Let’s get one thing straight—Harvey Pekar talks about what Harvey Pekar wants to talk about. Should you ever have the fortune to interview the American Splendor author, you’ll likely find that, try as you might to steer the conversation in your own direction, Pekar is really the one at the reins.
The good news is that, the author is generally takes the interview into interesting directions, and when he apologizes for dwelling on a note, you find yourself happily accepting—surely anything he wants to talk about is as interesting as the list you’ve concocted, in that old spiral notebook.
When I spoke with Pekar, he clearly had one burning subject on his mind: the perceived negative critical reception of his new non-autobiographical Macedonia, and that, dear readers, is exactly whawt we discussed.
Were you attempting to make Macedonia something pertinent to our own current political climate?
I think the sections in there that talk about the build up to the disillusion of the Yugoslav state, I think that’s important stuff. Because I don’t think that people know a goddamned thing about that. I think it gives them a background and something to work with. And that doesn’t take up that much space. The book is mainly devoted to [Heather Roberson] going around, questioning people in these different organizations, like when she goes to the university and talks to people. There’s an international crowd of people that are trying to rebuild Macedonia, and she gets involved in that. This is really funny: along the way, there are a few incidents, where she gets hit on. She gets hit on, even on the airplane going over there. Some guy from Montenegro gets drunk and starts hitting on her, and that seems to be the favorite part of some people. They can relate to that, trying to pick up a girl—that’s important. I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this. You’ll probably talk about what a complainer I am.
As much as this is a story about Macedonia, there are some larger lesson to be taken away, like the debate about whether or not war can be avoided.
Sure. Like I say, it’s the bad parts of nationalism. I was telling one guy about it, and he said, “these people, the Macedonians and the Albanians, would rather be hostile to each other than get along and create a bigger pie, and get bigger slices from it.” People are so hung up on national identity. It’s terrible. That’s been one of the curses of human kind, going back into antiquity.
Would you have been less likely to have written the book, were we not currently at war?
This book that I talked to Heather about writing, was just so attractive. There’s other stuff that I’ve done that I didn’t think would go over commercially. I did it because I thought I could do a good book, and let the chips fall where they may. Even the book, Ego & Hubris, with Michael Malice, I thought some people might just get mad, because he’s just a difficult personality. But at least it got really good reviews. Like I said, maybe this is a step too far. I did any goddamned thing I wanted to, when I had my day job. Now I don’t have the day job, and I don’t have enough sources to support myself and my wife, so I got to make it on comics. Sales suddenly mean a lot more for me.
People have certain expectations from a Harvey Pekar book.
Yeah, well, when I wrote Ego & Hubris, it went ovcr all right. A lot of people told me that they liked it. There was nothing in the press about people having huge difficulties, though on reviewer called Michael Malice a “human cockroach.” I thought, maybe I could get away with something else. The project seemed so important to me, but now I don’t know. Regardless of what happens, I think it’s a real good book. And I’m not just saying that about my contributions, I’m talking about Ed Piskor and Heather. I think Heather laid out stuff really nice. She wrote the epilogue of the book, and she talks about the couple of years that have passed, since the end of the book. She came back over, and went back there again, and wrote about her new experiences there. She’s got a really good grasp of the situation.
How closely did the two of you collaborate? Did you actually co-write the bulk of the book?
Oh yeah. She gave me this text, and I broke it down into panels. We talked about what to put in and what not to put in, and I asked her to write the epilogue. She’s a bright woman.
Other than the books you’ve done with your wife, was this your first writing collaboration?
Yeah, I think so.
But overall the process went fairly smoothly?
Yeah. She took care of one end of it, and I broke it down and turned it over to the illustrator.
How closely do you collaborate with illustrators?
I write little descriptions in the panels of what I’d like to see, and I call them up and go over the book with them, and tell them what I’d like to see. But here again, Heather was a great help. She took a million pictures, and gave them to Ed, and that resulted, if nothing else, in a really nice cover. I liked that, with the cross…The artists that I’m working with now, I have a lot of confidence in, so I don’t try to spell everything out for them. And you really can’t, because, if they’re going to do something, they’ve got to figure it out for themselves. I do the panels and put them in the order that I want, and write instructions in there, and talk it over with the guys, and they’ll send me stuff to look at. But I don’t think I’ve ever asked anybody in the last few years to make any kind of major changes. Just maybe minor details, or catching some spelling mistakes, or something.
Did you used to attempt to assert more control over what artists did?
Yeah, a little more. But I realized that they knew what they were doing, and I wasn’t being very helpful. Also, I’ve got to say, when I started out, the illustrators that I worked with weren’t as good as the people that I have now—although I don’t have Robert Crumb to work with, but I have some real solid illustrators. Dean Haspiel has worked out real good for me.
Are these people you’ve hand-picked yourself?
Different ways. Sometimes people would just come up and shove a bunch of work in my face. And once in a while it’s good. Ed Piskor, he drove all the way down from Pittsburgh, to meet me. And there’s another woman that I’m doing some work with—you won’t see it for a while, it’s in the process of being done—her name is Summer McClinton. I found out about her when I was working on a big project about the history of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and the guy who was overseeing it gave me her name. I contacted her and she sent me some stuff, and I thought, ‘god, this kid is really good.’ It happens in all sorts of different ways.
A couple of years ago, you put together the Best American Comics collection. Do you actively read new stuff, as it comes out?
To tell you the truth, no, I don’t. I can’t keep up with it. And a lot of it, I’m not that crazy about. I try to check some of it out, though. I did learn something putting that book together, because I hadn’t seen that much stuff around—nothing on the stands, or anything like that. I thought comics were in decline, and then I went to the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland, and they had all of these people doing these small Xeroxed books, and I saw a whole hell of a lot of stuff that was good. There are a lot of really good people out there, but getting this stuff out there is a real problem. There’s nobody interested in distributing alternative comics, for one thing. It used to be that there were several companies that specialized in distributing them, but that’s gone.
There are still a handful of publishers, out there.
Well, there are a few, but it’s not like it was, when you had Capitol City and Kitchen and a half-dozen of them.
[Continued in Part Two.]