In this second part of our interview with the Cleveland artist, we discuss collaborating with Harvey Pekar and how the process of drawing the book changed once its author passed away.
Does the snowy cover frame it as a melancholy book? Obviously there are some certain real-life aspects to it that are a bit depressing, but does the book have that feeling overall?
To me it does. I don’t know if other people would read it that way. There are certainly hopeful moments to it, where Harvey is talking about how he was hope for the future and things like that, but when I read it, I hear sad jazz music underneath it. I don’t know… I read all of Harvey’s work like that, so it’s hard to say.
Hope for the future of Cleveland or hope in his own life?
More for his own future. Not so much hope for the future. Somewhat. It’s like he loves the city, but he’s pained by what’s happened to it. He talks about things that people are doing to try to make it a better place, but who knows where that’s gonna go?
He was never the eternal optimist.
No, not at all.
How personal of a book is this? Obviously it’s a biography of the city, but is it also autobiographical in the way that most of his books have been?
The first third of the book is an almost straight history of Cleveland. He starts the book by talking about the World Series of 1948, when the Indians won, and then it goes into a 30 page history of Cleveland. And then it picks up with his life, about 30 pages in, and then it goes from his childhood through the end of his life. And that portion of the book is very personal—straight autobiography mixed in with different people that he’s met in Cleveland, different bookstores that he hung out at and things like that.
So the portion of Cleveland history that he’s alive for is the autobiographical section.
Yeah, he tells the history of Cleveland up to the point that he enters, and then he tells his own history up to the end of his life.
Over the past decade or so, Harvey’s passion turned toward non-autobiographical non-fiction. This sort of splits the difference between the two.
It’s definitely much more of an autobiographical story than he’s done in recent years. I don’t know that he’s ever told the story of his ex-wife. He repeats a lot of stories in his life in different ways. There’s a big section of the book where he tells the story of his ex-wife. I’ve never read that before in any of his other work.
I know she’s come up in American Splendor before, but I’m not really sure how extensively he mentioned her.
Yeah. He tells the whole story of that, and it’s actually kind of heartbreaking. It’s probably my favorite part of the book.
That says a lot, that one of the most heartbreaking parts is also one of the best.
Yeah, I guess so. But my favorite stuff is always kind of sad. I like stuff that’s funny and sad at the same time [laughs].
How does his ex-wife come up in telling the story of Cleveland?
I guess it’s loosely the story of Cleveland. He just does it [laughs]. He’s telling the story of his neighborhood or something, and one of the school areas he hung around in a lot is where he met her. It’s a mix of Cleveland history and the events of his life.
How far into the process were you when Harvey passed away?
About 20 pages. I got asked to do it maybe four months before he died and had done, like, 20 pages. I think I’d sent eight pages to him and heard back on them. He was really excited about what I’d sent to him. He’d heard I’d done that book Blindspot, and told him. He called me and started yelling at me, “why haven’t you sent me your book yet?” [laughs]. So I sent him my book and the next 15 pages, and then a few days after that, I heard that he’d died.
So the majority of your collaboration on the book was those few pages.
Yeah, pretty much.
I know he had a tendency to almost micromanage his collaborators. I know he’d talk to people about the works in progress over the phone.
No, like I said, I’d sent him the first few pages and he was telling me that some of the baseball players were drawn with the glove on the wrong hand—they were left-handed [laughs]. You know, little things like that that no one would care about.
Except for him.
So in that respect was the process different than the way you had collaborated for the Pekar Project pieces?
Well, I guess so. It was very easy working with him on the short pieces, the early stuff I’d worked on with him. He trusted me to do those little strips. I didn’t really hear back from him. He’d send me the scripts and that was it. I’d heard that he could micromanage people and get in big fights with artists, but I didn’t have that experience at all with him, really. Maybe it was just because he was getting older and he didn’t have the energy to fight about things like that. I don’t know… I didn’t have that experience with him.
Was there a marked change in terms of how you approached the book once he died?
It wasn’t really a marked change. I took a couple weeks off, because it just felt weird to be telling this guy’s story, a couple of weeks after he passed away. It was jarring. And I talked to Joyce, his wife, and we both agreed that we wanted to make the book something special, and I think I even increased my effort to make it the best thing I could possibly make it. There was an effort to make it not just another Harvey Pekar book, which I don’t know if I did or not, but I really tried to.
In terms of spending even more time on each page?
Always trying to give it the best shot. Not taking a shortcut where I could. There’s always a decision to be made where you can take a shortcut or you can do the grand vision that you’ve always wanted to do and spend even more time working on it, so I did that for the whole thing.
Did Joyce play a role in the book, beyond that one conversation you had?
Not really. She helped me with some reference photos and things like that. And she was supportive. She trusted that what I was doing was good, because I was sending her pages, every 20 pages. When I would send them off to the editor, I would send them to her, too. And she would call me every now and again and she was always really supportive of how it turned out. Maybe if I was doing a terrible job, she’d have had more input.
[Continued in Part Three]