by Frank Barnett
(Plain Press, January 2010) When Harvey Pekar spoke Saturday afternoon, December 5, at the Eastman branch of the Cleveland Public Library near Lorain and W.117, you realized that his appeal is more than simply a local guy who has achieved some national recognition. He is, what you might call, a working class hero; not only has it not gone to his head, but he’s still struggling to get by like the rest of us.
He came up with the idea in the mid 1970s of writing autobiographical stories and having them illustrated as adult comic books, which eventually inspired the film American Splendor. Like any kid growing up, he loved comic books, but one day it struck him how formulaic they were.
Eventually, an old friend of his, Robert Crumb, started getting attention drawing underground comic books. Crumb wasn’t about what comics books had been, “Guys in funny costumes punching each other out”, though Pekar realized they were written for kids. “Nobody was trying to write the Great American Novel,” he said, quickly adding with a smile, “Well, I tried . . . But comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures. No super hero stuff, no talking animals stuff.”
He had built his reputation even before the movie, including some legendary TV appearances in the late 80s. When the David Letterman Show was on NBC, he insisted on talking about the controversial politics of NBC’s owner General Electric as Letterman nervously made jokes and tried to shut him up. He looked like he was having fun, but not surprisingly he was not invited back. You can see the Letterman segments on YouTube.com.
So he continued to chronicle adult stories in comic book form, along with Crumb and other artists, eventually inspiring a very unique movie that won awards at Sundance and Cannes. “I didn’t care what kind of movie, as long as I got paid. I figured it would be lousy. But I got all this money, and it was a good movie too.”
Yet, after that, when he retired from 37 years as a file clerk with the Veterans Administration, his pension wasn’t enough to get by on. The undemanding job had always suited him, so he’d never strived to work up the pay scale through promotions. By then even the comic books were paying less, not the $300 per page DC Comics pays. In recent years he has pursued what his publishers call “graphic novels”, which he realizes are just “fat comic books” and more like short stories than novels. Some of the topics are hard to sell, let alone the fact that the economy is making publishers more cautious.
He gladly accepted $5,000 to do something he knew little about, writing the libretto for an opera that premiered at Oberlin College in early 2009. It’s a jazz opera though and he’s always been a jazz fan.
A character like Harvey Pekar seems like he was destined to survive. That’s his charm, to say the least.