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Many-Splendored Man


Harvey Pekar, creator of 'American Splendor' comics, talks about live in Cleveland and his Almost All-Expenses-Paid Vacation to Hollywood

By Richard von Busack

For some 20 years now, Harvey Pekar has been writing stories about his low-rent life in Cleveland, Ohio. He's an author of genuinely serious scope -- with one difference. Pekar publishes his stories in comic-book form, enlisting the aid of underground artists like R. Crumb and Frank Stack to illustrate them. The long-running result is his autobiographical American Splendor comic-book series. If there's one man who could make comics accessible to a mainstream audience, it's Pekar, with his deeply personal accounts of everyday life in the rust belt.

Although Pekar did win the American Book Award in 1987, his road to even marginal fame has been a rocky one. If you think Pekar's travails in Hollywood as told here are tortuous, you should have read his tale of being seduced and abandoned by the Village Voice (an account printed in the first American Splendor anthology) or his chronicle of the night he went on late-night TV and ended up in a spat with a very testy David Letterman. As it turns out, getting "An Almost All-Expense-Paid Vacation" in print was almost as difficult as getting a movie deal off the ground.

As Pekar recently explained via fax:

I originally wrote this story for Premiere. It had been commissioned by editor John H. Richardson with the approval of his superior, Susan Lyne. Richardson and other Premiere employees liked the story, but before it could be published, he and Lyne left the magazine, which had been purchased by the Hachette Filipacchi Corporation. Lyne's resignation may have been influenced by this transaction; quite possibly she saw trouble down the road. ... Chris Connelly got Lyne's job. While in the process of determining what to do with my piece, he ,too , left Premiere because of disagreements with his chiefs. When Connelly's replacement, Jim Meigs, formerly with US magazine, saw my piece, he reportedly exclaimed, 'What is this?' I was free to offer it to other publications.

Though his subject matter is based on the quotidian, there is nothing boring about Pekar. He writes from an outsider perspective of a pessimistic, nonpracticing Jew; a thrice-married, middle-aged man; a jazz lover trapped in a world that loves brainless pop; a neighborhood grocer's son; an autodidact who reads voraciously and reviews books for papers from Metro to the Chicago Tribune.

He writes about his co-workers at the hospital where he has toiled for three decades, bringing back for encores perennial characters like the out-of-it Toby and the elderly, philosophizing Mr. Boats. As Pekar has often observed, it's a paradox that stories of ordinary life are considered a weird subject for comics, as opposed to fantasy tales of caped vigilantes.

Pekar justifiably wants some recognition of the fact that his work isn't just some cute example of working-class folk art. He wants to be taken seriously as an author who is trying to advance the form of comics.

Pekar himself once headlined an issue of American Splendor as being about "winter, death and old people," none of which are guaranteed to put asses in seats (the old show-biz phrase is one more example of the felicitous way the word "ass" covers both "rump" and "idiot.")

"I don't have real high hopes about this option business," Pekar says by phone from Cleveland about his misadventures in Hollywood, "unless they get some big star, a real comer, to play the lead in the movie."

Since Pekar had mentioned that Leonardo Di Caprio wanted to be in the American Splendor movie, I'd mistakenly presumed Di Caprio was angling for the role of Pekar's fellow clerk Toby. To call Toby a nerd is a redundancy. It should be mentioned that Toby drove 150 miles round-trip to see the sneak preview of Revenge of the Nerds when it came out. High on the experience, he wore a "Genuine Nerd" button around the office for a week afterward. Pekar's treatment of his co-worker is affectionate but mocking; he once stymied Toby with the theological question "Do Catholics eat lentils on Lent?"

"I was actually thinking of Toby playing Toby," Pekar says. "Toby's had experience playing himself in movies. He's been on MTV. These two filmmakers from Kent, Ohio, met Toby through me, made a couple of $10,000 full-length horror comedies: Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd. His own lines are better than ones they gave him."

The newest annual issue of American Splendor (available through Dark Horse Aug. 23) continues the story of Pekar's recovery from the catastrophic lymphoma he and his wife (and sometimes collaborator), Joyce Brabner, wrote about so movingly in the book-length Our Cancer Year (Four Walls Eight Windows). This issue, Pekar spends time at comic-book conventions to pick up some awards for Our Cancer Year.

Among the many curiosities he encounters is one Kapitan Kartoon, an ex­telephone salesman who, as the expression goes, reinvented himself. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Life in Hell, also turns up. Pekar once appeared in the number 96 position on Groening's list of the World's Finest People. "What if he meets four other people?" Pekar worries.

Being number 96 hasn't changed Pekar's life any more than his various appearances on TV giving Letterman a much-needed piece of his mind, once even grabbing the Grand Insomniac's sacred pencil. "I don't really sell that many comic books, and I'm a lot less famous than you might think," Pekar says.

"My name is in the phone book," he continues. "Once in a while somebody will call me up. I almost never get crank calls except for a couple the first time I was on Letterman. I just don't get that much contact with people who know who I am."

Brabner is a self-described activist, and also the editor of Real War Stories, a comic book about the peace-time army that is the last thing a military recruiter wants you to see. Indeed, Brabner was harassed by the Department of Defense, which first brought and then dropped a lawsuit against her for her detailing a Navy hazing ritual called "inking and greasing" that you won't be seeing in the TV commercials. Brabner, who had previously worked as a teacher in the Delaware prison system, says of her whirlwind courtship with Pekar. "I met a lot of men, but none of them were the right one."

The full story of what Brabner just recently went though can be seen on The Web site includes a digital copy of Activists!, Brabner's newer comic, which was suppressed by her sponsors, an upstate New York think tank called the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The fellowship's complaints, Brabner says, ranged from concern that the comic-book characters' skins were too black to their worries about a burning cross in a story about Brown vs. the Board of Education. "They were saying," Brabner explains, "that 'young people don't want to feel like the KKK is going to burn a cross on their lawn if they're politically active.'"

Brabner has muted hopes for the American Splendor movie, but if Robert Crumb can end up the subject of a documentary, if they have so many millions to make movie versions of really obscure cartoon characters like Barb Wire, why can't we see Harvey Pekar on the big screen where he belongs?

Pekar himself is, as usual, pessimistic.

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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