For 30 years, Harvey Pekar documented his everyday life as a file clerk in his American Splendor comics. And despite a successful movie about him and two recent graphic novels under his belt, he’s still waiting for it to all blow up in his face.
April 12, 2006
In his latest graphic novel, Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, seminal comic book creator Harvey Pekar steps away from his favorite reoccurring subject — himself — to tell the story of Michael Malice. The real-life Malice is the co-editor of the book Overheard in New York and the Web site of the same name, both of which are collections of snippets of conversations overhead in New York City.
The new book is a departure for Pekar. In the first three frames of his graphic novel The Quitter, released in October, Pekar meanders into view, scratches his head, turns to the reader, and says, “I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 8, 1939, five weeks after World War II started. For what that’s worth to anyone.” The 66-year-old Cleveland native then examines his adolescent career as a neighborhood tough who mercilessly beat his peers to a pulp. He also grapples with being drummed out of the Navy and his obsession with comics — one of the few constants in his life.
In 1976, Pekar began self-publishing American Splendor, collaborating with artists like legendary ’60s underground cartoonist Robert Crumb for a comic series documenting his everyday life as a file clerk with the Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1990, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he wrote of his struggles, with his wife, Joyce Brabner, in Our Cancer Year. He became a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman when it was still on NBC, until he started ranting against General Electric, the network’s parent company. Perhaps his most famous quote and the tagline for the film based on his life is: “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
The 2003 film, American Splendor, was a peculiar but successful mix of Pekar’s stories, with Oscar-winning actor Paul Giamatti portraying Pekar. The movie also featured reality TV-like appearances of Pekar and the characters in his life. American Splendor was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, along with 20 other honors.
In a phone interview from his home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Pekar talked about his comics, his latest work, his hopes and his relentless fears.
What initially appealed to you about comics?
I’ll give you my whole history with comics. It won’t take that long.
When I was a kid in elementary school I used to read them like a madman. I read them from about the age of 6 to the age of 11, and then I got sick of them. You know, to me, they were stereotyped, and they were written by guys who were formulaic writers. I just sort of gave up on comics. I didn’t like them anymore. But there were a few exceptions. I liked Plastic Man. I liked Captain Marvel. I liked The Spirit, and later on I liked the MAD Comics. But most comics I just didn’t have any use for.
Then when I was 22, I met [Robert] Crumb, and he was 19 at that time. I was looking at his stuff, and he was using comics just the way you would use any other art form. He wasn’t talking about just superheroes or things that are common to comic books. When I saw that I realized I had made a wrong decision about comics. They weren’t intrinsically limited. You can do anything in comics.
What can you do with comics that you wouldn’t be able to do with either film or a book?
Yeah, that’s a valid question.
First of all, the thing was that in comics, things weren’t being done. You could do them, but they weren’t being done. So there was this excitement of being an innovator. The potential is a big deal to me, breaking some new ground. That was real important for me at that time, and I think now comics are still dominated by superhero comics. There’s still a whole hell of a lot of work to be done, I think, where things get to the state where I’m satisfied with them.
I like to tell stories in comics. I like the way you can divide up a page and time your dialogue along with the frames. I don’t know. I just always liked comic book illustrations and stuff.
Why do you choose to write comics as opposed to any other medium, like a novel or a screenplay?
Like I’ve said before, I’m doing something innovative in comics, and it’s worked out for me. So I stick with something that’s working. That’s a big thing with me — sticking with stuff that’s working. Man, I stayed with a job for 35 years. I’ve lived in this town Cleveland. It’s no fun living in this place, let me tell you. It’s pretty discouraging, man. But I bought a home here that I couldn’t duplicate in New York or someplace else. Do you know how much money it takes to live a crummy lifestyle in New York? Jesus.
Have you ever considered moving from Cleveland?
Naw. People look at me and say, “Hey, you’re an artist. Why don’t you get the hell out of there?” But I never thought I would be able to support myself as a comic book artist. Now it looks like I’m going to have to, because I’m not getting enough money to live on from my pension and my social security. I got a steady job in Cleveland. Man, I held onto it with both hands and feet. I just thought, Jesus Christ, man, if I’ve got something where they’ll keep me, I’m holding onto it. In fact, I think that’s one of the things that sort of stabilized me. At the end of The Quitter I talk about how I eventually did stop quitting stuff, at least with so much regularity, and was able to create a viable lifestyle. One of reasons for that was the VA hospital job, which was not unpleasant and was steady.
In The Quitter, you focused a great deal of attention on your inability to stick with anything for too long. Why do think you were able to stick with comics for so long?
When I started out doing comics, what I wanted was critical approval. And I got critical approval. And I’ve been getting critical approval ever since, and that’s really made me feel good. People have said that I’ve made a contribution, and I’ve had an impact. Stuff like that reinforces my feelings. I guess if I had done something and everybody hated it and made a big pile of comics outside my house and burned them, I probably would have been doing something else. I didn’t need to make a living at it, which would have been impossible anyway. It’s all, I guess, what you want out of something.
If you had to review your own comics, what would you say about them?
I would say that the most distinguishing characteristics are that I did start to write about things other than the genre subjects that comics are generally dealing with; and that not only I wrote autobiographically, but I put an emphasis on everyday life, because that’s the only life I know. Getting up and going to work and stuff like that. Arguing with the boss. Sneaking off and trying to read a book when you got a few minutes or something like that. Going home. That’s all I’ve known. I haven’t exactly had a glamorous life.
Tell me about Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story.
He’s a real piece of work. That’s why I wrote it. It’s real hard to dope him out. My relations with him are very pleasant, but his big thing in life is revenge. That’s what he talks about all the time. He was telling me his life story, and his life story is his history of his revenge, against teachers that offended him or bosses later on. He’s a big fan of Ayn Rand. She had a terrific influence on him. Now he calls himself an anarchist, but he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the ones that believe in collectivism. He’s for laissez-faire.
Do you think he will see the story the same way that you do, as a lifetime of revenge?
Yeah. But let me put it this way, I don’t think he would describe himself exactly the same way I do, but he does make a big point of saying “I’m a nice guy, but, man, if you cross me, I’m going to get you.” He keeps on always with that stuff, always talking about it. It’s like nobody’s going to put anything over on me, man.
What did you think of the American Splendor movie?
To tell you the truth, I had been real sick, in and out of the hospital, and I wasn’t quite together when I first saw the first showing of it in July 2002. I was kind of whacked out and woozy. I saw that thing, and I didn’t know what the hell to make of it.
But when I went to Sundance, six months later or so, I had recovered sufficiently, and I saw it. It was like I saw it for the first time where I was able to understand what was going on. I thought, goddamn, this is really good. I was lucky. I’ve had some real good luck in my life.
Did the film affect the sale of your comics?
It had a very positive effect, which surprised the hell out of me. When I was on the David Letterman show I thought I would sell some comics, and I didn’t sell nothing. I thought, man, there’s no power on earth that will make people buy my comic books. But that movie did.
Some people might think that that was a shtick you had prepared with David Letterman.
No. I was pissed. I wasn’t going anyplace on his show. It was a drag. I wasn’t selling any comics. I wasn’t making any money. He just wanted to have me come out and portray me all the time as this weirdo working class guy from the rust belt or something like that, and look at how sloppy he is and all that.
So you went on a rant about General Electric?
I had made up my mind when I went on Letterman’s show that I was going to do that, and in fact if he wouldn’t go along with me, I would get up and do a monologue on it. I just had nothing to lose, and I wanted to do something interesting on the show. You know, go out in a blaze of glory. As it turned out, he didn’t even ban me from the show. I kept on going back. I went back four more times.
Do you still listen to a good deal of music?
In the last few years, I kind of got burned out in a way on it. For one thing I had so many damn records in my house that I couldn’t find anything. I had this huge collection, and I couldn’t find anything I wanted to listen to. I have thousands of them. I never even bothered counting them.
Are you still collecting records?
Naw, man. I got no room for it. My wife would just kill me, you know. She hasn’t wanted this stuff around, and she’s really yelled and screamed at me. I kind of got it out of the way. I put it all down in the basement where she doesn’t have to deal with it or anything like that, but just knowing that it’s there really makes her mad. If she’s mad about something she’ll take it out on me on that account. “Yeah, I’m putting up with all this mess from you. You’re sloppy, and you don’t make the bed. You don’t do this, and look at all those damn records laying around.”
Your Web site, www.harveypekar.com, hasn’t been updated since 2003.
[New Line Cinema] was paying me to do that. I didn’t particularly want to write a blog. I know it’s similar to what I do in my comics, but I didn’t want to write a blog unless they paid me. When they stopped paying me, I stopped doing it.
The computer really bothers the s–t out of me. I can’t get on it. My kid’s got to get on it for me. Then I can do the two-finger type to type out my stuff, then she comes and puts it on a disk and sends it off. But I’m really f–ked up mechanically. I can’t do nothing. It’s amazing I can drive a car.
With all the success you’ve had, you’ve stated before that you’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Yeah, I can never shake that feeling, man. It’s true. I can’t get used to being successful. I just can’t. I’m always catastrophizing. I wake up in the morning thinking, “What can go wrong today?” I wish I weren’t like that. It’s hell to be like this. I torture myself, and I wish I could take more pleasure in what’s happened to me because obviously some damn good things happen to me.
Well, I don’t know. If I had more of a social life, maybe it would be better. I just stick around the house and write all day, go up to the post office. And all of my friends are pretty much all gone. I don’t exactly have a hilarious time. But if I wasn’t so goddamn hard on myself … I think most people would be tickled pink to be in my shoes, but I’m thinking that the comic book business is not something to mortgage the farm on. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen. But admittedly it has been going pretty good for me lately.
Where do you think your angst comes from?
A lot of it comes from my mother constantly drumming pessimism into me when I was a little kid. I talk about that in The Quitter. But it might be in some kind of way genetic. Because my brother got subjected to the same influences that I did, and he’s just a normal kind of a guy, a chemist. I’m not saying nothing bothers him, but he’s one of the more carefree people I know. I could probably come up with some pretty reasonable and fairly happy scenarios that would be possible with me too, but I just never give those a thought. Like with my mother, she would always tell me, “Don’t get too comfortable, boy. The next Hitler’s going to be right around the corner.” That made a huge impression on me. But I think she was probably telling my brother the same kind of stuff, and he didn’t turn out the way I did.
What kind of world do you think we’re living in now?
I don’t like what’s going on in the world now. I’m really pessimistic about it. The fact that all of these politicians, not only here, but all over the world, are just asleep at the switch as far as global warming is concerned. It’s possible that Katrina could at least have been exacerbated by global warming, but that doesn’t seem to bother anybody.
And this dumb war in Iraq. George Bush lied to everybody why he went into it, and when it turned out that everybody was lying, he said, “So what. Besides it was a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein.” You just don’t go off and start a war. If they wanted to go and start with all of these vicious dictators all over the world, they would never finish with war.
What’s a day in the life of Harvey Pekar like these days?
I get up early in the morning. I’m up around 3 o’clock in the morning, and I take these pills to keep me from freaking out, like Prozac. I go back and lay in bed. Around 7 o’clock I get up and the first thing, if I have some kind of writing assignment, I’ll try and do some of that. Then after awhile I’ll go down to the post office and get my mail and come back and do some more writing. Then lay around for a few hours, just sitting and thinking, you know. Nothing too exciting, let me tell you.
I was making these speeches, and they were paying me really good money. Then all of a sudden the market just disappeared, like practically overnight. I had this agent. So Random House has got me set up with another company. I’m hoping they can turn up something for me. That would be nice, man, going to colleges and giving some little talk I give all the time and getting a few grand for it. That’s nice. If I could do that five or six times a year it would make me feel a lot better, I tell you.