Harvey Pekar creates extraordinary art out of ordinary life. His ongoing comic book stories use the mundane detail of everyday existence. But in the flat nowhere zone he's inhabited all his years, he also finds joy and meaning and sometimes revelation.
He started writing comicsin the '70s, providing text for a series of illustrators (including comic-book artist Robert Crumb), and drawing inspiration from his day job as a file clerk. The books earned him a cult following and guest spots on the Late Show with David Letterman in the '80s. Then in 2003 came the movie American Splendor, which moved the counter-culture everyman further towards pop-culture phenomenon.
He'll be at the Dryden Theatre on November 6 to discuss the film based on his life and work. He'll also be receiving Writers and Books' Sense of Place Award. Pekar spoke with City from his home in Cleveland. What follows is an edited transcript of his part of the conversation.
"When I was a little kid and read comics, I just thought it was a kid's medium and there's nothing more to be done with them. I had a big collection when I was a kid. But my mom got rid of them. Then I met Robert Crumb in 1962 and he showed me a book he was working on, the Big Yum Yum Book, an adult comic book novel. I thought, 'Wow! You can do anything in comics.' You can deal with any subject you want to. Comics are words and pictures. And novels are just words.
"I think comics are a better form. The novel is relatively well explored, compared to comics. With comics, practically nothing's been done. They just started making comic books and distributing them in the 1930s. And a whole hell of a lot of that is with the superhero stuff. What got me into comics was that I was interested in autobiographical writing. I ran across a notebook I had when I was about 19 years old, in 1959 or so. I was doing an autobiographical story. And I later turned that into a comic book story.
"I wanted to write autobiographical comics and I wanted to do them about everyday life. I always was the guy who thought, 'I'm doomed to have a shit job for the rest of my life.' Everything I was good at, I used to get worried about and I'd quit, everything from sports to college. I'd start catastrophysing. I was a real bad obsessive-compulsive case.
"I sort of snuck up on it writing comics, going step by step. It wasn't like I was worried about screwing up. Like when I worked at the post office I used to always be obsessed with the possibility that when I went to bundle the mail, to send out on the route, I wouldn't tie the string tight enough and the stuff would be all over the place. It never happened. I had all these kind of crazy... well, I don't know, maybe they weren't so crazy... maybe I'm just totally incompetent mechanically.
"That does have something to do with it. I can't use the computer. Well, if my wife or my kid gets me started on the computer then I can do. I can't do email. And cell phones make me crazy. There's something to my having a dim opinion of my prospects.
"The moment of truth is coming closer and closer. I've got several books that are going to be published in the next year. One of them is Our Movie Year. One of them is about a period in my life when I was quitting everything. And I wrote a book --- they'd call it a graphic novel, though it's an autobiography --- about when I was a kid. It's sort of a prequel to the American Splendor movie. If they don't sell, then I'm screwed. I don't make enough to make it on my pension.
"I'm just starting to get the payoff now, with the movie. You know, I was on David Letterman and that didn't help me at all. Everybody on the show gets minimum payment. That's why I had hassles with him. I wasn't getting anything out of the show. It wasn't selling comic books. It wasn't paying me anything. And on top of that I was supposed to be a robot for him. Just do what he wants. I got tired of doing a self-parody all the time.
"My new book contains stories that I wrote while the movie was going on, while the promotion was going on, while I was out hustling the movie. It also contains stories that have to do with why I got into comics in the first place.
"I've got to admit that people are contacting me more now. I just did a thing for the New York Times. I have a hard time believing it will always be that way. This may just be my own hang-up. But for so long I went on and didn't sell any kind of books to speak of and couldn't come close to making a living as a comic book writer, which I would really want to do. I thought I'd never be able to sell anything. After the movie, they put out an anthology of my work and the thing sold. I was just amazed. I couldn't believe it.
"I don't live a celebrity's life. I don't know if I'd know what to do with freedom if I got it. I'm just a homebody kind of guy. I don't like to travel. I just sit around and read and write."
Harvey Pekar will be in Rochester on Saturday, November 6. He will receive Writers & Books' Sense of Place Award at 5 p.m. (for information call W&B at 473-2590) and introduce the screening of American Splendor at 8 p.m. The events are at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue. Tickets for the movie screening are $10. 271-3361