Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Harvey Pekar

Sour Power

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: I interviewed Harvey Pekar in August of 2003 and again in May of 2006. It may be true that he wasn't the most joyous soul on the planet, but I liked him. I liked him because he was honest and fair and -- despite appearances -- passionate. Harvey passed away July 13, 2010. He will be missed.

Born in 1940, Harvey Pekar began a normal life working as a file clerk for a Cleveland hospital and obsessively collecting jazz records.

He earned bits of extra income by writing book and record reviews, some of which can be found on his website,

One day in the early 1960s, he met Robert Crumb, a promising underground comic artist, which gave Pekar an idea. He would write a comic book of his own, based on the mundane stuff that happens in real life. But since he couldn't draw, he would have to enlist Crumb and other artists to illustrate it for him.

Launched in 1976, "American Splendor" has come out about once a year for over 25 years now. The comic earned him enough of a following that David Letterman invited him to appear on his late night TV show in the mid-to-late 80s. At one time Pekar's life and comics were even adapted into a stage play.

But now a new movie starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar threatens to raise the stakes once again. Based on various episodes of Pekar's life documented in his comics, the new film American Splendor has already earned huge acclaim at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. It opens Friday at the Embarcadero Cinema.

Pekar still lives in his hometown of Cleveland, is married to Joyce Brabner and has an adopted teenage daughter, Danielle, who loves Harry Potter. Pekar humbly hopes that the film will help pick up his comic book's sales as well as land him a few more freelance reviewing gigs.

Meanwhile, Pekar stopped by San Francisco to discuss the new film. This whirlwind press tour marks the most media attention Pekar has ever received in his life. "All this activity is kind of strange," he says.

Sporting his trademark scowl and sour attitude, Pekar exhibits all the signs of someone who would rather be anywhere else -- American Splendor fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: What kind of preparation did Paul Giamatti, the actor who plays you in the film, do?

Harvey Pekar: He mostly... I met him a couple of days before the film. He never did any kind of formal... He didn't try and imitate me. I thought he got the feel down real well.

JMA: Are you benefiting in any way now that the film is getting so much attention?

HP: Am I gonna get more money? I don't think so. They gave me pretty good money for it.

JMA: Have you seen the movie?

HP: I haven't really seen it that much. I saw it a few times. I don't need to know it by heart.

JMA: What was it like filming your scenes in the film?

HP: It was kinda fun. I've been in movies before ("Comic Book Confidential" and "Vinyl"), so it was nothing new.

JMA: Are you a film buff?

HP: No.

JMA: Do you have any favorite records?

HP: There's so many. I have so many jazz records. There's so many wonderful records.

JMA: Do you prefer vinyl to CDs?

HP: CDs are fine.

JMA: What makes people interested in "American Splendor"?

HP: I don't know that people are interested in "American Splendor" the book. It doesn't sell well at all. It's about people identifying with what you write. It has a lot of heroism and there's plenty of humor around. I've been writing about my experience with the movie. (A new comic recently ran in the New York Times.)

JMA: A lot of comics get published with rather poor artwork. Do you have any plans to illustrate "American Splendor" yourself?

HP: No. I'd rather not. I don't have any plans to.

JMA: You recently saw the new "Hulk" movie, which was also based on a comic book. Any thoughts?

HP: I just went there because that same night the new "Harry Potter" book was coming out. I went to see "The Hulk" to keep me awake until midnight. It was kind of disappointing.

JMA: In your books, you're portrayed as kind of a junk food junkie.

HP: I'm a vegetarian, but I'm kind of like a junk food vegetarian. I eat tofu hot dogs, stuff like that.

JMA: Regarding the new film, any regrets?

HP: Nothing major.

JMA: What about minor?

HP: It was fine. It was all that I could reasonably ask for.

August 4, 2003

The success of the movie has led to more fame and more writing jobs. Pekar has edited a collection of the year's best comic stories, and is currently working on new books on the history of Macedonia, the Beat Generation and various other topics. His latest is Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, a comic book about a real-life arrogant, intelligent, confrontational young man and his surprisingly gripping life story.

JMA: Why do you write?

HP: I write because it's a creative process I enjoy, because I get recognition for what I write and because I get money for what I write.

JMA: What are you reading right now and why?

HP: I'm doing research on a couple of books that I'm gonna be writing. One is about the Beat Generation. And the other one is about S.D.S. I just read a biography of Neal Cassady.

JMA: At first I nearly put the book down because Michael was so bloody arrogant, but I eventually became fascinated by him. Was that your experience? How has the response been?

HP: I didn't want to make a value judgment of him. I would want that to be made by the readers. I haven't gotten any bad reviews. I thought that they would kill the messenger, since I'm writing about someone unpleasant, but I think there's a lot to be learned from keeping tabs on guys like Michael Malice. It has a happy ending in that Michael gets a job he likes. At the end, when he quotes Ayn Rand, I assumed people would think that's ironic. They must take that at face value.

JMA: Is there a specific way to write for comics, with the panels and images in mind?

HP: Most guys write a comic script they way people write a play script and a movie script. I don't do it that way. I use a storyboard method. I use panels. I use stick figures, and thought balloons and word balloons. I use captions. In the movie, they just showed him drawing some stick figures, but I put more information in there. There are instructions.

JMA: Did you always plan to write about other things beside yourself?

HP: The only reason I didn't do that in the past is that I didn't have an opportunity. The movie opened up a lot of opportunity for me. I'm writing more "American Splendor" books. The idea is that they're going to come out monthly. And then they'll be combined into a trade paperback. The reason I got into comics in the first place is that I thought it was a medium as good as any other medium, but the potential hadn't been near tapped. I decided that there were all these projects that I'd like to work on, that, you know, were outside the normal boundaries that comics covered.

May 3, 2006

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Birthplace: Cleveland, OH
Education: Case Western Reserve University
Favorite song, piece of music: There are too many good pieces of music.
Biggest literary inspiration, author: I've read tons and tons of great authors, it's really hard to pick and choose.
Biggest literary inspiration, book: I can't limit it to one.
Most memorable book from my childhood: I liked books by a writer named Eleanor Estes.
Book re-read most often: Don't have one.
If I could only retain one book on a desert island, it would be: None.
Book I've read lately I'd recommend most: No, not really recently.
Most meaningful line from any book or poem: None.
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