have a chance to be an innovator.” Like I discovered a field of gold or something.

When did you realize that it wasn’t the field of gold?
Well, it was and it wasn’t. I took a great deal of satisfaction from just writing the things that I did. And that made me feel really good. The thing that bothers me now is that it’s still not very lucrative, at least the kind of stuff that I do. And now I depend on the income that I get from comics.

How did you feel about being known as a movie character?
I’d rather they knew about my books. A lot of people have a lot of notions about me because of that movie that aren’t really true. That lovable-curmudgeon stuff is really starting to choke me. For a while, you couldn’t read my name without “curmudgeon” preceding it. They’re sort of laying off that a little bit now -- they’re switching over to “dyspeptic.”

Is that a step up?
I don’t know.

But were you generally happy with the movie?
Yeah, sure, I thought it was an excellent movie.

And you went to the Oscars?
I went to the Oscars. I went along, and tried to help promote the thing. It’s not my favorite thing to do. The Oscars were just a big drag. Who could possibly enjoy that? I mean, God!

When you were doing David Letterman’s show in the ’80s, you once came out to criticize General Electric on camera. That was a political act.
I’m real interested in politics, but I’m not an activist usually. That came about as a result of my realizing that I had nothing to lose by doing anything I wanted to do on the Letterman show. I wasn’t getting much money, my books weren’t selling. It was fine with me to try and make jokes with Letterman, try and create some humor on the show, but I didn’t particularly like being stereotyped as the parody of the rust-belt worker.

What are your feelings about politics right now?
I’m very disturbed that so many people are supporting George Bush that are being hurt by him. Like they’re masochists or something. They don’t benefit. They give rich people tax breaks, and poor people still love him. He’s just done everything wrong, and still he benefits. He obviously lied about Iraq, about the rationale for going in there, and they don’t care.

People are starting to care now.
I hope they do. And then the big thing to me is, we’ve got all this global warming – we’ve got all these serious problems. Even if we start with the best of intentions and spend a whole lot of money, we’re probably going to be in for a whole hell of a lot of trouble as a result of all that shit in the atmosphere. But it’s like Bush doesn’t even recognize it exists. I mean, how fucking stupid can you get?

Los Angeles CityBeat, November 24, 2005.

Illustration by Jordan Crane.