Interview: Harvey Pekar (Pt. 1)

Categories:  Interviews

Harvey PekarHarvey Pekar feels a bit frustrated an under-appreciated—granted, that’s really nothing new for the artist we’ve come to know and love over the past few decades, but in the wake of the 2003 film based on the his longstanding autobiographical series, American Splendor, things were unquestionably looking up for the Pekar. Sales of new issues and anthologies of the series were selling briskly, and with the release of Ego & Hubris, his first non-autobiographical book in recent memory, even more praise was heaped upon the artist.

Macedonia continues Pekar’s recent streak of telling the stories of others. Co-written with Heather Roberson, the book recounts the author and peace activist’s journey to the titular republic, in attempts to explore how opposing factions managed to avoid an all out war. As such, the book replaces the blood and guts we’ve come to expect from wartime projects with long stretches of text-heavy theorizing, which, suffice to say, hasn’t gone over especially well with much of the action-craving comic audience.

We spoke to Pekar, from his Cleveland home about a lot of topics, but first and foremost, he made it clear that he had a few things to get off his chest.

How many of these interviews are you doing, these days?

I’m certainly not doing anything like seven a week—maybe two, three. I’m not really doing very many. I just did one for the New York Metro.

Is there less press around Macedonia than there has been with past books?

There hasn’t been much press. The thing is just coming out, but I’m not going to be doing any touring, or anything like that. It’s kind of hard to say, but I’m somewhat concerned about this book. The language level I use in it is higher than usual. In other books I use a lot of street slang. But I’m really proud of this book. There’s so little that’s available about Macedonia. You have a big conflagration some place, everybody writes about it. You avoid a war, nobody gives a damn. There’s just a lot of meat to this, and it seems like some people just aren’t interested in politics, and can’t deal with language on a somewhat higher level.

One of the things that struck me about the book is that not only is the language slightly higher, there’s also a lot of text on the page, compared to a standard graphic novel.

Yeah. People who read comic books like a lot of explosions and stuff like that. It’s a book of ideas. I had 150 pages, and the best way that I thought to express the ideas was through discussions, which is the way Heather Roberson set it up. I was real happy with the book, and then I started to realize, ‘Jesus, I’ve gone too far.’

What does that mean, “too far?”

I’ve gotten some real nice reviews, but I think the language just confounds some people. They just don’t want to read about stuff like that. To me, it’s real important to be involved in this project, partly because it’s gotten so little attention in the states—that, in itself makes it worth doing. Spider-man fans just don’t have a lot time for that stuff.

Why did you chose to tell the story through Heather?

I had to—she’s the one who went over there. When I was doing stuff, most of my career, I didn’t have a hell of a lot of time to work on comics. I had a dayjob and I could only put out so much, and frankly, I didn’t see anything changing, and then this movie [American Splendor] got me some attention. And then, all of the sudden, there was some interest in my work. With that, I decided that I would expand into other areas that I was interested in.

A couple of people have noted that I’ve done some non-autobiographical things, and they’re well received. Ego & Hubris—I don’t have any idea how well it sold, but it got really good reviews, so I jacked it up another notch. Now I’m kind of concerned—I don’t know how much slack publishers will cut me. If I do one book that doesn’t sell well, it might really hurt me, because I don’t have a history of selling a lot of books. It’s just since the movie that I’ve been doing respectably, and I’m certainly not doing spectacular in the sales area. I’m really kind of tense about this book. It’s funny, I come home and I read it, and I go, “yeah, man, this is really good stuff,” and then some says, “the conversation’s too academic.” Too academic for who? A third grader? They talk like they’re trying some new James Joyce text. You’re talking to a worried man.

You obviously know the story through Heather, but was she also chosen as the protagonist so that people might have a more accessible reference point with which to enter the story?

The thing was that on the one hand, I wanted to broaden the kind of things I was doing. I know Heather, and she told me about the Macedonia stuff. She told me that there was practically nothing in print about this stuff around here, and I check it out myself, and there’s nothing. She was about to go over there, so I said, “can you make some notes?” I always want to be the first person on the street to come up with something, and I thought this was important—I still think it’s important! The questions she raises about the inevitability of war, and the stuff that’s talked about with international agencies’ involvment in the war, all of that’s stuff’s in there. So, that’s the reason that I did it. The project excited me.

Was the medium of the graphic novel necessarily the best well to tell the story, or was it just the method you felt most comfortable using?

Well, I think it’s as good as any way to tell a story. If I had done it in a regular prose book, it might have been harder on them, because there wouldn’t be any pictures. I really thought I had stumbled onto something fantastic—well, maybe not fantastic, but I really thought I had something here. Now I don’t know. I think it’s a real good book, regardless of how it sells or how good reviews it gets.

You were familiar with Joe Sacco’s work, when you started work on Macedonia.

Yeah—Joe Sacco used to work for me!

Was that an influence on the book, at all?

Okay…I was interested in politics and whenever I got a chance, I used to write critical articles and tons of letters to editors, when I was younger. I can document my interest in politics, which goes back to way before I was even doing comics—in the 60s. I acknowledged Joe Sacco in the book, and I realized right off that people were thinking that I picked up stuff from Joe. I think Joe is really terrific—he’s really outstanding. I have a great deal of admiration for his work, not only in the obvious things, but in the fact that he taught himself to draw so well. He was a journalism major in college—he didn’t have an art background. He just worked on it, and came up with something really good.

But, first of all, when I talked to Joe about this project, he didn’t know about what was going on in Macedonia, any more than anyone else did. I think he’s described himself as a ‘war junkie.’ He’s a really nice, mild-mannered guy, but he’s really interested in writing about wars: fighting, strategy, the whole thing. I think you can see that in his work. He did a story about when the US bombed Dresden, in the second world war. With me, I’m into the social-economic stuff. I mean, it’s possible that Joe pulled my coat to the Balkans, more than I would have been interested in them, otherwise. We were close. We’re good friends, but we emphasize different things. In my books, there’s not a whole lot of action, not a lot of guys jumping around. My stuff is real talky. I use a lot of text. I think the fairest thing to say is that Joe’s work heightened my interest in the Balkans.

It’s fitting, then, that you’re writing about a war that never really was.

Yeah. Heather went over there to see how they avoided a war. She found out that while they were avoiding a war, the Macedonians and the Albanians were not warming up to each other. There you can see the bad influence that nationalism has. Everyone things that they’re the chosen people. And they’re supposed to rule over everybody else. I wanted to get some of that stuff in there—that’s going over people’s heads.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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