Tuesday, July 13, 2010
MY PEKAR MEMORY
Coinciding with the Milton Caniff centennial in 2007, the Cartoon Research Library presented several programs under the theme of “Storytelling: A Celebration of Graphic Narrative." One of those programs was ‘A Conversation with Harvey Pekar', for which I sat front row center. Before hearing about the event, I had read the American Splendor collections from Doubleday, but not much else. Thanks to the library I was able to bone up on my Pekar, particularly his recent biographical work.
There were about 500 people in the auditorium, most of them college students. The three people sitting next to me hadn’t read any of Pekar’s work, but knew him from the ‘American Splendor’ movie. The program was in the form of an interview with Pekar by an OSU English professor, Jared Gardner, followed by a brief Q&A session. The professor first asked him if there’s a question that he’s tired of. Pekar replied that he’s tired of talking about “the Letterman stuff." Pekar’s appearances as something of an irascible oddity on “Late Night” ended acrimoniously after protracted on-air arguments between Harvey & Dave. Even on his first appearance, Pekar came out swinging.
In the spirit of comics, Pekar recounted his origin story - how he had a deep desire to create comics, but he was handicapped by not being able to draw. He had the great fortune of being friends with Robert Crumb, who read Pekar’s crude roughs and volunteered to draw them. A student asked him if comics were his destiny…that if he hadn’t known Crumb would he have ever gotten a comic completed or gotten any critical interest. Pekar wasn’t sure. “I may have just kept it inside,” he said.
Pekar and Crumb commiserated over jazz and their love of collecting old 78s. “I’ve been obsessive-compulsive all my life. I don’t know why everybody isn’t. Maybe a collection is stability in an unstable world.” Another revelation came when Pekar was asked why all of his comics were non-fiction, true-life stories. Pekar said that as a child he had been quite a fantastical storyteller, but as he grew older he lost his childhood ability to invent stories. So, he not only doesn’t write fiction because he doesn’t want to (the “truth” of something is the basis of his work), but because he can’t. For Pekar, writing comics is a cathartic experience. “It kind of puts my life in perspective.”
Pekar rarely smiled and usually looked like he was in some sort of gastric distress. I realized later that it was part of his charm, and likely related to his health issues (including his arm in a sling). The crowd, though, quickly warmed to this guy. Above the heads of Pekar and Gardner was a Powerpoint presentation projected on a screen. The professor cycled through panels/covers/pages of ‘American Splendor’, intended to compliment their discussion but usually at odds with it. People were reading word balloons instead of listening to the discussion. Chuckles would go through the crowd when nothing funny was said. At one point Pekar craned his head to look at the screen. I thought it was annoying, but if Pekar felt the same, he didn’t express it. Gardner also tried to coax Pekar into saying something negative about cartoonist Chris Ware. Pekar didn’t bite. “At one time I used to attack other artists," Pekar said. "I don’t do that anymore.” Prof. Gardner called Ware “the Wynton Marsalis of comics”, name-checking a popular jazzman that Pekar had reviewed negatively.
Pekar angered me when he said he felt experimentation in comics was just now starting. This is complete nonsense. Pekar was an acknowledged comics pioneer in both autobiographical comics and self-publishing, but his remarks betray an ignorance of other comics of the past 20-30 years. I could name many examples, but geez, how about I just say Will Eisner and call it a day. There’s a certain “Groth-esque” snobbery that goes on at these things. Superhero comics? Academics will tell you it’s kid stuff and nothing new has happened in 40 years. They don’t understand a guy who can like Chester Brown and Chuck Dixon.
Overall, it was a good conversation, with advice to comic hopefuls - "Don't quit your day job," meant as practical reasoning, not a snappy rejoinder. Pekar worked as a clerk for VA for 30 years. I enjoyed meeting him afterwards when he signed my copy of The Quitter. “You buy ‘em and I’ll sign ‘em,” he said.
above artwork by Robert Crumb, except 4th drawing which was by Chris Weston