One Man's Splendour
Published Mar 01, 2001It's difficult to come up with questions for comics writer Harvey Pekar, because back issues of his long-running autobiographical comic American Splendor already contain so many answers. Stories about Pekar's job, family, obsessions, interests, hobbies, illnesses and regular day-to-day life in Cleveland have filled its pages since 1976. Pekar writes and storyboards his stories, then hires artists to illustrate them. In one of his first stories, illustrated by fellow underground pioneer R. Crumb, Pekar credits Crumb (who lived briefly in Cleveland in the 60s while working for American Greetings) as a crucial influence in his decision to pursue comics.
The appeal of Pekar's work stems from an intriguing contrast: the significant struggles and dramas of our lives often condense in small details and mundane exchanges, like buying a hot dog or chatting with co-workers. When he started American Splendor, Pekar wrote about collecting records, dealing with loneliness, and the freedom his undemanding day job as a file clerk at Cleveland's VA Hospital gave him to pursue a career writing essays and criticism, especially about jazz.
Twenty five years later, with appearances on The David Letterman Show and chemotherapy behind him, Pekar says he's never been happier with American Splendor, or with his current crew of artists, which includes Joe Zabel, Joe Sacco, Dean Haspiel, David Collier and Frank Stack. "When I started out," he explains over the phone from his home in Cleveland, "I had to work with just about anybody to fill it up. But I really like the guys I'm working with now." Pekar reserves special praise for Stack's expressionistic drawing, which he and his wife Joyce Brabner chose to illustrate Our Cancer Year, the harrowing book-length comic they wrote about Pekar's battle with lymphoma. Says Pekar: "Crumb told me, 'Nobody, not even me, could've done as good a job on Our Cancer Year as Stack did.'"
The next American Splendor, due out in April, examines the 60-year-old writer's changing attitudes toward parenthood. Back in his 30s, Pekar got a vasectomy because, he says, "I couldn't conceive of myself as being a parent. I was always worried about getting someone pregnant." Recently, however, he and his wife adopted a foster child, Danielle. Pekar speaks about the 12-year-old girl with pride: "I don't know where she got it, but she's got a real strong sense of justice." But he also speaks bluntly about the new financial pressures that come with parenthood, and the anxiety they produce. He supplements the income from his job at the hospital with his comics work, and also with a steady stream of freelance writing, much of it jazz criticism, to which he returned in the early 90s after a 15-year absence. "I make more money doing that than doing comics," he says. "It's gone pretty well. This time around, I've talked to the musicians a lot more."
Pekar's brightest ray of financial hope, though, is the recent option he signed with film company Good Machine (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to make an American Splendor movie. Despite having signed five previous options, which all fizzled, Pekar feels cautiously optimistic. "Good Machine is apparently a pretty successful company. They have a long association with Ang Lee. The guy I work with, Ted Hope, he likes to work with young directors. Everybody says, 'If anybody can get a movie made of your stuff, it's this guy.'" And Good Machine's apparent willingness to make a thoughtful film out of his work, rather than a sitcom or a formulaic Hollywood picture, also appeals to Pekar.
It will be interesting to see how any director deals with the unique tone and texture of Pekar's stories. However the film gets made, though, Pekar's main interest is the money the film would make for him. An almost existential pessimism haunts recent issues of American Splendor, much of it generated by Pekar's wearisome working routine. A film deal would allow him to retire from his job, freeing up more time for projects such as an ambitious three-issue American Splendor story he has planned about one of his co-workers, a Vietnam veteran. But during our conversation, Pekar sounded fatigued and, at times, deeply discouraged. "I conceived of American Splendor as a lifetime project. But I don't know if I'm going to be able to keep it going. I don't see a whole lot in my future unless this movie thing comes up."