Gary Groth Interviews Harvey Pekar (1984) Part One of Two

Posted by on July 14th, 2010 at 5:15 PM

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 ’60s and ’70s, 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. Pekar’s contribution to comics is important as inspiration and example. — 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 I’d like to talk about your interests, particularly with regard to literature, but let’s 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 today—how you fit in, or don’t 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 people—that’s for others to decide—but 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 I’d 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 peoples’ 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, I’ll sometimes compress the time in which incidents have taken place —I remember once I changed the sex of a character. I’ve 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. They’d 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 what’s 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 immediately…or are there any set rules?

PEKAR: Often I do it immediately, especially if I’m writing a story in which dialect is important. I’ll 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 I’ll write a story about them within a half-hour. Shorter things, anyway—vignettes. I’m usually not in a position to write the longer stories right away, but I’ll 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 doesn’t sell well, some having to do with virtually no advertising, poor media coverage, and pretty spotty distribution. But it’s true that there are some people who aren’t 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 don’t want to deal with it, they say, “Hey 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 don’t wanna be reading about the kind of lie I have to live.” And it bothers some of them, it seems strange to them sometimes.

GROTH: Do you think that’s a valid point of view or do you think it’s the product of aberrant cultural conditioning?

PEKAR: Generally, I think it’s 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 don’t exist. But it’s hard for many to do that. When they get through with their daily work, some probably don’t want to be reminded of it, it may seem like a busman’s holiday for them to read American Splendor, which focuses on their everyday struggle. I’ll tell you this, though—I’ve had surprising results when people I’ve 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 don’t 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, that’s really ironic.

GROTH: Well, your work is certainly not the kind that people expect to see in comics.

PEKAR: That’s true. Comic book fans usually don’t want realism and readers of realistic literature don’t 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, there’s no intrinsic limit on what people can do in comics, it’s just that fantasy fans have, for some reason, determined what goes into comic books. There’s 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 weren’t popular in comic books.

GROTH: How do you account for the abandonment of that kind of material in comics form?

PEKAR: I can’t. I’m really not a student of comic-book or comic-strip history, although I sure read plenty of both when I was a kid. But it’s interesting that soap opera stories like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan are still popular in strip form. They’re not as good as Williams’ or Ahern’s work, but they’re 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 Ahern’s when I was a kid, and possibly it’s a source that I drew on for my work. It’s hard to say what influenced me. I was 32 when I started writing comic stories and I think I drew on all sorts of things—novelists, comedians, movies, all kinds of things. Maybe the first important influence on me was Eleanor Estes, a writer of outstanding, amazingly realistic children’s 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, “God, why doesn’t anyone else write like this?” That’s 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: That’s right. But to continue about comics: they’ve 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 ’60s 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 “fine arts” bag. All sorts of possibilities that people had started to deal with in the ’60s 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 hadn’t looked at it in some time. Unlike most of the ’40s superhero stuff, it stood up quite well, it wasn’t just of period interest. Crumb was working on his Yum Yum Book then, and I was very impressed with it. I thought, “Man, this is tremendous.”

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, we’d 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 ’60s, I got into underground comics. I visited Crumb in San Francisco in 1968, he visited me in Cleveland in ’70-’72. 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 don’t 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 Crumb’s 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 isn‘t realistic!

PEKAR: First, I think Sue Cavey’s drawing is pretty realistic by comic-book standards. Her characters are accurately proportioned. She doesn’t 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. That’s OK with me though. Everyone who illustrates my stories doesn’t have to be a literal realist as long as they don’t 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 reference—

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? There’s a difference there. At least there’s a difference on the surface.

PEKAR: Good point. Crumb exaggerates and distorts peoples’ proportions, but he’s tremendously observant—he notices how people walk and gesture and dress. When he exaggerates, he draws attention to peoples’ unique, distinctive characteristics. In that sense, his cartoony style is as realistic as anyone’s . But most cartoony illustrators lack Crumb’s powers of observation. They merely employ techniques of drawing they’ve derived from other artists. They’re not as insightful as Crumb and for that reason I prefer not to work with them.

GROTH: Maybe “truthful” would be a better word.

PEKAR: The stuff I’ve given him to do, he’s 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 I’d like in the backgrounds, what I’d 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 wouldn’t be much.

PEKAR: All right, or far more then they probably have at DC or Marvel, from what I’ve been able to determine from Val [Mayerik]. There are several reasons for that. First, I can’t afford to pay a lot of money so I don’t want to be squashing people’s individuality too. I’ve got to give them some reason to want to work for me. I’d like to pay them more but I can’t, so I try to make it worthwhile in other ways. Also, you never know what’s 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. You’ll 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 doesn’t 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 he’ll 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 can’t feel what you feel when you write a story?

PEKAR: Sure, to some extent, but in general I feel they’ve gotten the message across. People have told me they liked many stories where the illustration wasn‘t 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 people’s favorites, particularly the third book.

GROTH: Yeah, that’s 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 don’t write about them. The things I do write about are things that I believe I’m doing with about as honestly as possible. If I’m embarrassed about something, if it’s too painful to write about, I just don’t 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 don’t have that kind of mask, and since you’re using yourself as the protagonist, there’s the danger of your trying to color events or sort of seeing things happen, through your own eyes and I’m wondering, have you found that a danger?

PEKAR: Sure. It’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t know what they were thinking when they’re 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 don’t 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 “Free Ride” I’m 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 wasn’t 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 didn‘t 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 guy’s a jerk, but maybe he thinks I’m 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 there’s a kind of hidden pattern behind your work, anything that you return to or particularly want to stress?

PEKAR: That’s 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 “ordinary” day. I like to write stories using slang and dialects; I’m real interested in the way people speak, almost the way I would be in music on one level.

GROTH: Well, what I’m 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 “Free Ride” was partly about.

PEKAR: Yeah.

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 doesn’t 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 that’s great. But if I can‘t, I‘ve still got to deal with them in my daily life. So I‘ve got to learn to tolerate them, and look at some “more in sorrow than in anger.” 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 aren’t resolved, that at the end of them there’s a certain acceptance or a tendency to accept things as they are.

PEKAR: Well, it‘s like, “Well that‘s over, let’s get on to the next thing.” 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. Nothing’s ever resolved until your’re dead. Who knows? Maybe it’s 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 that‘s quite obvious is that you‘re a working-class writer, and I don‘t know too many of them; I certainly don‘t know of any of them working in comics and I‘m not sure if I’m 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 “Hypothetical Quandary.” I should point out that I don’t consider it ennobling to be a Flunky. I just didn‘t have any kind of saleable skills so I wound up doing menial work for a living. And. ..

GROTH: There’s a certain amount of resentment that comes out in your stories about that.

PEKAR: However, since I’m 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 I’m writing about a subject I know about and which is worth writing about.

GROTH: Right.

PEKAR: You mentioned resentment in my work and it’s certainly there. I‘ve written about being a victim of class prejudice and I‘ve also shown myself as exhibiting reverse class prejudice towards the doctors I work with in “One of Life’s Pleasures.” I drop in on these medical conferences, you know, and I‘m 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. That’s what I showed myself doing in “One of Life’s Pleasures.” 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 you’re the aggrieved party and really let it all hang out. Refuse to see their side of it, don’t even feel ambivalent toward them, and just go ahead and tear into every M.D. that comes along. After all, they‘re either making a lot of money or they‘re going to be making a lot soon. So it‘s easy to be nasty to them, it’s not like you’re picking on some poor old bum.

GROTH: Well, there was another instance similar to that one entitled “Class Antagonism,” 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 I’ve noticed that as a group they’re 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 don’t 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, “Fuck these people, they’re making more money than me and there’s nothing special about them.” So you focus all of your resentment on them. They’re highly thought of in the community, some of them are jerks, they’re real safe to shit on. With the background I come from I’d feel guilty about shitting on some skid-row bum but doctors are perfect, you know? When you need to take something out on someone, there’s always the doctors. You have a Robin Hood attitude—”make the rich pay!”

GROTH: Well, now, is that a justification or a rationalization, do you think?

PEKAR: I want people to think I’m acting badly when I show myself being cruel to someone without provocation. I don’t think it’s 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 that’s got the power. Many Polish and Russian Jews from my parents’ generation had a blanket dislike for all Gentiles. It’s really bad when people who’ve been persecuted acquire power and start persecuting others. They feel they’ve been kicked around and it’s only fair that they should be able to kick someone else around. The fact that they have a double standard doesn’t bother them.

GROTH: Well, getting back to your stories, in “Class Antagonism” you really do come across as kind of a shit.

PEKAR: Right.

GROTH: Selfish and arrogant.

PEKAR: Right.

GROTH: You say, “I don’t want to give, I just want to freeload. You people around here think I’m cheap and I am, but so what?”

PEKAR: Right.

GROTH: Now let me ask you this about the creative process—is 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 don’t look good in these stories. So what? I’m not worried about making myself the heavy. Sometimes, in fact, I’d be in trouble if I portrayed myself as a paragon of virtue, as I told you, because my persona wouldn’t be believable. Beyond that I don’t 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 they’ll 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 it’ll make for a good story whereas if you react another way it wouldn’t. That could actually affect your behavior — a case of life anticipating art.

PEKAR: Well, let me tell you in my case where life imitates art. I’ll 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. It’s like the first time through, I’ll just be talking with them and I’ll think, “God! That would make a great story.” Then, the next time I see them I’ll have a pencil and paper on me so I get what they say down. I’ve shown myself doing that in “The Maggies.”

GROTH: Yeah, that’s right.

PEKAR: Now most of the time I’m 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 doesn’t look like them, for example.

GROTH: Have you found your friends becoming somewhat wary of you, for fear they’ll be put in your books?

PEKAR: Not that I know of. If I’m on good terms with people, I show them the stories and generally portray them in a good light, anyway — I’ve given Crumb stories to illustrate in which I’ve written about him. I’ve talked over the stuff with him and I don’t recall his having any objections. Let me make it clear that I don’t enjoy upsetting or humiliating people. Interestingly, most of the people who are portrayed in a bad light in my books don’t read them. What am I saying — “if you read American Splendor you’re probably a good person”? [Laughter.] Maybe so.

GROTH: What did Dr. Goldman think of “Class Antagonism”?

PEKAR: Her name actually wasn’t Goldman, but anyway she said that I got it right except that her desk was too neat. But I don’t think I showed her in a bad light, although some people think that I did and they were saying, “Boy, she wouldn’t even give you any cake — what a rat.” 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 wouldn’t occur to me.

PEKAR: Some people just went on the basis of that class thing — she’s a doctor, she ought to be giving up the cake. That’s like the graduated income tax — the/rich ought to give up more cakes than the poor.

GROTH: Well, class friction is one of your themes. In your story,”Out of the Past,” you’re talking about someone you knew a long time ago and you say, “Steve’s a good guy but he’s an American and he probably has an American sense of values.” Could you talk a little about that? What you mean by “an American sense of values,” 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 father’s. 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 didn‘t understand what a rare kind of person he was ’til I got older. But he was a conventional guy in a lot of ways; he wasn‘t an intellectual or anything like that. I was reluctant to introduce myself to him because I was afraid he’d think, “This guy’s 37, 38 years old,his father worked so fucking hard for him and look — here he is now, he’s a flunky clerk and got a divorce behind him.” I was too embarrassed to say anything to the guy. I thought, “God, I’d better hide!” 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 American’s values are not your values.

PEKAR: Right, exactly.

GROTH: Can you explicate that?

PEKAR: I don’t measure how successful a man is by how much money he makes or, in this guy’s 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 — it matters a lot to me about people’s 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 I’m trying to ask you is, is there any kind of moral framework by which you value people, because knowledge in and of itself isn’t moral or immoral and has no moral dimension.

PEKAR: Well, I mentioned that I valued honesty and reliability in people… Actually the word “moral” doesn’t mean that much to me, though. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to morality. I go along with the utilitarian goal — “the greatest good for the most people in the long run.”

GROTH: It appears that you are a socialist.

PEKAR: Well, I would rather see people cooperating than competing. I’m 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? Today’s corporate heads don’t love competition: whenever possible they try to create monopolies or oligopolies that restrict competition. Capitalists don’t 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 today’s capitalists believe in what’s called “socialism for the rich,” they’ve 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 he’s not shy on intervening in the economy. Look what he did to the air traffic controllers. I don’t think the left or right take laissez-faire economics seriously these days, although there’s still lip service paid to them. I think the issue isn’t so much whether the government aids people these days, I think it’s 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 it’s 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 economy’s supposed to have been booming recently. When you aid the rich they don’t “drip down” wealth to the poor fast enough and in great enough amounts. What you don’t 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 it’s eventually going to hurt everybody. When the poor don’t have money to spend, when they’re receiving public assistance, they’re a drag on the economy. When they’re 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 haven’t 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 don’t know if I’ve 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 “Hypothetical Quandary.” I wouldn’t mind being well thought of and I wouldn’t mind having a lot of money, although I could live without it. What I’d like to do, though, is to stop losing thousands of dollars a year on this book, and that’s a legitimate desire that I think anyone can understand. It’s 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.

GROTH: Really?

PEKAR: I wouldn’t 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 don’t know. I speculated about that in “Hypothetical Quandary.” I really think I’m too old. I’ve 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, “better-known” I’m 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, it’d enrich my life.

GROTH: Well, would you like to be as well known as Norman Mailer?

PEKAR: No, he’s a celebrity. That’s a pain in the ass; I’d like to have more contact with people who have interests similar to mine. I’m pretty isolated now; in Cleveland I’m known primarily as a file clerk. And, I mean, I got a wife out of corresponding with people, so letter writing’s been good for me, I’m married now.

GROTH: Again?

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 aren’t 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 I’m 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. That’s sort of a problem in that regular comic-book readers don’t mess with it and novel readers, who might like it, don’t even see it. It’s not in most regular bookstores; in fact it’s not even in that many comic-book stores.

GROTH: I take it you don’t 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 don’t think juvenile fantasy escapist work should dominate any medium — 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 — 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.

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