Harvey Pekar is unique among comics writers. He did not grow up reading comic books, though he has an appreciation for old newspaper strips, underground comics of the ā60s and ā70s, and a few of the alternative comics of today. He is virulently opposed to the escapist-fantasy tradition of comics, and has put his money where his mouth is by editing, writing and publishing his own autobiographical, naturalistic American Splendor from his apartment in Cleveland, Ohio. He is something like the John Sayles of comics: American Splendor is an intimate and highly personal account of his life and interests, socially and politically engaged, alternately serious and humorous, serious even in its humor. Pekarās contribution to comics is important as inspiration and example. ā GARY GROTH
This interview was conducted August 1984 over the phone. It was transcribed by Mark Thompson and edited by Gary Groth, Tom Heintjes, and Harvey Pekar.
GARY GROTH: I want to talk about you and your work and Iād like to talk about your interests, particularly with regard to literature, but letās start talking about your work in American Splendor. Based on the assumption that a lot of our readers might not be familiar with your work, could you describe your place in comics todayāhow you fit in, or donāt fit in, as the case may be!
HARVEY PEKAR: American Splendor is a rather typical comic book in form; that is, I use illustrated panels with balloons, but itās atypical in content. Most comic books feature fantasy of one kind or another, superhuman characters, science fiction, or talking animals. My writing is autobiographical, as realistic as I can make it. I focus on writing stories about everyday life, not thrillers dealing with aliens invading earth. Also, for the most part the illustration in my books is more realistic than in other comics. I generally donāt care much for artwork in which characters are idealized.
GROTH: Well, I think that attitude is a distinguishing characteristic of your work. Why do you write autobiographically?
PEKAR: Well, I may have a bigger ego than most peopleāthatās for others to decideābut the main reason I write autobiographically is because I find it hard enough to understand why I myself do things, let alone why others do them. I want my writing to be as accurate and plausible as possible. I find that when others write fiction, they project their own ideas, impressions, sensations and experiences on their fictional characters: sometimes, of course, with magnificent results. For my purposes, though, I figured that Iād cut out the middleman, the fictional people, and write about me, the person I know best. Not that everything in my book is completely true, but an awful lot of it is. I will change peoplesā names or occupations sometimes, or maybe compress events that took place over a period of time into a few days.
GROTH: The people who populate your book also, I assume, populate your life.
PEKAR: Except Ozzie Nelson [laughter].
GROTH: Right. Except viscerally, through the television. But how much freedom do you give yourself in reconstructing incidents, situations and so forth?
PEKAR: Well, I start by trying literally to stick to the way things are because that works best for me. The more accurate the details of my stories are, the more people can believe in them, identify with the people in them. However, if for some reason it makes more sense to depart from the literal truth, sometimes I will. As I mentioned, Iāll sometimes compress the time in which incidents have taken place āI remember once I changed the sex of a character. Iāve changed the ethnic identity of people on a couple of occasions.
GROTH: But I assume your primary focus is to tell the truth, or to convey some aspect of the truth as you see it.
PEKAR: Yeah, I want to write literature that pushes people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them. Most comic books are vehicles for escapism, which I think is unfortunate. I think that the so-called average person often exhibits a great deal of heroism in getting through an ordinary day, and yet the reading public takes this heroism for granted. Theyād rather read about Superman than themselves. Also, I think we see and hear stuff during the course of our ordinary days that is a lot funnier than whatās happening on situation comedies. I incorporate some of this everyday humor into my work. Truth is funnier than fiction.
GROTH: Do you need a specific amount of time to lapse between when something happens to you that you feel would make an interesting story, and the actual writing of it? Or do you write it immediatelyā¦or are there any set rules?
PEKAR: Often I do it immediately, especially if Iām writing a story in which dialect is important. Iāll take notes right away and try to write the dialect as accurately as possible, because a word here and a word there can make a lot of difference. There are things at work that happen and Iāll write a story about them within a half-hour. Shorter things, anywayāvignettes. Iām usually not in a position to write the longer stories right away, but Iāll try to take notes and set up an outline while the facts are still fresh in my mind. I mentioned that the more believable my work is, the more people can relate to it. If you give them a generalized account with generic details it often has less impact.
GROTH: Well, insofar as American Splendor is far more believable than most comics, how do you account for the comparatively small sales?
PEKAR: Well, there are a lot of reasons American Splendor doesnāt sell well, some having to do with virtually no advertising, poor media coverage, and pretty spotty distribution. But itās true that there are some people who arenāt going to take a lot of comfort from what I write. It depresses them to read about themselves; when you shove their faces into their lives it bums them out. They donāt want to deal with it, they say, āHey man, I have to live through this stuff. When I go home I want to watch something on the tube with romance and excitement and stuff like that. I donāt wanna be reading about the kind of lie I have to live.ā And it bothers some of them, it seems strange to them sometimes.
GROTH: Do you think thatās a valid point of view or do you think itās the product of aberrant cultural conditioning?
PEKAR: Generally, I think itās best for people to face their lives and their societies, to think about them, to deal with unpleasant facts rather then trying to make believe they donāt exist. But itās hard for many to do that. When they get through with their daily work, some probably donāt want to be reminded of it, it may seem like a busmanās holiday for them to read American Splendor, which focuses on their everyday struggle. Iāll tell you this, thoughāIāve had surprising results when people Iāve worked with have seen the book. A lot have liked it, and maybe if I had better distribution and publicity it would sell better. Of course, some comic book fans donāt know what to make of American Splendor. They think a normal comic book should be about superbeings who can fly, that a comic dealing with everyday people doing everyday things is weird. Ordinary is weird to them. Wow, thatās really ironic.
GROTH: Well, your work is certainly not the kind that people expect to see in comics.
PEKAR: Thatās true. Comic book fans usually donāt want realism and readers of realistic literature donāt expect to find any in comics, so that also makes American Splendor hard to sell.
GROTH: In a sense I think that the work that you and a handful of others are doing is the work that legitimizes comics as a form of expression.
PEKAR: Well, thereās no intrinsic limit on what people can do in comics, itās just that fantasy fans have, for some reason, determined what goes into comic books. Thereās nothing wrong with fantasy or with juvenile fiction, or even with a certain amount of escapist art, but why is it that comic books are so often aimed at fantasy fans with juvenile taste? It used to be that in comic strips guys like J.R. Williams and Gene Ahern and Frank King did good, solid realistic strips. Of course they werenāt popular in comic books.
GROTH: How do you account for the abandonment of that kind of material in comics form?
PEKAR: I canāt. Iām really not a student of comic-book or comic-strip history, although I sure read plenty of both when I was a kid. But itās interesting that soap opera stories like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan are still popular in strip form. Theyāre not as good as Williamsā or Ahernās work, but theyāre certainly more realistic than Spider-Man. Maybe their continuing success is significant, maybe it indicates that comics have a larger potential audience than many of us realize.
GROTH: I was going to ask you if you had an affinity for people like Williams.
PEKAR: Oh, sure. I read his stuff and Ahernās when I was a kid, and possibly itās a source that I drew on for my work. Itās hard to say what influenced me. I was 32 when I started writing comic stories and I think I drew on all sorts of thingsānovelists, comedians, movies, all kinds of things. Maybe the first important influence on me was Eleanor Estes, a writer of outstanding, amazingly realistic childrenās books. She wrote these real good novels about a family called the Moffats and another book called The Hundred Dresses. I still enjoy her stuff today. She worked with a fine illustrator, Louis Slobodkin. Looking back, she probably had an effect on me. I read that stuff I thought, āGod, why doesnāt anyone else write like this?ā Thatās when I was 8 years old.
GROTH: Why did you choose the comic form to write in? Your greatest passion, it seems to me, is the novel.
PEKAR: Comic-book storytelling is particularly attractive to me for a few reasons. For one thing you can tell a story very concisely in comic books. A lot of the background details is in the illustration, which makes it easier to say what you want to say directly and economically. When I got into comic-book writing, I was a street corner comedian. I actually had certain bits I used to repeat and it was easy to translate them to comics form. Using panels you can time stories the way a good oral storyteller would, sometimes using panels without dialogue for punctuation.
GROTH: Right. So you can concentrate on dialogue.
PEKAR: Thatās right. But to continue about comics: theyāve got both literary and visual aspects. I though it was a great medium that had hardly been used, that there were so many things you could do, in addition to what I was doing. You could use it primarily as a visual medium, employing any number of graphic styles. There were experiments in the ā60s that were not pursued, not vigorously pursued anyway. Guys like Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin were doing abstract and surrealistic work, but not typical comic-book abstraction and surrealism. It was like these guys were coming out of a āfine artsā bag. All sorts of possibilities that people had started to deal with in the ā60s were let go.
GROTH: Were you very familiar with comics prior to this?
PEKAR: From the age of about six to 12 I collected and read them. Then my interest fell off to zero. In 1960, I married a woman whose little brother was reading a lot of comics and I started to read them again out of curiosity. At that time I got laid off work and started buying them again. They were only 12 cents. But I got bored with the Marvel and DC stuff real quick. In 1962, I met Robert Crumb and his roommate Marty Pahls, who was a talented writer and cartoonist. They were living in Cleveland, about a block away from me. They interested me in comics again, but in good stuff like Jack Cole and Will Eisner and Walt Kelly and Segar, of course. I was familiar with their work, but I hadnāt looked at it in some time. Unlike most of the ā40s superhero stuff, it stood up quite well, it wasnāt just of period interest. Crumb was working on his Yum Yum Book then, and I was very impressed with it. I thought, āMan, this is tremendous.ā
GROTH: How had you known Crumb?
PEKAR: I was introduced to both Crumb and Pahls by a mutual record-collecting friend. This was just after Crumb had come to Cleveland from Philadelphia, just before he got his job at American Greeting. We all collected records in those days.
GROTH: And your shared interest was jazz?
PEKAR: Yeah, right. Originally when Crumb, Pahls and I used to get together, weād talk about records. The comic-book stuff was in the background. I built myself up a new collection of comics, a small representative one, and later in the ā60s, I got into underground comics. I visited Crumb in San Francisco in 1968, he visited me in Cleveland in ā70-ā72. At this time I was thinking about doing realistic stories in comic-book form. I also started thinking about something that has become increasingly important to me over the years, although I donāt have the control over it
that I have on my writing, namely realistic illustration, illustration that is not cartoony, but in which the characters are not idealized either, like they are in Marvel and DC comics.
GROTH: To say the least about Crumbās work.
PEKAR: Well, I was thinking about the realistic stuff that Gerry Shamray has done for me, or, in this latest issue Val Mayerik.
GROTH: How would you explain Sue Cavey, whose work isnāt realistic!
PEKAR: First, I think Sue Caveyās drawing is pretty realistic by comic-book standards. Her characters are accurately proportioned. She doesnāt draw super-pretty or super-handsome people. But what sets her apart from some of the other illustrators I work with is that she employs surrealistic and symbolist devices, which she gets from her fine arts training. Thatās OK with me though. Everyone who illustrates my stories doesnāt have to be a literal realist as long as they donāt draw everyone looking like Mr. America and Miss America.
GROTH: Do you make a distinction, when you refer to artwork as being realistic, between someone like Shamray, who I think draws from a lot of photo referenceā
PEKAR: Traces photos as a matter of fact.
GROTH: OK, and someone like Crumb, whose work conforms more to a cartooning idiom, but who conveys a tremendous amount of realism? Thereās a difference there. At least thereās a difference on the surface.
PEKAR: Good point. Crumb exaggerates and distorts peoplesā proportions, but heās tremendously observantāhe notices how people walk and gesture and dress. When he exaggerates, he draws attention to peoplesā unique, distinctive characteristics. In that sense, his cartoony style is as realistic as anyoneās . But most cartoony illustrators lack Crumbās powers of observation. They merely employ techniques of drawing theyāve derived from other artists. Theyāre not as insightful as Crumb and for that reason I prefer not to work with them.
GROTH: Maybe ātruthfulā would be a better word.
PEKAR: The stuff Iāve given him to do, heās always figured out a way to do it right.
GROTH: Let me ask you how you work. Do you write a full script and give it to the artist?
PEKAR: I write the stories in panel form using stick figures with balloons, and I indicate in the panels or on a separate sheet of paper what Iād like in the backgrounds, what Iād like the characters to look like, and so forth. Then I talk to the illustrator and we have a meeting of the minds about what the drawing is going to be like and then we go from there.
GROTH: How much latitude do the artists have?
PEKAR: Far more than what Harvey Kurtzman gave them.
GROTH: Which wouldnāt be much.
PEKAR: All right, or far more then they probably have at DC or Marvel, from what Iāve been able to determine from Val [Mayerik]. There are several reasons for that. First, I canāt afford to pay a lot of money so I donāt want to be squashing peopleās individuality too. Iāve got to give them some reason to want to work for me. Iād like to pay them more but I canāt, so I try to make it worthwhile in other ways. Also, you never know whatās going to come out of it when illustrators bring all sorts of different influences into the book with them; you can be pleasantly surprised by someone if you give him a little bit of freedom. I want the illustration in my books to have individuality. Youāll notice that no two artists draw me the same. At Marvel and DC they aim for a look; they want their leading characters to look the same no matter who draws them.
GROTH: Do you try to choose particular artists for particular types of stories?
PEKAR: Yeah, I do but it doesnāt always work out because sometimes someone I want to do a story is unavailable so I have to give it to somebody else. I try to give humorous stories to Crumb. In the last issue I had some humorous stories that I wanted to give him, but he could only do three pages. I had a choice of either giving him the funny stories or a three-page serious story in which he would employ a new technique, using brushwork. I gave him the serious story and the results were gratifying. Hopefully heāll illustrate the funny stories later.
GROTH: Do you feel in any way that your vision is somewhat attenuated or diminished by having to work with artists that obviously canāt feel what you feel when you write a story?
PEKAR: Sure, to some extent, but in general I feel theyāve gotten the message across. People have told me they liked many stories where the illustration wasnāt particularly good, so I guess the stuff is getting over. I know that the artwork has improved, in general, steadily since the first few books, but still some of those first stories and the early books remain among peopleās favorites, particularly the third book.
GROTH: Yeah, thatās right, a very good issue. Well, let me ask you this, since your stories and work in general are so autobiographical in nature, you really do lay yourself quite naked in the work. How naked are you in those stories? In other words, how honest can you be about yourself?
PEKAR: There are a few things in my life I can hardly bear to think about and I donāt write about them. The things I do write about are things that I believe Iām doing with about as honestly as possible. If Iām embarrassed about something, if itās too painful to write about, I just donāt attempt to.
GROTH: There seems to be a real danger, for someone like yourself, who uses himself as the protagonist, whereas other authors create characters through which they speak or see the world. And your problem seems to be that since you donāt have that kind of mask, and since youāre using yourself as the protagonist, thereās the danger of your trying to color events or sort of seeing things happen, through your own eyes and Iām wondering, have you found that a danger?
PEKAR: Sure. Itās a danger for me, and also for the many other writers who write autobiographical fiction and merely change the name of the protagonist from theirs to a fictitious one. But I err on the side of making myself look bad. I must be conveying some of my faults because when I read reviews of my work, people are always talking about me being cheap, gloomy, inconsiderate and having a bad temper. It would be crazy for me to whitewash myself. In that case nobody would want to look at my stuff; they couldnāt relate to it. If anything I tend to exaggerate my flaws, I think.
GROTH: How do you handle the problem of depicting other people? Since you obviously donāt know what they were thinking when theyāre engaged in conversation or some other situation with you, you sort of have to re-create their own thought process and their behavior and mannerisms and so forth. How do you tackle that problem and remain as truthful as possible?
PEKAR: Well, first I think all storytellers, whether they write about real people or not, have to give them plausible reasons for acting as they do. In a sense I have an advantage over some writers since my characters really exist and I have an opportunity to think about what motivates them. I donāt have to worry about why generic, really fictitious people do things.
Anyway, I try to report what people say accurately and even if I really dislike them I try to see things from their point of view. For instance, in my story āFree Rideā Iām talking about a guy who was in some ways, I thought, a real drag. But I was getting on his nerves and there was a reason for it: he was doing me favors and I wasnāt doing anything for him. He was helping out not only me but other guys who came to him at work and bugged him, not because he had a kindly disposition but because he felt obligated to. He knew he was being taken advantage of, though, and he didnāt like it. I tried to put this information into the story to give people a balanced view of what was going on. I mean maybe I think this guyās a jerk, but maybe he thinks Iām a jerk and maybe the readers will, too. Even if I come off as a shit at least people will have an accurate opinion of what happened.
GROTH: Do you think that thereās a kind of hidden pattern behind your work, anything that you return to or particularly want to stress?
PEKAR: Thatās a general question. I can talk about it on a story-to-story basis. There are certain issues I have dealt with quite a bit such as male-female relationships, the need for people to contribute to relationships so that they remain viable and the parties to them do not become bitter, class antagonism, the difficulties encountered in getting through the āordinaryā day. I like to write stories using slang and dialects; Iām real interested in the way people speak, almost the way I would be in music on one level.
GROTH: Well, what Iām asking is if there are any particular interests that show up in your work, or any way you see life or your relationship to other people that you tend to focus on, and that you want to stress in your work? For example, just to answer my own question, one of the things I see running through your work is when you expose bigotry and prejudice among the lower class, which was what I think āFree Rideā was partly about.
GROTH: I think that your story about Kent State in the second issue was somewhat similar, where in both stories you were trying to reconcile antithetical points of view.
PEKAR: The stories were similar in some ways. In both, I show myself taking a self-righteous attitude toward older people who have hard-line right-wing political positions. In the Kent State story I am actually mean to the old plasterer after he tries to bring about a reconciliation. While I abhor their political ideas, I think America is loaded with these reactionary folks and it doesnāt do a whole lot of good to work up indignation and hatred in yourself every time you see them. There are all kinds of people 1 disagree with about important issues. If I can convert them to my point of view thatās great. But if I canāt, Iāve still got to deal with them in my daily life. So Iāve got to learn to tolerate them, and look at some āmore in sorrow than in anger.ā After all, they may have redeeming qualities. Even I might.
GROTH: Something else that I think tends to run through your stories is that they arenāt resolved, that at the end of them thereās a certain acceptance or a tendency to accept things as they are.
PEKAR: Well, itās like, āWell thatās over, letās get on to the next thing.ā I look at the stories, and each book, and the series of books as something that keeps on happening, like life keeps on happening. It just keeps on. Nothingās ever resolved until yourāre dead. Who knows? Maybe itās resolved then. But I try to keep my arms and legs moving and go from one day to the next because, who knows, a nice surprise may be waiting for me.
GROTH: One of the things thatās quite obvious is that youāre a working-class writer, and I donāt know too many of them; I certainly donāt know of any of them working in comics and Iām not sure if Iām aware of too many of them working in prose. Do you find that that gives you an advantage, in the sense that you find your voice through your working-class origins or values?
PEKAR: I think I touched on some of that in āHypothetical Quandary.ā I should point out that I donāt consider it ennobling to be a Flunky. I just didnāt have any kind of saleable skills so I wound up doing menial work for a living. And. ..
GROTH: Thereās a certain amount of resentment that comes out in your stories about that.
PEKAR: However, since Iām in the position I am in, I experience working-class life. I have a lot of attitudes that are the same as or similar to those of the people I work with. When I write about working people Iām writing about a subject I know about and which is worth writing about.
PEKAR: You mentioned resentment in my work and itās certainly there. Iāve written about being a victim of class prejudice and Iāve also shown myself as exhibiting reverse class prejudice towards the doctors I work with in āOne of Lifeās Pleasures.ā I drop in on these medical conferences, you know, and Iām older than most of the doctors and some of them have heard of me and really respect me. So 1 go to these meetings, snatch a doughnut off the table, insult the doctors, and split. Thatās what I showed myself doing in āOne of Lifeās Pleasures.ā Some people thought it was very funny but what I also wanted to do in that story was show myself as being mean and feeling righteous about it. You can really do that with doctors, feel like youāre the aggrieved party and really let it all hang out. Refuse to see their side of it, donāt even feel ambivalent toward them, and just go ahead and tear into every M.D. that comes along. After all, theyāre either making a lot of money or theyāre going to be making a lot soon. So itās easy to be nasty to them, itās not like youāre picking on some poor old bum.
GROTH: Well, there was another instance similar to that one entitled āClass Antagonism,ā which was printed on the back cover of the eighth book.
PEKAR: Yeah, it was very similar. Again I was being rotten to a doctor. See, I work with doctors and Iāve noticed that as a group theyāre nothing special. There are about as many good doctors as there are garage mechanics. I see where they do a lot of harm sometimes. I donāt hold them in awe, like Jewish mothers do. Many of them are not especially interested in science. They want the money and the social position that being a doctor brings them. So you say, āFuck these people, theyāre making more money than me and thereās nothing special about them.ā So you focus all of your resentment on them. Theyāre highly thought of in the community, some of them are jerks, theyāre real safe to shit on. With the background I come from Iād feel guilty about shitting on some skid-row bum but doctors are perfect, you know? When you need to take something out on someone, thereās always the doctors. You have a Robin Hood attitudeāāmake the rich pay!ā
GROTH: Well, now, is that a justification or a rationalization, do you think?
PEKAR: I want people to think Iām acting badly when I show myself being cruel to someone without provocation. I donāt think itās right to treat people cruelly for no reason, just because they have more money than you or are in a socially higher class. A lot of people from persecuted or disadvantaged ethnic groups feel they have license to hate all members of the group thatās got the power. Many Polish and Russian Jews from my parentsā generation had a blanket dislike for all Gentiles. Itās really bad when people whoāve been persecuted acquire power and start persecuting others. They feel theyāve been kicked around and itās only fair that they should be able to kick someone else around. The fact that they have a double standard doesnāt bother them.
GROTH: Well, getting back to your stories, in āClass Antagonismā you really do come across as kind of a shit.
GROTH: Selfish and arrogant.
GROTH: You say, āI donāt want to give, I just want to freeload. You people around here think Iām cheap and I am, but so what?ā
GROTH: Now let me ask you this about the creative processāis there a way, in a sense, where you rationalize this behavior by actually writing about it? In a sense you justify it by creating art out of it. The art is the justification.
PEKAR: I think I can find enough things to write about without acting like a schmuck. Sometimes I want to make a point and I can illustrate it by telling a story about myself. Sometimes I donāt look good in these stories. So what? Iām not worried about making myself the heavy. Sometimes, in fact, Iād be in trouble if I portrayed myself as a paragon of virtue, as I told you, because my persona wouldnāt be believable. Beyond that I donāt think I make myself out to be more of a shit in these stories than most people actually are, although I guess I look like more of a shit than theyāll admit to being.
GROTH: Is there any way in which the ongoing American Splendor affects your behavior? In other words, if you find yourself in a situation where you can react one way or another, but you sort of instinctively realize that if you act one way itāll make for a good story whereas if you react another way it wouldnāt. That could actually affect your behavior ā a case of life anticipating art.
PEKAR: Well, let me tell you in my case where life imitates art. Iāll sometimes set up situations that I can get a story out of, particularly a humorous story. There are some people who I know I can get going, get funny responses from. I ask them certain questions, maybe about something I just talked to them about, and I know that they have something funny or crazy to say on the subject. Itās like the first time through, Iāll just be talking with them and Iāll think, āGod! That would make a great story.ā Then, the next time I see them Iāll have a pencil and paper on me so I get what they say down. Iāve shown myself doing that in āThe Maggies.ā
GROTH: Yeah, thatās right.
PEKAR: Now most of the time Iām on good terms with these people and I show them the stories. I ask them if they want to be in them or if I should substitute someone else, a character that doesnāt look like them, for example.
GROTH: Have you found your friends becoming somewhat wary of you, for fear theyāll be put in your books?
PEKAR: Not that I know of. If Iām on good terms with people, I show them the stories and generally portray them in a good light, anyway ā Iāve given Crumb stories to illustrate in which Iāve written about him. Iāve talked over the stuff with him and I donāt recall his having any objections. Let me make it clear that I donāt enjoy upsetting or humiliating people. Interestingly, most of the people who are portrayed in a bad light in my books donāt read them. What am I saying ā āif you read American Splendor youāre probably a good personā? [Laughter.] Maybe so.
GROTH: What did Dr. Goldman think of āClass Antagonismā?
PEKAR: Her name actually wasnāt Goldman, but anyway she said that I got it right except that her desk was too neat. But I donāt think I showed her in a bad light, although some people think that I did and they were saying, āBoy, she wouldnāt even give you any cake ā what a rat.ā But I think I was the villain of that story, I was kind of surprised to find that people thought she was.
GROTH: No, that wouldnāt occur to me.
PEKAR: Some people just went on the basis of that class thing ā sheās a doctor, she ought to be giving up the cake. Thatās like the graduated income tax ā the/rich ought to give up more cakes than the poor.
GROTH: Well, class friction is one of your themes. In your story,āOut of the Past,ā youāre talking about someone you knew a long time ago and you say, āSteveās a good guy but heās an American and he probably has an American sense of values.ā Could you talk a little about that? What you mean by āan American sense of values,ā which I think is another point of interest that runs through yours stories.
PEKAR: OK. In this story I was writing about a guy who owned a store next to my fatherās. He was a fine guy, an ethnic but not a racist, which is not an easy thing to be in a town full of as much racial hatred as Cleveland. He was always open and square with everybody and good-natured. I really didnāt understand what a rare kind of person he was ātil I got older. But he was a conventional guy in a lot of ways; he wasnāt an intellectual or anything like that. I was reluctant to introduce myself to him because I was afraid heād think, āThis guyās 37, 38 years old,his father worked so fucking hard for him and look ā here he is now, heās a flunky clerk and got a divorce behind him.ā I was too embarrassed to say anything to the guy. I thought, āGod, Iād better hide!ā I was tempted to talk to him but I was drawn away from it because I made an assumption, maybe an inaccurate one, that he would disapprove of me.
GROTH: The implication is that his values or the average Americanās values are not your values.
PEKAR: Right, exactly.
GROTH: Can you explicate that?
PEKAR: I donāt measure how successful a man is by how much money he makes or, in this guyās case, how stable his life is. In other words, this guy came from a background where I imagine family and marital stability were very important and here I was, divorced and not at all close with my family. Who likes to make a bad impression if they can avoid it? Talking more generally about my values ā it matters a lot to me about peopleās honesty and their reliability and also, I guess, the quality of their intellect.
GROTH: Well, do you think intellectual ability is the result of force of will or is this just a natural inclination you respect?
PEKAR: I respect people who value knowledge, who try to attain knowledge. I guess I value people more who know about things I know about, but I also respect outstanding scientists, mathematicians.
GROTH: What Iām trying to ask you is, is there any kind of moral framework by which you value people, because knowledge in and of itself isnāt moral or immoral and has no moral dimension.
PEKAR: Well, I mentioned that I valued honesty and reliability in peopleā¦ Actually the word āmoralā doesnāt mean that much to me, though. Iām not an absolutist when it comes to morality. I go along with the utilitarian goal ā āthe greatest good for the most people in the long run.ā
GROTH: It appears that you are a socialist.
PEKAR: Well, I would rather see people cooperating than competing. Iām not a doctrinaire adherent of any political, social or economic theory, but I believe people can accomplish more by cooperating than competing.
GROTH: How do you respond to free marketers who claim that competition is obviously the system that inspires the most efficiency?
PEKAR: What free marketers would those be? Todayās corporate heads donāt love competition: whenever possible they try to create monopolies or oligopolies that restrict competition. Capitalists donāt believe in laissez-faire economics these days, they probably never did. There are major sections of our economy today in which prices are fixed, not arrived at through competition. You know who wants competition? Ralph Nader wants competition. And you know what the corporate heads think of him. Look at these big businesses trying to get help and bailouts from Washington these days, like Chrysler did. Plenty of todayās capitalists believe in whatās called āsocialism for the rich,ā theyāve got their hands out as much as anyone else.
GROTH: Yeah, but Reagan certainly believes in fewer restrictions and regulations on business than say, John Kenneth Galbraith.
PEKAR: Maybe so, but heās not shy on intervening in the economy. Look what he did to the air traffic controllers. I donāt think the left or right take laissez-faire economics seriously these days, although thereās still lip service paid to them. I think the issue isnāt so much whether the government aids people these days, I think itās a question of who it aids, the rich or the poor. I believe the government should stimulate the economy by aiding poor people, not rich ones. There are more poor people than rich ones, they need the help more and itās important to bring them into the mainstream of society. If you consistently aid the top stratum, you develop more class antagonism and the amount of poverty-stricken people is more likely to be increased. I notice that during the last few years the amount of poverty-stricken people has been increasingly even during so-called boom periods. We still have an awful lot of unemployment even though the economyās supposed to have been booming recently. When you aid the rich they donāt ādrip downā wealth to the poor fast enough and in great enough amounts. What you donāt want now is 20 per cent of your population wallowing in some sort of economic backwater, while the rest of the people have formed a separate economy or something like that because itās eventually going to hurt everybody. When the poor donāt have money to spend, when theyāre receiving public assistance, theyāre a drag on the economy. When theyāre employed, on the other hand, they pay taxes.
GROTH: Well, let me bring this back to your own writing, particularly what you said about American values. And that is that you repeatedly lament the fact that you havenāt achieved a certain status as a writer. Could that be construed similarly as trying to attain the status that you were deriding earlier?
PEKAR: I donāt know if Iāve talked about it that much except for in the eighth issue, in the stories about Wally Shawn and The Village Voice and in the ninth issue in that story āHypothetical Quandary.ā I wouldnāt mind being well thought of and I wouldnāt mind having a lot of money, although I could live without it. What Iād like to do, though, is to stop losing thousands of dollars a year on this book, and thatās a legitimate desire that I think anyone can understand. Itās a real strain to try and come up with the money for the book all the damn time.
GROTH: Do you literally lose money on it?
PEKAR: I literally lose thousands on it.
PEKAR: I wouldnāt mind being known more than I am now, I admit.
GROTH: If, in fact, you became better known, and made substantially more money, do you think that would undermine what serves as a catalyst for your writing to a large extent? You would be a different person certainly, and different economically.
PEKAR: I really donāt know. I speculated about that in āHypothetical Quandary.ā I really think Iām too old. Iāve been through too much to be thrown off course. I was talking to Crumb about it and he said when he became famous he was in his mid 20s and it threw him off. But understand, when I say, ābetter-knownā Iām not talking about becoming a celebrity. It would be a pain in the ass to be that. But if some more people, maybe other writers knew about me, itād enrich my life.
GROTH: Well, would you like to be as well known as Norman Mailer?
PEKAR: No, heās a celebrity. Thatās a pain in the ass; Iād like to have more contact with people who have interests similar to mine. Iām pretty isolated now; in Cleveland Iām known primarily as a file clerk. And, I mean, I got a wife out of corresponding with people, so letter writingās been good for me, Iām married now.
PEKAR: I married Joyce Brabner when she started corresponding to me about my book.
GROTH: Good God, is that right?
PEKAR: Yeah, really. I get a fair amount of letters, a disproportionately large amount of letters in relation to the number of books I sell, and a lot of them are good, substantive letters. The people who like my book the most arenāt typical comic-book readers, some of them are pretty scholarly in areas outside comics.
GROTH: As a writer, do you consider yourself a radical or an outsider? How do you identify yourself or place yourself as a writer?
PEKAR: I guess Iām trying to create my own genre. Like I said earlier, American Splendor looks like a comic book, but the content is not typical of comic-book content. Thatās sort of a problem in that regular comic-book readers donāt mess with it and novel readers, who might like it, donāt even see it. Itās not in most regular bookstores; in fact itās not even in that many comic-book stores.
GROTH: I take it you donāt read much escapist writing.
PEKAR: Not what I define as escapist, although there is a place for a certain amount of escapist art. A great number of fine non-escapist fantasy works have been written over the centuries. I like the works of Jules Verne and C.S. Lewis. I just donāt think juvenile fantasy escapist work should dominate any medium ā not comics, not novels, not movies. Do you realize how much more grown-up and sophisticated even a hip TV sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or even Leave it to Beaver; is compared to the average mainstream comic book? Let me make it plain that I read and enjoy plenty of literature that is not grimly realistic: surrealistic, post-modernist, stream of consciousness, absurdist. But what can a grown person get from the average DC or Marvel comic story? Just because there might be some obvious moral in it ā so what? You were supposed to learn about those morals when you were a little kid.
CORRECTION: The Harvey Pekar photo was mistakenly credited to Donald Fiene, but was courtesy of Gerry Shamray, who shot the photo for his work. Our apologies.