Later this year, Top Shelf and first-time publisher Zip Comics will release Cleveland, the first posthumous book from Harvey Pekar. The work is a combination autobiography of the writer and an biography of the city he loved, drawn by Joseph Remnant, marking the cartoonist’s graphic novel debut.
Remnant has been releasing work for a few years now, including his debut self-published short story collection Blindspot and a number of collaborations with Pekar, as part of the online Pekar Project. I first met Remnant a few years back, when we took a trip to Cleveland to celebrate Pekar’s birthday.
Meeting Remnant, it’s difficult to believe that he’s the artist behind the work, with a style that belies his years, steeped deeply in the work of Pekar’s own contemporaries and subjecting him to fairly consistent comparisons to Robert Crumb—there are, of course far worse things in this world to be compared to.
The cartoonist insists, however, that while Crumb and his fellow underground artists did factor heavily into his early influences, his style has evolved gradually away from that style, a shift that he says is evident in his longest and more ambitious work to date.
Were you at Comic Con?
I was. I went Thursday through Sunday.
How did that treat you?
You know, Comic Con is what it is, but I had a great time, actually. I think I just needed break from my routine so bad that it was pretty awesome.
What’s your routine?
Sitting at a desk all day, drawing—or going to my day job, painting signs. Especially after this book that I just finished—I haven’t taken time off in a long time. It was nice to just do something else, hang out with other people.
What kind of signs are you painting?
Three days a week I paint signs for Trader Joe’s, mostly. When they expand a store of build a new store, I’ll go in and paint all of their signs. Right now at the Studio City Trader Joe’s you can go in and it’s all of my artwork on the walls.
If I walk in, will I be able to tell it’s yours, or is there a certain house style you have to keep to?
No, you’d probably be able to tell—maybe…
Is it cartoony?
Naw. I did stuff like that for a while, now it’s much more—I found this 1920s retro kind of thing that I like to do that suits style. I pain a lot of stripes and decorative flourishes and old timey lettering.
That’s sort of akin to your heavy use of hatching in your comics.
Yeah, I guess so [laughs].
Are you compelled to fill a space as much as possible?
No, I don’t feel like I need to fill a space as much as possible, but I do feel like I take it too literally sometimes, where I draw a guy’s face and he’s saying something, and that’s all that needs to be show. But in my mind, I think about what would be in the background, whereas with other cartoonists, they don’t need to show what’s there. For some reason I have a compulsion to really show what’s there.
Has that changed at all over the years? Have you stepped away from that compulsion or have you become even more obsessed with the small details?
No, it is changing. I’m moving away from that, I think, where I don’t feel the need to show everything that’s there. I’m thinking more about it compositionally, rather than what would be there in reality.
Is that due to your move toward longer pieces?
No, because I never want to take a shortcut for the sake of taking a shortcut. I feel like some cartoonists do that. There’s that school of thought now that’s ‘the less detail, the better.’ That kind of pisses me off, because it’s such a simplistic approach to it. I don’t think it’s true—there can be as much or as little detail as you want. To me, it’s more that the comic strip has to have a sort of rhythmic quality to it, where it flows from one panel to the other. Some cartoonists can do that with very few lines, and some people do it with a lot of lines and it’s still worth it. It’s an instinctual thing, I think.
Are you spending roughly as much time per panel on Cleveland as you did with, say, Blindspot?
Yes, absolutely. I think I got faster as I moved along, but that’s just because I got better at drawing, I think. When I did Cleveland, I consciously made a decision that I wasn’t going to take any shortcuts just because it’s a long book. Some of the American Splendor work looks like it was just an illustration job for somebody. I wanted it to be the best thing I’ve ever done, and that’s how I approached it from the beginning.
When he’s talking about going to the old library down town, I could just draw his head real big in the foreground and a bookshelf in the background. But to me, it would be better if you saw the whole hall in this 1920s library. It was a huge pain in the ass to draw that, but since the book is about Cleveland itself, I felt like I should do that.
I wanted to pull back so you could see the city in the background. It takes a lot more time, but it looks a lot more interesting.
It’s sort of a cliché at this point, but is the city a character in the book?
I guess you could say that [laughs]. For sure. Like I said, I pulled back a lot, so there’s a lot of full figure shots, so you can see the cityscape in the background. The narrative is told with Harvey walking down the streets of Cleveland, telling the story. Initially it wasn’t like that. He didn’t tell me that that’s how he wanted it down, so started just drawing him in a room, telling the story, so about 20 pages in, I realized that that was stupid. It’s a story about Cleveland, he should be telling it in the city, while he’s narrating.
So I changed it to him walking through the streets, telling the story. So, at the beginning, I added a page silent panels, same with the end. It was actually something I stole from the movie Manhattan, where you see those shots of New York at the beginning and the end of the movie.
I’m sure that Harvey wouldn’t have minded your stealing from Woody Allen.
No. I don’t mind either.
Were you using a lot of reference photos?
Yeah. I used quite a few. And I never drew it exactly like it was, but whenever there was a shot of Cleveland in the background, I used a reference shot.
Is that something you use a lot in your work?
Not so much anymore, because when I first started drawing, it was necessity. Now I can fake my way through what a building or a house looks like or a car. And usually it looks more interesting when I don’t use a reference shot for something specific when it’s not real. For the city of Cleveland, I’d use a reference shot, but if I don’t need to, it actually looks like it’s got more character, if it comes from my mind.
We took a trip to Cleveland a few years ago, to visit Harvey. Have you been back since?
No, that was the last time I was in Cleveland. I would have liked to, but I didn’t have the time and the money to do it while I was making the book. I was working a job as little as possible, in order to do the book in the time that I had allotted to do it. There was pretty much no way I could do it.
Where the few days that we spent there useful?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of the book takes place in Coventry. I live in Los Angeles now, but I’m originally from Dayton, OH, so I’ve been to Cleveland several times. I’d go up there for shows and things like that. So I feel like I have a grasp on at least the feeling of the city.
How would you describe the city’s feel?
It’s a lot of factories. A lot of the cities in Ohio were booming, 50, 60 years ago. And now you see the remains of it, and now a lot of it’s shut down. And I think it’s a really cold city. The cover of the book I drew covered in snow. I always think of it covered in snow, or cold like when we were there. It was late fall and was starting to turn really cold. I never think of it in the summer, when the leaves are blooming and everything.
[Continued in Part Two.]