American Blender: A Reporter Sifts Through the Many Realities of Hanging Out with Harvey Pekar the Movie Star by Jack Baney

Posted by on July 16th, 2010 at 5:01 PM

PEKAR: Well, the thing is, [working at the VA] was sitcom-ish. I mean — you saw Toby. Well, I knew other guys like that. You know, not in the same way, but I knew some pretty unusual guys.

***

And Jack would either figure out a better way to adapt Pekar’s long autobiographical essays or avoid them altogether in his movie. In their version, the filmmakers attempt to condense “Alice Quinn” by using the actors’ expressions and dialogue to get across some of the points that Pekar makes in his lengthy narration from the original story. But as they try to make it clear that Pekar wishes Alice was single, they wind up portraying her as a perfect woman, and the whole thing comes off as way too Hollywood.

***

art by Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm

PULCINI: I think there’s a lot of material [in Pekar’s work] that’s an interior monologue, and that’s why I connect to the comic books — you go right into Harvey’s head. I think there’s a few [similar] moments in the movie, like the Jennie Gerhardt sequence when he meets Alice Quinn at a bakery and then he goes and he’s kind of thinking about his life. In those moments we tried to capture the feeling of the comic books where Harvey’s alone and it’s completely interior … What worked really well for us is that we used Harvey’s voice to narrate the film. You can kind of get that sense — that personal connection.

***

Jack feels proud of his keen insights into American Splendor’s various merits and flaws, and even prouder of his absolutely perfect reaction to seeing Art Spiegelman at the screening. Most people wouldn’t have known that the guy was Spiegelman, and even if they did, they would have given up after he said that he didn’t want to talk about the movie. But Jack persisted and asked if he could just talk to Spiegelman about Harvey Pekar, which provoked Spiegelman into telling a blatant lie that Jack can quote in his story.

***

ART SPIEGELMAN: Look, I didn’t come here to be a public figure or to go on record. I just came to see a movie about a friend of mine.

***

PEKAR: No, I’m not a friend of his. I don’t like him personally and I don’t like his work that much. He doesn’t care for me, either. He told Crumb I’m jealous of him. I am jealous of him — I’m jealous of the fame, and I’m jealous of the money … He was either being ironic or he thought you didn’t know what the nature of his relationship with me is … Enough about that schmuck.

***

Pekar told the Journal that he had become alienated from the alternative comics scene around the time of his lengthy debate about Maus with Comics Journal critic R. Fiore and much of the Journal’s readership, which supported Maus overwhelmingly. He said that he has not read Ghost World, David Boring or Jimmy Corrigan and does not keep up with Crumb’s work. Pekar added that alternative comics are difficult to find in Cleveland and that he has been spending less on “books and records and stuff” anyway.

Pekar expressed unhappiness with his publisher, Dark Horse Comics, on a few occasions when speaking to the Journal. He said the company paid him $500 — one-third of his usual payment — for writing each of the three comics in his most recent series, American Splendor: Unsung Hero. The publisher “thought so little” of him, he said, that it did not ask for the right to collect his Dark Horse-published work except for the Unsung Hero series. Asked whether Dark Horse would use the American Splendor movie to promote his work, Pekar said, “There’s this one woman there who’s trying to do something, but they have more of a classic corporate mentality than the people at HBO. The HBO people are like bohemians compared to the Dark Horse people.” Nevertheless, he said, he was glad to hear the publisher express interest in issuing his future work in volumes with spines. Most of Pekar’s work for Dark Horse has appeared in standard-sized comics of less than 30 pages, and he said that he dislikes this format.

***

But now Jack’s seeing the Spiegelman quote in a different light — maybe it just shows that he’s a very gracious guy who says nice things about people who badmouth him in public. Maybe Jack has been thinking like a childish fanboy who gets off on tearing down real artists.

***

art by R. Crumb

PEKAR: I’m satisfied that I’ve had an influence. I mean, I gave you documentary proof of that. [Referring to a list of positive comments about his work from Gilbert Hernandez, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, R. Crumb, Chester Brown and Dan Clowes.] … Do you still have that, by the way? Have you read it? I wanted writers to have a piece of publicity that shows that whatever these guys at The Comics Journal think of me, I’m respected by other top-notch cartoonists … The Comics Journal a few years ago did a poll among their own people of the 100 best comics. I look at the list, and there’s all these guys I’ve influenced, and they’re ahead of me.

***

Pekar provoked something of a stir in June when he visited the VA’s file room, accompanied by the Journal, for the first time since his retirement.

As the Journal drove him to the hospital, Pekar explained that a new wing had been added since his retirement and that he no longer knew where to park or how to get to the file room. But as soon as he entered the hospital, it was clear that he was no stranger there.

“Harvey Pekar!” called out an old man in a wheelchair who wore a “Korean War Veteran” baseball cap. “You look like Harvey to me! How ya doin’, buddy?”

Pekar muttered a greeting to the veteran and moved on to an information desk, explaining to the man there that he used to work at the hospital and needed to find the file room. The man began to give him directions: “Well, it’s kind of screwed up … You go over here, right inside that doorway, there’s elevators. You look for, uh …”

“Hi!” called out Pekar, spotting a familiar face in the distance.

“Hey, Harvey, how’s it going?” asked a middle-aged man as he approached Pekar. “Long time no see!”

Pekar told the man that he and the Journal were there to speak to Robert McNeill, the former coworker about whom Pekar had written American Splendor: Unsung Hero.

“I wrote some comic books about him, about his experiences in Vietnam,” Pekar explained.

“Right, right,” the man said, guiding Pekar and the Journal into an elevator. “Come on, Harvey, this one’s going down … Yeah, I saw the comics. I didn’t read them, but I saw it.”

“Harvey!” a woman exclaimed as the elevator’s doors opened the into the file room. “How ya doin’? Good, you look good! You comin’ to work?” She laughed.

Several of Pekar’s former coworkers, many of whom were middle-aged black women, began to approach him. “Harvey! Hi, Harvey!” one of them called. “Look at Harvey!”

“Me and Harvey really know one another,” said a very thin man who looked somewhat younger than Pekar. The man laughed. “We’ve seen a lot — both ups and downs!”

“What’s up, Harv?”

“You look good, my friend!”

Pekar seemed pleased but a bit embarrassed by the attention as he returned the greetings quietly and accepted hugs from a few people. He smiled slightly and shrugged many times throughout the visit.

People continued to approach Pekar for some time after his arrival, as the Journal and Robert McNeill waited for him to join them for an interview. Some asked him about the American Splendor movie.

“Yeah, everything’s worked out,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it worked out. It wins all these film festivals … Yeah, I hope I get some money out of it.”

“Well, I know who really misses ya!” said a man with a southern accent. He was one of the few white people in the room, and he appeared to be in his 40s. “Dwayne Williams!”

“Oh, Jesus …” Pekar replied, rolling his eyes.

“He really misses ya!” the man said, laughing.

“Jesus,” Pekar said softly.

“You know how old Robin Hood is, don’tcha?!” said the man, before bursting into uproarious laughter. Pekar shook his head wearily.

“Nice to see ya, Harvey,” said another man.

“Try to get some publicity for everyone down here … “ Pekar explained.

***

PEKAR [Being driven away from the VA, asked what the visit was like for him.] I don’t know … I like so many of those people so much, you know? They were … They were really some good people.

***

Jack tells his coworkers that the movie gets pretty touching toward the end, when it shows footage of Pekar’s retirement party at the VA. Pekar’s wife and foster daughter, Danielle Batone, show up for the party and hug him, which causes him to break into a slight smile. That smile has a lot of impact, since Pekar has been bitching, moaning and looking miserable throughout the entire movie.

***

SPRINGER BERMAN: It looks like it hurts him to smile!

***

Pekar and McNeill told the Journal that the “retirement party” scene at the end of the movie was staged. The scene showed people who really had worked with Pekar in the file room, including McNeill, pretending to celebrate. But Pekar never had a real retirement party.

Asked if someone brought in cake on his last day at the VA, Pekar said, “I can’t remember.”

***

Now Jack tells his coworkers Andy and Sharon about the very ending of the movie, which is his favorite part. After the party scene and a scene that emphasizes Pekar’s affection for Batone, Pekar says in a voiceover that this ending isn’t a completely happy one. He explains that he still has plenty of problems — he and Brabner “fight all the time,” Batone has Attention Deficit Disorder, and so on.

Andy asks, “What kind of an ending is that?”

***

PEKAR: [From “The Way It’s Going” in Happy Endings, 2002.] In the summer of 2001 the 36-plus years I put in at the Cleveland VA hospital started to get to me. I began collapsing on the job from nervous tension. So I retired, only to find that the money I’d get from a pension and annuity wouldn’t be enough to support myself, my wife, who hasn’t worked steadily since we got married, and my 14-year-old foster daughter. I’ve been trying for months to make more dough as a freelance writer, but that’s not working. I found that without the structure of the eight-hour workday I was at sea, especially since the anticipated increase in newspaper and magazine work didn’t appear. I became extremely depressed and anxious due to all this, and wound up cracking up and spending a month on a psychiatric ward. While I was in the hospital, I noticed a lump in my groin. It turned out to be a malignant tumor — like I had in 1990. So now I’m getting chemotherapy for lymphoma, plus my home situation is uncomfortable, to say the least.

***

Pekar told the Journal that his second case of lymphoma was diagnosed shortly after he recorded his ambivalent voiceover for the end of the American Splendor movie. He said that he received chemotherapy treatments for months, but that they were not as harsh as his 1990 treatments, as depicted in Our Cancer Year.

Although Pekar is not sure why he began collapsing at work, he thinks the problem may have resulted from the decades-long repetition of his file-clerk duties: “Maybe I was just tired of it. I don’t know.” He said that he can barely remember his month in the psychiatric ward. He is currently on antidepressants that are helping him to function normally, he said, but he is “chronically depressed” and his “main problems remain.”

Pekar described his relationship with Batone very candidly in his 2000 story “Danielle.” Although he felt affection for her, he wrote, he did not have a great deal in common with her and found it difficult to communicate with her. But Pekar told the Journal that he has grown closer to his foster daughter since writing the story. Asked if he has a “father-daughter” relationship with her, he said, “I don’t know if it’s that close. I try to make it a human being relationship … There’s some affection going on on both sides, I’m pretty sure.”

However, another of Pekar’s comments indicated that his “home situation” is still not entirely comfortable: When arranging to have the Journal visit him, he said, “Things are really fucked up around here.” Later, he declined to expand on the comment, explaining, “I don’t want to get into exacerbating my problems by having them publicized.” It seems likely that his recent experiences with depression and cancer put a strain on his and Brabner’s marriage; Our Cancer Year depicts the couple’s often harsh arguments — with Brabner striking Pekar at one point — during his first battle with lymphoma.

***

Although most of the Journal’s time with Pekar was spent on the porch of his two-story house in suburban Cleveland Heights, the Journal entered this house very briefly on two occasions. The first of these occurred when the Journal arrived at the house for the first time to pick Pekar up for a meeting with Radloff. Pekar greeted the Journal at his door, led the Journal inside, and gathered his things while introducing the Journal to Brabner and Batone. The three exchanged quick greetings without offering handshakes in the minute or so before Pekar was ready to leave. The second occasion occurred two days later, during an interview on Pekar’s porch. After praising Frank Stack as the second greatest artist who had illustrated his work (after Crumb), Pekar led the Journal inside to see a painting by Stack in his living room. Immediately after the Journal agreed that the painting was good, Pekar led the Journal back out to the porch.

***

Here’s Jack in his hotel room in Cleveland. He’s just finished a phone conversation with Pekar, during which he asked if he could interview Brabner tomorrow.

***

PEKAR: Well, [Brabner]’s pretty hostile towards The Comics Journal. She didn’t even want you coming in the house, to tell you the truth. She thinks I’m crazy… It almost started a big fight.

***

Pekar’s reply makes Jack hate the fact that he’s doing this story. He realizes that he took time off from work and drove more than seven hours to meet strangers who will gain nothing from his efforts and are even upset by them. Jack thought that his admiration for American Splendor gave him some kind of connection to these people and their environment, but that was stupid and he should have stayed far away from them.

***

Viewed from the outside, Pekar’s house struck the Journal as a fairly impressive purchase for a government file clerk. It and the other houses in Pekar’s neighborhood looked as though they were built with middle-class or lower-middle-class buyers in mind, and Pekar had both black and white neighbors. He lived only a few blocks away from a downtown area with many bookstores, music stores and restaurants, and he told the Journal that this area was the closest thing to a bohemian section of Cleveland.

***

It strikes Jack as especially wrong for a rich kid like him to be intruding on Pekar’s working-class environment. He’s from the upper middle class or the lower rich and Brabner can probably sense that — only a well-off comics fanboy would take on a project like this to begin with. He can never understand a regular working guy like Pekar and the family and friends surrounding him or vice-versa.

***

PEKAR: [From “Double Feature Part 2, Revenge of the Nerds,” American Splendor #10, 1985.] Toby … I just saw Revenge of the Nerds … It’s an entertaining flick an’ I c’n see why you like it, but those people on the screen ain’t even supposed to be you! They’re college students whose parents live in big houses in the suburbs. They’re gonna get degrees, get good jobs and stop bein’ nerds. They’re not twenty-six year old file clerks who live with their grandparents in a small apartment in an ethnic ghetto. They didn’t get their computers like you did, by trading in a bunch of box tops an’ $49.50 at the supermarket.

***

The Journal’s visit to Toby Radloff’s home brought to mind Pekar’s description of himself from the beginning of the movie: “OK, this guy here, he’s our man. He’s paid his dues — he’s lived in some shit neighborhoods …” Radloff’s neighborhood looked pretty run-down, and Radloff said it was getting “less ‘ethnic’ and more ‘ghetto.’”

Radloff lived with his grandmother in a one-floor house that was tiny in comparison to most apartments. The house was filled with knick-knacks such as ceramic bears and a “You’re the Best” mug, as well as with pictures of Radloff and his family members. His bedroom was set apart from the rest of the house by drapes, rather than by a door. Its walls were lined with movie posters (one was for Revenge of the Nerds), signs (including “I Yield to M&Ms” and “Mars Bars Ahead: Watch for Falling Almonds”) and shelves filled with books and audio/video equipment. Although Radloff was overweight, he had a very narrow bed. The bedroom was so small and cluttered that Pekar and the Journal had to stand outside the room as Radloff showed them things on his computer.

When Pekar asked Radloff about the computer, Radloff said that it was a generic “white box brand” that cost $400. Pekar seemed impressed and replied, “Oh, that’s pretty cheap.”

***

PEKAR: What I’m worried about mostly now is how can I keep on going, because I’m gonna have to make extra money to take care of my wife and kid … [Asked if he plans to put Batone through college.] Yeah, that’s Joyce’s idea. So I’m gonna need more money now, ironically, than while I was working. It turned itself on its head … I don’t know how it’s gonna work out … [Asked if he’ll make money from the movie if it does well.] That’s not clear, from here on in. There’s nothing in the contract about it. All it states is that I get a certain amount of money for when the movie gets made … I’m trying to make this thing work for me to get some other kind of gigs — writing gigs or cartooning gigs. I don’t know if it’ll happen or not.

***

In the months before its release, the American Splendor movie generated some interest in Pekar’s writing. The March 15 issue of LA Weekly ran a two-page comic strip written by Pekar and illustrated by Gary Dumm about Pekar’s experiences at the Sundance Film Festival. The graphics-design magazine Print ran a profile of Pekar in its May/June issue and subsequently began to accept freelance writing from him. In late July, Ballantine Books issued American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, which collected two previous anthologies of Pekar’s work; the book’s cover featured a photo of Giamatti and the blurb “The inspiration for the award-winning movie.” The Aug. 10 issue of The New York Times ran a half-page Pekar strip, illustrated by Gary and Laura Dumm, in which Pekar mentioned the movie and went on to describe how he got started in comics. The Aug. 15 issue of Entertainment Weekly ran a six-page Pekar strip (illustrated again by Gary and Laura Dumm) about the movie, Pekar’s career in comics and recent events in Pekar’s life. It billed the strip as “the first feature-length comic [Pekar] has every published in a national magazine.”

***

PEKAR: What happens after this movie’s over with and everything dies down? You know, I mean, I’m anxious. When stuff’s in the air like that, it just makes me nervous … I’m very concerned about that. It intrudes on my thinking, so that even when I get good news about the movie I don’t — like most people — just enjoy it and let positive feelings take over me. There’s always something in the back of my mind: “Yeah, but what happens when …” Right now, I’m just not that enthusiastic about anything, you know? I’m real apprehensive. [Asked if he’s looking forward to his apprehension ending, even if things don’t work out.] Not exactly. Because then, if it doesn’t work out, I’m gonna genuinely feel horrible.

***

But even if Jack was wrong to come here, he still resents Brabner for judging him without knowing him. She strikes him as a know-it-all who figures that she has everyone pegged. She even has a know-it-all attitude when she deals with Pekar — she’s always bossing him around and yelling at him in his stories. Brabner probably thinks the worst of everyone, and that’s really disgusting.

***

PEKAR: Joyce got into [Our Cancer Year] and I’m glad she did, because I thought her observations added a lot to the book. But at first, I wasn’t that … We don’t see eye-to-eye. You know, “Oh, my God, we’ll fight like cats and dogs about this.” And we did … She hated this one guy who was a custodian in the book. And I thought he was a damn good guy … We just had to reach a compromise on how to portray him. I wanted to make a change in the way he looked, so people wouldn’t think I was referring to the guy I was referring to.

***

But Jack thinks back to an interview he did with Brabner about eight years ago for his college newspaper (she had attended his college, the University of Delaware) and remembers her saying some things that impressed him. Apparently, she had graduated with a theatre degree and gotten a job in the Delaware court system, where she had heard about the awful conditions in the state’s prisons. So she had taken it upon herself to start a theater program for prisoners, worked at the program for years and came away with a pretty modest and realistic appraisal of its impact.

***

JOYCE BRABNER: [In 1995, asked whether any inmates have told her that she made a difference in their lives.] People say that, you know … Sure, they say that. And sometimes people say that because they’ve got to stay on good terms with someone like me, because I may be the only person that they know on the street, and other times I think they meant it. It depends — it’s really hard to tell.

***

Also, Jack likes how Brabner expressed a lot of respect for her husband’s work in that interview. She emphasized that when she yells at him, it’s usually because she’s concerned with his welfare.

***

BRABNER: [In 1995, asked about her first impressions of American Splendor.] I just absolutely loved it, because Harvey paid attention to small details and they were very honest and straightforward stories. I just loved the stuff. [Asked if she and Pekar have influenced one another’s writing.] I’m not so sure if I’ve influenced Harvey’s writing, because his talents were strongly developed … He’s pretty much a fully developed original talent who’s kind of operating on his own steam.

[Asked about threatening to leave Pekar for moving around with a bad hip against his doctor’s orders in Pekar’s story “Candor.”] I’d threaten anything, if it would get him to stay still. That’s what happened when Harvey had cancer — I would do whatever it took. [Asked about yelling at Pekar in his stories.] Well, that’s called being married … I get points for keeping him from dying, I think.

art by Frank Stack

***

The end of the American Splendor movie shows the cover of a graphic novel called Our Movie Year; while such a book does not yet exist, Pekar told the Journal that he and Brabner plan to write a graphic novel about the experiences that they have had because of the movie. He said that the book will probably contrast the acclaim and attention generated by the movie with his own nervousness and depression, as well as with “a few crises” experienced by Batone. Asked why he planned to collaborate with Brabner on the book, Pekar said that his wife is a good writer that he would “never hear the end of it” if he authored the book without her help.

art by R. Crumb

***

PEKAR: You know … Uh … This is kind of a — I don’t exactly know how to ask you this … Is there any way I could see [this story] beforehand? …Because, for one thing, it would help me — I was thinking, “This is an article about, you know, Harvey Pekar in 2003.” If I could get an early version of it, one thing I could do … The New York Times wants me to do some kind of story about myself — you know, a, uh, cartoon thing … And I don’t know exactly what to emphasize, and I was thinking if I showed them something like this, where it’s about my, you know, contemporary life, maybe they could pick something out and tell me what to emphasize … I don’t know if I’ve ever asked a writer that. But we’ve gotten along well enough and you’ve expressed enough praise of my work, you know, that I’m just assuming — maybe I shouldn’t take things — that it will be, like, a pretty nice article … I’ll be pretty happy with it … My-my wife … It’d also get my wife off my back about working with anybody from The Comics Journal. [Asked if his wife is upset.] Yeah … Well, she thinks that I’m gonna get it … Get stabbed in the back … [Asked why he agreed to cooperate with the Journal.] Well … Because … First of all … I figured, you know, from what you said, you probably liked my work, it was probably gonna be favorable, a favorable … I mean, even if you liked my work and thought I was an asshole it would be OK … So I did it for that reason; I did it because you seemed like a pretty honest and sincere guy who really wanted to do it. So I figured, “Why bum this guy out? He’s done all this work, he’s interviewed all these other people …”

[Unconvincingly, after being thanked for his time.] Well, I enjoyed it …

art ©2010 Harvey Pekar

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