This interview is reprinted from TCJ #162, October 1993, the autobio-cartoonist issue.
Harvey Pekarās magazine American Splendor has been appearing roughly every year since 1976: the latestā#17āappeared in July. In each issue, Pekar writes stories from his everyday life in the belief that āmundane events, because they occur so frequently, have a much greater influence on peopleās lives [than escapist fantasy]ā¦ā Pekar bas worked with artists such as Robert Crumb and Frank Stack; he favors realistic illustration and believes ā… most cartoony illustrators lack Crumbās power of observation.ā
Pekar funded the first 15 issues of American Splendor with his full-time job as a clerk in a Cleveland veteranās hospital. (Subsequent issues were published by Tundra and Dark Horse; collections have been published by Doubleday and Four Walls Eight Windows.) He has an exhaustive knowledge of literature, writes jazz criticism, and is a master street-corner shtick artist, as demonstrated in his many appearances on the David Letterman Show. Gary Groth speaks with him here about the form and value of autobiography, as well as the slippery notion of artistic standards.
GARY GROTH: It seems to me that autobiographical comics were an artistic breakthrough for comics: especially at the time you started doing them. Could you tell me how you see them having evolved from that time to the present? Do you think they have proved to be the breakthrough I thought them to be?
HARVEY PEKAR: I always considered autobiography to be a pretty basic literary form, and regardless of how good or how bad most of the autobiographical comics are today I think that itās an important form; it can be an important form in comics the same way it is in prose literature. But in terms of my own contributions, Iād like to emphasize more that I did realistic work, work in which I did not exaggerate. That is not to say I did I 19th-century realistic work, because Iām constantly trying to evolve new narrative forms and techniques. But I try to write about my life and times, without exaggerations, and give more attention to everyday events than do not only comic-book writers but the vast majority of writers in any medium.
GROTH: Do you think that autobiography has intrinsically greater potential than superheroes or other genres?
PEKAR: I donāt take the superhero genre seriously.
GROTH: Whereas you would autobiography?
PEKAR: Yeah. That doesnāt mean that autobiography canāt be done badly. Iāve been hearing complaints about certain autobiographical comics, and I really havenāt seen a whole hell of a lot of them. Iām back to where I was in about 1982 in terms of being acquainted with whatās going on with other peopleās comic work. I donāt know too much about whatās going on out there. I just know itās absurd to condemn autobiography just because somebody doesnāt like autobiographical comics.
GROTH: But purely in terms of the potential, for artistic expression, would you go so far as to say that autobiography has more intrinsic potential than standard comic-book genres such as superhero or horror or adventure?
PEKAR: Are you talking about Marvel and DC?
GROTH: Essentially, yeah.
PEKAR: Yeah, I think so, sure. Autobiography is not genre literature, whereas the kind of stuff that they do in Marvel and DC comics is genre literature. You know, there are parameters within which Marvel and DC writers and artists have to stay, and that means theyāre limited. But the autobiographical form is a form thatās been with us for an awful long time and will continue to be with us, regardless of how well or badly people are doing in general in the field right now. There seems to be a lot of interest in it nowāthe interest may abate to some extent, but I think it will be with us.
GROTH: Since you just said that autobiography is not genre literature, let me ask you to comment on something Dave Sim said recently in which he quoted Steve Bissette approvingly to the effect that autobiography is a genre just like any other genre.
PEKAR: Well, autobiography is not a genre in the sense that most mystery novels are a genre, or that most science fiction novels are a genre, because autobiographies are not written to accommodate pre-set rules.
GROTH: They donāt have self-limiting boundaries?
PEKAR: Thatās right. Science-fiction fans and mystery fans want their stuff written to conform, to fall within certain parameters, to follow certain rules. And there are quite a few writers who do follow these rules. There are a few thatāIām sorry if they copy each other, Iām sorry if the work is derivative, Iām sorry if the people donāt have broader frames of reference, but what can I do?
GROTH: Could you actually talk about some of the autobiographical cartoonists you do follow? I know you like Denny Eichhornās work.
PEKAR: Yeah, I enjoy Dennyās work. I think that Joe Saccoās doing terrific work. I really like Joeās work a lot. And I like Chester Brownās workāitās been criticized, but I like it. I think Chesterās a real intelligent guy and that just about everything he does is worth something, has some merit in it.
GROTH: Have you followed Joe Mattās work?
PEKAR: No, I really havenāt. Joe sent me some stuff some yeas ago. I used to correspond with him, and he sent me some stuff at that time. From a visual standpoint I found it real interesting, he was using those real small panels, but I canāt remember now what the text was. I guess it was autobiographical.
PEKAR: I know he has become quite a controversial figure now.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Urinating into sinks will do that…
PEKAR: But I havenāt looked at his recent stuff, or a lot of peopleās recent stuff, and Iā m sorry about that but Iāve been so damn busy…Iāve been doing an awful lot of prose writing for various alternative newspapers around the country, including a lot of book reviews, record reviews, and essays, and my reading has been pretty much confined to prose and especially to prose fiction.
GROTH: Does that indicate a diminishing interest in comics?
PEKAR: Well, I guess you might say there arenāt a lot of young cartoonists these days Iām crazy about. Iām interested in what Iām doing, but…
GROTH: Yeah, l figured that.
PEKAR:…and Iām still interested in the form. Iām more interested in the form than ever, but Iām not reading that much stuffā¦
GROTH: Let me get you into the perilous territory of literary standards. Would I be correct in assuming that you believe your work attains some sort of literary level?
PEKAR: Well…Yeah, I would say it achieves…I mean all work achieves some sort of literary level. What do you mean, like literary as opposed to stuff thatās sub-literary, or what?
PEKAR: Yeah, I think itās up there, I think it achieves a literary level, yeah.
GROTH: What other comics do you think achieve a similar or greater level of literary success? Iām talking purely in terms of quality.
PEKAR: Well, let me just put it this way. I donāt want to get into a hierarchy of levels or number guys one, two, three, four, or anything like that. But I think there are some who write well in comics, maybe not so much… I think maybe more of them came to the fore in the early underground period. I think Stack and Shelton and Crumb were good writers, and Bill Griffith was a good writer, Justin Green was a good writer, Spain was a good writer, and, though he wasnāt a fancy writer, S. Clay Wilson was a funny writerāhe was sort of limited in a way, the topics he wrote about, but I think they were good writers. I think Joe Saccoās a good writer.
GROTH: Are you able to separate the writing from the drawing? Everyone youāve mentioned also draws his own work. Ā It seems in comics itās very difficult to make a clear division between the two. Itās hard for me to think of anyone else drawing a strip that Crumb writes, and achieving that same level of success that Crumb himself would. So is it just the writing youāre talking about?
PEKAR: No, I think theyāre good writers. I think there are some guys out there who can draw well who donāt write well, and I think that there may be some people who write pretty well but donāt draw that well.
GROTH: You named people mostly in your generation. How about others?
PEKAR: I was going to say, I mentioned Joe Sacco. I think Terry LaBan and Jim Woodring and Dan Clowes are good writers, I think Chesterās a good writer.
GROTH: How about Will Eisner, who does autobiographical work?
PEKAR: I think that Will Eisnerās best writing was the stuff that he did in the ā40s, the comic stuff and the satirical stuff that he did, like The Spirit and stuff like that. I think when he tried to do the more serious stuff, more ambitious stuff, it wasnāt good, it was sentimental and it could get kind of corny. Itās unfortunate because I think heās a very fine artist and I think heās had a very strong and positive influence on comic-book art, but I donāt think these longer pieces that he wrote about the ā30s and Jewish life in the Depression are his strong point. I think that that stuff is not very original at all, I think itās quite derivative.
GROTH: Did you read his last big graphic novel, To the Heart of the Storm, which was autobiographical?
PEKAR: No, I didnāt. I read some of the things he did…
GROTH: Contract With God.
PEKAR: Yeah, and in the early ā80s my wife turned me on to him again. And thatās the stuff Iām reacting to. I donāt know, maybe some of the stuff that heās done more recently is better, I donāt know. I just know that the stuff that I saw I was disappointed in. Although the drawing was fine, the writing was not very original. I see where the sources are, the people that have influenced him, and I donāt think that, if he were to write prose stories like that, I donāt think people would take his work real seriously.
GROTH: So why do you think they take him seriously in comics form?
PEKAR: Well, for one thing, I think people in comics donāt have real high standards for writing, and for another thing, itās because they worship Will Eisner like a god. And certain guys can do no wrong. Thatās why I think that you took a lot of heat when you were critical of Eisnerās work. I mean, Eisner deserves a lot of praise and a lot of respect, but he doesnāt do everything equally well.
GROTH: Why do you think standards in comics are so dismal? Is it because of the history of the medium?
PEKAR: Well, itās a strange history. Itās funnyācomics were better, I think, when they were in newspaper strips. You had a whole bunch of really fine guys back around the turn of the century up to about 1940: there were a lot of good people that came to the fore. I think that that stuff was aimed at adults, but I think comic books were aimed at children. And I think that the field was abandoned to people who did this childrenās art form, art that was aimed at people with juvenile intellects. And consequently, I think thatās why so many comics are bad today, because theyāre not even aimed at people who are serious thinkers.
GROTH: Does that explain why the comics that are aimed at serious readers, such as Eisnerās, also, in your opinion, fall short of the mark? Because even a lot of comics that are critically acclaimed, I think you would probably find wanting.
PEKAR: Standards are pretty low. For example, I was at a convention one time in Cleveland, it was a Superman convention, and I was trying to hustle my comics, they gave me a booth and stuff. And these kids were coming up and telling me what a phenomenal comic Concrete was: a whole bunch of them. So I finally got a hold of it and I took Ā a look at it and it seemed to be, well, you know, it wasnāt as bad as some superhero comics Iād seen, but it just didnāt seem to me to be anything that unusual.
GROTH: When you say ākids;ā how old are you talking about?
PEKAR: I donāt think a lot of old people read comics, but I think there are young adults, people up to maybe even their 30s who read comics and donāt have real high literary standards, and when I look at the kind of stuff that they think is real heavyweight reading, Iām not too impressed by it. Itās just that serious readers have never, for the most part, looked to comics for good literature because in fact there are so few comics that are well written. And I think itās extremely important for comics to be well written. I think itās as important for comics to be as well written as theater pieces, plays, as movies, as television shows. Just as you can have a bunch of good actors with a lousy script and youāll get a lousy movie, you can have a real fine illustrator, but if heās got a shit script, then youāre going to have, more often than not, an inferior product.
GROTH: Well, if you were given the opportunity, which you are now being given, to give readers a crash course on how to attain literary standards, how would you say they should go about doing this?
PEKAR: I can only talk about my own experience. I started reading literary histories…Well, you know, as a kid youād hear about this writer is a good writer and that writer is a good writer, and I picked the books up and Iād read them. Like Dostoyevskyās a good writer, this guy, that guy, Mark Twain, Herman Melville.
GROTH: Clive Barker.
PEKAR: No, not Clive Barker, no [Groth laughs]: when I decided to really study literature in a serious way, I went about it in a real systematic manner. I started back centuries ago and I would read the 18th-century English writers, then the 18th-century French writers, and I just kept on systematically reading from centuries ago to the presentāthe writers of different nations and geographical areas. Thatās how I did it. But the thing about it is, youāve got to enjoy that reading. If you donāt enjoy it, then forget about it. If all you like is adventure stories, and you donāt care if a guyās got great psychological insights, or writes about politics very well, or about society, then…
GROTH: Well, a little more specifically, how did you learn to distinguish between good and bad? There are bad 19th-century writers as well as good; how did you distinguish between the two?
PEKAR: We all have different values and different standards. What I would look for, one thing that would be real important to me would be originality. Technical competence comes into it, although thatās not the main thing. The freshness of ideas and content, the way the works were structured, if they were structured solidly or not. But to tell you the truth, when you read the history of a particular area of literature, usually theyāre not going to talk about the bad writers, they usually talk about the people that are good. And although I think some writers are overrated and some are underrated, I think that most of the people cited in these literary histories as being good have something to offer. Tolstoy may have characteristics, as I think I pointed out in my first interview with you guys, that annoy me. I think heās overrated, but still heās a very fine writer. Heās certainly not a schlocky writer or anything like that. Heās a fine writer and an important writer. You just donāt get around to reading the garbageāthe Jackie Collinses of that time, if there were any equivalents; their work isnāt around now, probably. And I wouldnāt mess with it. Soā¦thereās a lot of selection being done for you by historians and critics. On the other hand, I have found works by people, especially in the 20th century when you can still get hold of their works, Iāve found some really good works by people who werenāt written about very much if at all.
GROTH: They get buried.
PEKAR: Yeah, much as some of the guys, maybe some of the best guys youāre publishing who sell very little, maybe theyāll be forgotten about. I hope not. But itās possible that that may happen,
GROTH: Does your book sell better now than it did seven, eight years ago?
PEKAR: I think gradually my sales have improved. They sell somewhat better than they did in the early ā80s. Around the early ā80s I was starting to break even, and from then on my sales have slightly improved. Over the past three or four yeas, I donāt know that theyāve improved, like from one year to the next, but over the last eight years, yes, theyāve improved.
GROTH: Probably in the last 10 years, the comic-book market has increased by something like seven or eight times.
PEKAR: All comics, or just alternative comics?
GROTH: All comics, and just in the direct sales market. Now I assume your book hasnāt increased in sales seven or eight times.
PEKAR: Oh no, it hasnāt increased seven or eight times. It keeps on selling pretty steadily though. I only have substantial numbers of five of my back issues left.
GROTH: What does an average issue sell?
PEKAR: The first year of its issue?
PEKAR: The first year of its issue… Now itās getting to where it would be like 7,500 copies, or something like that. And then over the next few yeas, the rest of them would sell.
GROTH: The rest of them being a print run of l0,000?
PEKAR: Yeah, right.
GROTH: Do you find that a little demoralizing? Do you wish you reached a larger readership?
PEKAR: Oh yeah, sure. Everybody wishes that they would reach a larger readership, I guess.
GROTH: Jackie Collins probably doesnāt worry too much about that.
PEKAR: No, no. Iām thinking about alternative comic-book artists. I think the situation weāre ināwe were talking about this almost 10 years agoāthe people who would buy the best alternative comics are not aware of them and canāt get them very easily. Even if they are aware of them, itās hard for them to find them. Iām constantly getting letters from people who say, Ā āI chanced upon a comic book of yours in Chicago and Iā m from Nebraska and I canāt find them around here. Do you sell them through the mail? ā Comic-book stores donāt even stock alternative comics very much, so what can you do?
GROTH: Why would a guy with as high of standards as you have go into a medium that boasts as low standards as comics?
PEKAR: Itās because, for one thing, thereās a tremendous area for improvement and for experimentation. Comics are as good an artform as any that exists, but not enough good illustrators and writers have attempted to use them.
GROTH: Yeah, itās like trying to swim up the Niagara Falls.
PEKAR: Yeah… Granted that you donāt have the audience there. But on the other hand, the possibilities, if youāre interested, I mean Iām making a living at my other job, so…
GROTH: So you can afford it.
PEKAR: Yeah, right, exactly. I couldnāt make a living doing comics.
GROTH: But why wouldnāt you write prose rather than comics?
PEKAR: Well, see, I didnāt even write any kind of fiction before I wrote comics. I mean, I wrote essays and record reviews, and I never thought that much in terms of fiction at all. But comics arenāt dividedālike films, for example, arenāt divided up into fiction and nonfiction the way prose is. Theyāre just like comics. I am writing a lot of prose now, and aside from music and literary criticism, the stuff that Iām doing are essays that are autobiographical. Like a lot of the feature stories, lead stories that Iāve writtenāI havenāt written that many, really, Iām not in that great of demandābut Iāve written some and theyāve been autobiographical pieces that I think, though, have been influenced by fiction writing technique.
GROTH: In comics, do you feel any kinship or camaraderie or community with cartoonists and writers who you think feel as you do?
PEKAR: Iām sure there areāguys that probably feel the way I do, but Iā m not really in contact; Iām isolated out here. Iām not in contact with anybody. Except for the guys that Iāve been working with, like Frank Stack and recently Joe Sacco. Joe and I have been doing some one-pagers for The Village Voice, music comics, and I did a one-pagers that I wrote and Joe illustrated on literature for a paper in San Francisco. So Iām in contact with him fairly often, and we seem to see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But thereās no community of alternative comic book artists in Cleveland. [Groth laughs.] There are some cities where they exist, but certainly not in Cleveland. But in Chicago, Seattle…
GROTH: I wasnāt really speaking in a geographic sense, but about a shared sense of values; do you feel a sense of community within the comics profession?
PEKAR: No, itās hard to feel a sense of community, because you never hear from these guys, youāre not in contact with them. I see where it exists among other guys. I see, for example, guys who do stuff with you seem to enjoy each otherās company and hang around with each other when they get a chance.
GROTH: Iām drawing a parallel between comics and contemporary fiction, where thereās definitely a sense that thereās literary fiction thatās worthy of serious attention, and then thereās the rest. Thereās a community of writers who may not agree on the relative values of every individual work, but thereās still a community of people with a shared understanding. Do you see that in comics and do you think comics could ever enter the mainstream where that distinction would be made by the general public?
PEKAR: Well, sure, there are people that think of comics as having great potential as I do, and there are people who are working in this field because of that, because itās so excitingāthereās so much to do, the field is so open. Itās like getting in on the ground floor. Even after the revolutionary developments in the ā60s, there are still tremendous areas to be explored. And there are people around that realize that, creators that realize that. But I canāt predict the future. It depends on talented writers and illustrators deciding that comics especially suit them. And each art form has its own unique characteristics that makes it appealing to this talented person or that talented person. People that come out of universities and art schools, very few of them think about comics, even though they should be thinking about comics, because comics have this stigma attached to them and they havenāt seen good comics. If they become aware of them, I think if they start to realize what can be done in them, then I think theyāll use them. The more good stuff thatās produced, the more intelligent readers youāre going to have out there. But itās really been tough. Itās a real uphill struggle, and it may go on for a really long time. I donāt know. Iāve been at this for 20 years now, and itās certainly enriched my life, from a personal standpoint. Itās made it far more interesting and enjoyable, so I have no regrets. But I certainly would like to see comics in general be taken more seriously, because it would benefit me, you know? And a whole lot of other guys. Like the guys that work with you.