Gary Groth interviews Harvey Pekar (1993)

Posted by on July 12th, 2010 at 5:00 PM

This interview is reprinted from TCJ #162, October 1993, the autobio-cartoonist issue.

Harvey Pekar’s magazine American Splendor has been appearing roughly every year since 1976: the latest—#17—appeared in July. In each issue, Pekar writes stories from his everyday life in the belief that “mundane events, because they occur so frequently, have a much greater influence on people’s lives [than escapist fantasy]…” Pekar bas worked with artists such as Robert Crumb and Frank Stack; he favors realistic illustration and believes “… most cartoony illustrators lack Crumb’s power of observation.”

Pekar funded the first 15 issues of American Splendor with his full-time job as a clerk in a Cleveland veteran’s 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 it’s 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, I’d 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 I’m 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 don’t take the superhero genre seriously.

GROTH: Whereas you would autobiography?

PEKAR: Yeah. That doesn’t mean that autobiography can’t be done badly. I’ve been hearing complaints about certain autobiographical comics, and I really haven’t seen a whole hell of a lot of them. I’m back to where I was in about 1982 in terms of being acquainted with what’s going on with other people’s comic work. I don’t know too much about what’s going on out there. I just know it’s absurd to condemn autobiography just because somebody doesn’t 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 they’re limited. But the autobiographical form is a form that’s 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 now–the 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 don’t have self-limiting boundaries?

PEKAR: That’s 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 that—I’m sorry if they copy each other, I’m sorry if the work is derivative, I’m sorry if the people don’t 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 Eichhorn’s work.

PEKAR: Yeah, I enjoy Denny’s work. I think that Joe Sacco’s doing terrific work. I really like Joe’s work a lot. And I like Chester Brown’s work—it’s been criticized, but I like it. I think Chester’s a real intelligent guy and that just about everything he does is worth something, has some merit in it.

GROTH: Have you followed Joe Matt’s work?

PEKAR: No, I really haven’t. 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 can’t remember now what the text was. I guess it was autobiographical.

GROTH: Yeah.

PEKAR: I know he has become quite a controversial figure now.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Urinating into sinks will do that…

PEKAR: But I haven’t looked at his recent stuff, or a lot of people’s recent stuff, and I’ m sorry about that but I’ve been so damn busy…I’ve 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 aren’t a lot of young cartoonists these days I’m crazy about. I’m interested in what I’m doing, but…

GROTH: Yeah, l figured that.

PEKAR:…and I’m still interested in the form. I’m more interested in the form than ever, but I’m not reading that much stuff…

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 that’s sub-literary, or what?


PEKAR: Yeah, I think it’s 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? I’m talking purely in terms of quality.

PEKAR: Well, let me just put it this way. I don’t 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 wasn’t a fancy writer, S. Clay Wilson was a funny writer—he was sort of limited in a way, the topics he wrote about, but I think they were good writers. I think Joe Sacco’s a good writer.

GROTH: Are you able to separate the writing from the drawing? Everyone you’ve mentioned also draws his own work.  It seems in comics it’s very difficult to make a clear division between the two. It’s 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 you’re talking about?

PEKAR: No, I think they’re good writers. I think there are some guys out there who can draw well who don’t write well, and I think that there may be some people who write pretty well but don’t 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 Chester’s a good writer.

GROTH: How about Will Eisner, who does autobiographical work?

PEKAR: I think that Will Eisner’s best writing was the stuff that he did in the ’40s, 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 wasn’t good, it was sentimental and it could get kind of corny. It’s unfortunate because I think he’s a very fine artist and I think he’s had a very strong and positive influence on comic-book art, but I don’t think these longer pieces that he wrote about the ’30s and Jewish life in the Depression are his strong point. I think that that stuff is not very original at all, I think it’s quite derivative.

GROTH: Did you read his last big graphic novel, To the Heart of the Storm, which was autobiographical?

PEKAR: No, I didn’t. I read some of the things he did…

GROTH: Contract With God.

PEKAR: Yeah, and in the early ’80s my wife turned me on to him again. And that’s the stuff I’m reacting to. I don’t know, maybe some of the stuff that he’s done more recently is better, I don’t 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 don’t think that, if he were to write prose stories like that, I don’t 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 don’t have real high standards for writing, and for another thing, it’s because they worship Will Eisner like a god. And certain guys can do no wrong. That’s why I think that you took a lot of heat when you were critical of Eisner’s work. I mean, Eisner deserves a lot of praise and a lot of respect, but he doesn’t 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, it’s a strange history. It’s funny—comics 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 children’s art form, art that was aimed at people with juvenile intellects. And consequently, I think that’s why so many comics are bad today, because they’re not even aimed at people who are serious thinkers.

GROTH: Does that explain why the comics that are aimed at serious readers, such as Eisner’s, 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  a look at it and it seemed to be, well, you know, it wasn’t as bad as some superhero comics I’d seen, but it just didn’t seem to me to be anything that unusual.

GROTH: When you say “kids;” how old are you talking about?

PEKAR: I don’t 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 don’t have real high literary standards, and when I look at the kind of stuff that they think is real heavyweight reading, I’m not too impressed by it. It’s 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 it’s extremely important for comics to be well written. I think it’s 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 you’ll get a lousy movie, you can have a real fine illustrator, but if he’s got a shit script, then you’re 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 you’d hear about this writer is a good writer and that writer is a good writer, and I picked the books up and I’d read them. Like Dostoyevsky’s 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 present—the writers of different nations and geographical areas. That’s how I did it. But the thing about it is, you’ve got to enjoy that reading. If you don’t enjoy it, then forget about it. If all you like is adventure stories, and you don’t care if a guy’s 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 that’s 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 they’re 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 he’s overrated, but still he’s a very fine writer. He’s certainly not a schlocky writer or anything like that. He’s a fine writer and an important writer. You just don’t get around to reading the garbage—the Jackie Collinses of that time, if there were any equivalents; their work isn’t around now, probably. And I wouldn’t mess with it. So…there’s 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, I’ve found some really good works by people who weren’t 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 you’re publishing who sell very little, maybe they’ll be forgotten about. I hope not. But it’s 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 ‘80s. Around the early ‘80s I was starting to break even, and from then on my sales have slightly improved. Over the past three or four yeas, I don’t know that they’ve improved, like from one year to the next, but over the last eight years, yes, they’ve 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 hasn’t increased in sales seven or eight times.

PEKAR: Oh no, it hasn’t 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 it’s 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 doesn’t worry too much about that.

PEKAR: No, no. I’m thinking about alternative comic-book artists. I think the situation we’re in—we were talking about this almost 10 years ago—the people who would buy the best alternative comics are not aware of them and can’t get them very easily. Even if they are aware of them, it’s hard for them to find them. I’m constantly getting letters from people who say,  “I chanced upon a comic book of yours in Chicago and I’ m from Nebraska and I can’t find them around here. Do you sell them through the mail? “ Comic-book stores don’t 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: It’s because, for one thing, there’s 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, it’s like trying to swim up the Niagara Falls.

PEKAR: Yeah… Granted that you don’t have the audience there. But on the other hand, the possibilities, if you’re interested, I mean I’m making a living at my other job, so…

GROTH: So you can afford it.

PEKAR: Yeah, right, exactly. I couldn’t make a living doing comics.

GROTH: But why wouldn’t you write prose rather than comics?

PEKAR: Well, see, I didn’t 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 aren’t divided—like films, for example, aren’t divided up into fiction and nonfiction the way prose is. They’re just like comics. I am writing a lot of prose now, and aside from music and literary criticism, the stuff that I’m doing are essays that are autobiographical. Like a lot of the feature stories, lead stories that I’ve written—I haven’t written that many, really, I’m not in that great of demand—but I’ve written some and they’ve 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: I’m sure there are—guys that probably feel the way I do, but I’ m not really in contact; I’m isolated out here. I’m not in contact with anybody. Except for the guys that I’ve 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 I’m in contact with him fairly often, and we seem to see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But there’s 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 wasn’t 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, it’s hard to feel a sense of community, because you never hear from these guys, you’re 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 other’s company and hang around with each other when they get a chance.

GROTH: I’m drawing a parallel between comics and contemporary fiction, where there’s definitely a sense that there’s literary fiction that’s worthy of serious attention, and then there’s the rest. There’s a community of writers who may not agree on the relative values of every individual work, but there’s 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 it’s so exciting—there’s so much to do, the field is so open. It’s like getting in on the ground floor. Even after the revolutionary developments in the ’60s, there are still tremendous areas to be explored. And there are people around that realize that, creators that realize that. But I can’t 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 haven’t 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 they’ll use them. The more good stuff that’s produced, the more intelligent readers you’re going to have out there. But it’s really been tough. It’s a real uphill struggle, and it may go on for a really long time. I don’t know. I’ve been at this for 20 years now, and it’s certainly enriched my life, from a personal standpoint. It’s 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.

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