By the last third of our interview, Harvey Pekar and I had essentially exhausted the subject of his new book, Macedonia. As he had made fairly clear in the first half-hour and change, the writer was rather unhappy with the way the book has thus far been received in critical circles. Let’s face it, though, if he didn’t complain such much, he’d hardly be the Harvey Pekar we’ve all come to know and love over the past few decades.
After a follow up conversation with Pekar a week and a half ago, it seems that things are looking up a bit for the author. Acording to Pekar, the new reviews that have begun cropping up ‘get’ what he was going for, when he opted to tell the story of Macedonia’s successful campaign to avoid war amongst its dissident factions.
In this final part, we discuss the future of American Splendor, the current state of jazz, and Pekar’s long-abandoned artistic aspirations.
Are there any new American Splendor books on the horizon?
Yeah. i’m going to do four comic books, like I did last year, for DC. This is the plan—and I’ve already done some of the work. They’ll be coming out in September, October, November, and December, and then they’ll collect them into a book, like they did last time, with Another Day.
So the first one must have sold pretty well, if they’re going to collect a new one.
Who knows? I sold so little, before the movie, that I don’t want to think about it. I mean, I do think about it, and I freak myself out thinking about it, but I don’t want to think about it, or I’ll drive myself nuts, worrying about how, if this thing doesn’t go over big, my career in comics is over.
Do you enjoy doing autobiographical work, as much as you used to?
Yeah, I enjoy it, as much as I used to, but I’ve got to be careful not to be repetitive. Like I’ve done stories, a few times, about how inept I am with mechanical stuff. I’m going to give that a rest, for a while. When I was doing American Splendor, I would get out 50 pages a year, and now I’m doing more than twice than that, of just that autobiographical comic. And then I’ve got these other projects that I’m working on—a biography of Lenny Bruce.
Yeah—Nick Bertozzi said he was working with you on that.
Yeah, I’m pretty happy with that, and I have these other things: a history of SDS and a history of the beat generation, that I made major contributions to, and I’ve adapted the original text of Studs Terkel’s Working. I didn’t mess with his writing—I didn’t want to fool with that—I just took the writing and broke it down into panels.
Was he involved with the project, at all?
No—I guess they asked to make sure that it was okay with him to do this project. And then when he said it was okay—he’s about 95 now—they just went ahead and did it. I don’t think he’d have a problem with what I’m doing, because I don’t mess around with his stuff. I don’t add or delete anything. I do it just the way he did it, and hopfully there will be some nice illustrations to go along with it. I’ve got a couple of other projects. For Random House, I’m going to do some long short stories—stuff with several stories, about 25 or 30 pages long. And then I’m going to do a biography about a woman that I’ve known for years and years, who went from being a welfare mother to being an MD. I think that’s a pretty interesting story, and I want to get that down.
These are all comics?
Do you feel like you’re stuck with the comic medium, for life?
Well, you know, I did a prose piece for a sociology magazine, not too long ago. I’m not writing off prose pieces.
You used to do a lot of music reviews, as well.
I did, but I don’t do them anymore. I’d spend all of this time listening to a record, and then writing a review. I’ll spend hours on it, and what do I get? Twenty-five bucks. It’s just not worth it for me, anymore. When that was all I had going for me, and I had a this sluggy job, and I wanted to add some kind of self-respect, that was a big deal to me, to be any kind of a writer. I was the first guy in my group of guys to come out with stuff being published in a national magazine. I paid my dues, man. I was writing about jazz, from age of nineteen, up until a few years ago.
Is there still anything worthwhile happening in jazz?
Yeah, there’s stuff worthwhile happening, but the general public just can’t comprehend it. I think, in several art forms, at one time—say, in the 19th century—you’d have these avant garde artists, and the public didn’t know what to make of them, for a while, but then they’d catch up to them. After 25 years, they’d start digging them. But in the 20th century, people were coming out with stuff that hardly anybody caught up with. There’s not too many people you see who are reading James Joyce’s stuff, just for kicks. Non-objective painting, by Jackson Pollack and stuff—I realize that those paintings fetch a lot of money at auction, but you go to a museum and you see that kind of stuff, and then there’s some old grandfather type, saying, “well, my grandson can paint better than that.” There’s just a disconnect.
People just can’t handle it anymore. And the music just keeps getting farther and farther out, but it’s just too hard for them to keep up with. And I don’t blame them. If a guy’s working a 40 hour a week job, and he goes home and is tired—to find out what’s going on in avant garde, you’ve got to really work on it, and train your ear. You’ve also got to find out how things are evolving, so it won’t be a complete surprise for you. You see how this one guy developed his style from an earlier guy, and you have this sense of evolution. But if you don’t listen to anything for ten years, and you go back and listen to the stuff of today, you just get shocked.
There’s a scene in the American Splendor film—I’m not sure how true to life it is, but it’s one of the more memorable in the movie. Before the concept of collaboration comes up, your character is attempting to draw the panels, himself. Did you ever have any artistic aspirations?
That’s the way I write scripts—they’re a little more detailed than what they had: someone scribbling on a piece of paper. I divide the paper up into panels, and I use stick figures, thought and speech balloons, and captions. And I put a little description of what I want in the panel, for the artist. But I don’t have any artistic talents. I can’t do anything beyond that. I was just a total waste at that, when I was a kid.