From Off the Streets of Cleveland: A Weekend With Harvey Pekar

Categories:  Interviews, Reviews

Here’s our man, seated in a chair toward the front of an art gallery in Cleveland’s Little Italy district. He sits like slouching king—a sleepy one, up well past his normal bedtime—greeting old friends and fans and well-wishers and even some curious passersby, who spotted a bustling gathering from the art walk outside the gallery

In five days, Harvey Pekar will turn 70, a fact commemorated by the cake in the center of the room, shaped like a giant doughnut, with a dozen or so donught holes, powdered and glazed, erupting from its center. There will be a toast, too, before it’s all over, a crowd of people squeezed between the comics-covered walls, as the man himself attempts to blow out two candles on the massive white cake. Failing to do this, his wife Joyce happily steps in to put them both out.

It’s been a long day already. For eight hours Pekar and Joyce were holed up in the Beachwood, Ohio home of artist, Tara Seibel, along with fellow a number of fellow collaborators from both coasts and a film crew that had swiftly converted the two story house’s sun room into a makeshift studio for a piece documenting the evening’s festivities.

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One by one, each artist was pulled aside—Rick Parker, the industry vetran behind the long time logo for Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer, who speaks with the booming baritone of Johnny Cash; Joseph Remnant an Ohio native, flown in from Los Angeles, whose cross hatch-heavy work bears the unmistakable mark of Robert Crumb, and a generation of artists four decades before his time; Sean Pryor, a punk rock-worshipping New Jerseyite and the baby of the group, some 45 years Pekar’s junior; and Seibel herself, a fellow Clevelander whose painted work has marked something of an abrupt shift from the long line of artists who’ve toiled away on American Splendor throughout the decades.

From the way Pekar describes it, seated with me on a child’s futon in the basement of the house, after wrapping up his interview with the three-person camera crew, it wouldn’t be overstating matters to suggest that Seibel has proved something of muse for the writer over the past two years.

“About a year and half ago, I met Tara at some kind of a conference,” Pekar begins, slowly, after I’ve finished precariously setting up recording equipment on the tiny children’s table in front of us. “She was interested in my work and she had been an art major in college. She was interested in getting into cartoons, so she stopped over at house one time. We were talking, and she knew about so-called fine art. I saw that she knew enough about it that she could integrate elements from it into a comics style, and almost certainly it would be something original. I like to work with people who are original. She was ready to do it.”

What began as a few assorted print collaborations soon sewed the seeds for the Pekar Project, the technophobic author’s launch into cyberspace, curated for Smith Magazine by the site’s comics editor, Jeff Newelt, fresh off a string of serialized successes for the publication, including Josh Neufeld’s A.D. and the Anthony Lappe/Dan Goldman collaboration, Shooting War, both of which have since landed their respective creators book deals at major publishing houses, a possibility that Pekar was banking on when he agreed to the project. “The payoff is supposed to be that these guys try to sell your book. More often than not, they’ve scored that way. In the long run, it would be nice to get some people into print, and not get rusty. “

It’s not just something nice for Pekar, however. It’s something essential. The artist has absolutely no hang-ups discussing his financial situation—in fact, he’ll gladly launch straight into the subject, unprovoked. “I’m a little worried about this recession,” he tells me, simply, riding low on the blue and red quilt behind him.

It’s been half a dozen years since the HBO-produced film American Splendor introduced a hard luck file clerk at the Cleveland VA hospital to a new generation of fans. “Before the movie—especially when I didn’t see any improvement in sales after being on the David Letterman show, a few times, I thought, ‘millions of people watch this guy, and I don’t know anyone who ever bought a comic book because of that—I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s going to take an act of God to make my sales go up,’” Pekar explains.

But in the Pekar universe, even the most divine successes are finite. “When I got the movie thing, a lot of people were just overjoyed. And I was happy to get a big chunk of money at one time, but then I found that my pension wasn’t going to be enough, and even combined with social security support, my wife and me—she wasn’t working—and I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do when this money runs out?’”

In subsequent years, Pekar has turned his attentions toward longer works—graphic novels—with a new-found fascination with non-autobiographical non-fiction, churning out a slew of books bearing titles like Macedonia and The Beats. 2006 saw Ego & Hubris, a profile of New York City based writer and “piece of work,” Michael Malice. Earlier this year, the New Press released Pekar’s graphic adaptation of the Studs Terkel blue collar classic, Working.

While the works were largely lauded by critics, and sales have been brisk, not even Hollywood could entirely reverse the streak of an artist whose autobiographical strips have so often been plagued by disappointment. “It’s been kind of a rough year for me,” Pekar admits, softly. “I’ve submitted projects that my editor has okayed, but the higher ups said ‘no.’ ” There’s a Lenny Bruce biography, long held up by its publishing house, despite having already been drawn by The Salon artist, Nick Bertozzi. Also in the pipes is a book about much maligned Wisconsin senator turned anti-communist zealot, Joseph McCarthy, which has yet to make it past the editorial approval stages.

So, a few months short of 70, Harvey Pekar discovered the Internet—or, rather, the Internet discovered Pekar. “I wish to fuck I could learn computers, but there’s some stuff I just can’t learn,” Pekar admits. “Ever since I was a kid, I was no good with the technical stuff. It’s a wonder I ever got a driver’s license.” And while Pekar is trying—if largely failing—to integrate himself into the world of computers by way of a class at the local senior center, that end of the project is largely irrelevant to the writer who happily lets the employees at his beloved local library navigate the foreign world of technology for him, ever since his wife gave up attempting to teach him.

“I never did handle the technological aspect of it,” he sighs. “I would just write a script, sort of like they showed in the movie with the storyboards and stick figures, and I’d send it off to somebody, and they’d take it from there.”

The event, which brought us all to Cleveland, occurring later that night at the Pennello Art Gallery, marks something of a real world coming out party for the online project, and the inhabitants of Pekar’s beloved hometown pack the small room to capacity, eager to shake the hands of the guest of honor, who has happily planted himself on a chair for the bulk of the evening, smiling and talking to each guest at length, over the sound of a string quartet performing Latin-styled covers of Pink Floyd and Bob Marley, a favorite of the gallery’s co-owner, Sue, who dances and hands out bottles of authentic Cleveland stadium mustard to her out-of-town guests.

The four Pekar Project artists are present, selling prints and originals to showgoers. So are Malice and Newelt, the latter of whom leads the crowd in a birthday toast. Even frequent American Splendor subject and former VA hospital co-worker Toby Radloff makes it out (“If there’s free food, Toby will be there,” Pekar joked earlier in the day, seated on the couch in Seibel’s family room), regaling eager fans with his breakfast menu from that morning (a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts) and a wealth of information about his all-time favorite film, Revenge of the Nerds (the recent extended “Panty Raid Edition” painted the overall film in a much darker light).

It’s a triumphant night for Pekar, and a welcome reminder that, even in the face of publishing uncertainty, the writer is beloved, especially here in the epicenter of Cleveland’s artistic community.

And even after nearly 70 years of ups and down, the artist still loves his birthplace, an unquestionable fact as Pekar takes us on a tour of his Cleveland Heights neighborhood the next day. Every inch of this city is a Pekar story, from Tommy’s Restaurant, the author’s favorite haunt since opening in 1972, to Big Fun, an expansive novelty store whose friendly owner, Steve Presser, is the subject of an upcoming strip.

We visit the library, where Pekar does his research and spends most days of the week hunting for the $1 sale books, which have grown too numerous to store in his own home, and have since transformed the home of Seibel and her husband Aaron into something of a makeshift annex. Pekar loves them all.

As we step through the door of the nearby vinyl store, Record Revolution, a man by the counter greets Pekar, smiling. “Hey Harvey!” Harvey shakes the man’s hand. Spotting my camera, the man in the trenhcoat laughs, “are you filming this? I hope I don’t spot you on one of those television reality shows.”

“You might,” Pekar responds, without hesitation. “I’m trying everything.”

–Brian Heater

15 Comments to “From Off the Streets of Cleveland: A Weekend With Harvey Pekar”

  1. Rick Parker | October 6th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    WOW!! GREAT ARTICLE!! It really captures the event and the subject perfectly!

  2. jahfurry | October 6th, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Brian, wowz, i feel like i was there…. again. Thanks. as usual your post-event feature delivers the magic of the thing itself.

  3. Sean | October 6th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    very descriptive and extremely well written! nice job brian!!!

  4. Tara Seibel | October 6th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Phewww, what talent. you really seized the day and bottled it! And what a thrill to watch you work. Thanks for the laughs..and keep the good times rollin’ –tara

  5. Ronnie | October 7th, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Great article Brian!

    Wishing you all much success with
    the Pekar Project.
    You have some really great talent
    working on it!

    & The Happy Birthday Donut cake looks
    mighty tasty.

  6. Rick Parker | October 7th, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    A most welcome reminder of what for me was undoubtedly the most interesting and enjoyable trip I have ever made in my life as an artist.

  7. Mike Rhode | October 7th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Hey, you made it to Tommy’s! Did you get the milkshake?

  8. JMD | October 7th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    American Splendor was the original blog. Happy 70th Harvey!

  9. jahfurry | October 7th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Hey Mike! Yes we did get the milkshake. Sean, Harvey and myself all split a black & white! enuff for 3!

  10. joseph remnant | October 7th, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Man, this really is a perfect wrap up of a really great event. Nice work Brian.

  11. michael | October 8th, 2009 at 12:39 am

    awesome job! Great stuff. There’s something about the man and his life that is quite fascinating. 🙂

  12. dan morgan | October 10th, 2009 at 11:06 am

    So happy to have been brought into this team, even for one show. I am happy that Cleveland was good to you all!!! Thanks Jeff.

  13. Pennello Gallery | October 14th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Thank you Harvey for giving us the opportunity to turn the gallery into a wonderful,super duper birthday celebration! There was alot of love in the room and it truly was directed to you.We were honored to be the first gallery to turn the “web onto the walls”.Presti Bakery’s jelly doughnut cake had your name all over it!!!!!

  14. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Link of the day: Brian Heater’s Harvey Pekar weekend
  15. Happy 70th Birthday, Harvey Pekar! | BLACKHEART Cleveland