Holy shit, you guys. I got to interview Harvey Pekar!
His wife Joyce Brabner was also along for the festivities. I don’t remember all of the details of how this one came together, but I’m pretty sure I talked to them separately. It would have been too confusing to conduct an interview with both Pekar and Brabner at the same time. I was still fairly new to the whole phone interview game, so I was wise to not complicate things for myself.
Brabner had contacted me in early ’95 in order to get some coverage for the Activists! comic she wrote and edited and the subsequent controversy surrounding it. That story was more suited to Wizard‘s news section, since “Palmer’s Picks” didn’t really handle breaking news and I had already booked a bunch of columns in order to coincide with the release dates of several comics. But I kept in touch with Brabner to set up an interview for this issue of Wizard, and was able to expand the scope a bit and add Pekar to the mix. The end result wasn’t too shabby.
As I mention in the “Recommended Reading” section of the original column, I was finding it harder and harder to make room for all of the comics I wanted to cover in “Palmer’s Picks.” In a perfect world, I would have had space for a full-length interview with Charles Vess to mark the launch of The Book of Ballads and Sagas, but the short blurb written for this issue was the only coverage I gave it. The series was published sporadically for only four issues, so it proved difficult to arrange an interview that would coincide with the book’s publishing schedule. It was the same case for Ivan Brunetti‘s Schizo. The debut issue of his series was a sensation and really put him on the map, but the book’s schedule was beyond erratic. The third issue of Schizo came out in 1998, after “Palmer’s Picks” had ended, and the fourth and final issue appeared eight years after that.
There’s one little inaccuracy in the original “Picks” that I feel I should probably correct. While discussing Pekar’s comic series, I wrote that “American Splendor has been around in various forms since 1972.” While Pekar did write a story in Robert Crumb‘s The People’s Comics in that year, the first issue of American Splendor didn’t appear until 1976. Not exactly a glaring mistake, but it’s something that could have probably used a little more clarification. I apologize to anyone who has been waiting almost 25 years to have that one cleared up.
Bringing Life to Comics
By Tom Palmer Jr.
“I try to make my stories as accurate as possible,” says legendary autobiographical author and American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar. “If I’m faced with a situation, I have to decide whether to make myself come across as more or less favorable to readers. I try and opt for being unattractive; that way I’m more believable. I don’t really care if people like me; I just want them to like my writing.”
Evidently, people do like what Pekar has been writing. His comic series American Splendor has been around in various forms since 1972, and he has recently won critical praise—including two 1995 Eisner Award nominations—for his work on Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel he co-created with his wife Joyce Brabner and artist Frank Stack. He’s recently put together American Splendor: Windfall, a new two-issue series from Dark Horse Comics beginning in September, which details Pekar’s life after his bout with cancer.
Throughout the years, Pekar has used comic books to chronicle the everyday triumphs and challenges of his life, with stories that range in focus from his job as a file clerk and his obsession with old jazz records to his several unforgettable and controversial appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. Pekar’s gruff, everyman character celebrates the importance of the personal events that are sometimes taken for granted or forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
Pekar says he chose comic books as a medium because of the wide range of possibilities. “When I first started out, I came to the conclusion that comics were as good an artform as any other, and that they were really being underutilized. I saw so many things that could be done in comics that weren’t being done. You can deal with any type of a story or issue in comics, just the same way you can in film and TV. You can use the same words that any prose writer can use, and you have access to any number of illustration styles. It’s a real economical way of telling a story. You don’t have to write descriptive passages; you can just show it to people.”
When Pekar shows things to people, he relies on the artists that illustrate his stories. Pekar has worked with a number of artists, and they all have their strong points. “The thing about a few guys I work with, like Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco and Frank Stack, is that they can find a way to do any kind of story. Somebody like Crumb, for example, can find a way to make anything work because he’s real smart. He notices all kinds of things; how people dress, what the rooms are furnished with. In that sense, his work is very realistic, even though the proportions of the characters might be exaggerated.”
Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s wife, also uses comic books to tell true-life stories, but she focuses on stories of social injustice and political activism. She has worked on several high-profile comics, including Eclipse’s Brought to Light and Real War Stories and Caliber/Stabur’s Activists! (which was never distributed, due to its “politically incorrect” nature, as reported in Wizard #46’s news section), as well as being currently involved in organizing a comic for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). With her commitment to using comic books as an educational tool and as a form of journalism, Brabner is one of the few writers in the field who is actively expanding the potential readership of comic books.
Like Pekar, Brabner realizes that the impact of her comics depends on the artists with whom she chooses to work. “Sometimes, because of the kind of audience I’m playing to I’m bridging the gap between comics readers and non-comic readers,” she says. “I like to take an artist with a very realistic style and match him with an artist with a very flashy style.” She mentions the pairs of Bill Sienkiewicz and Tom Yeates on Brought to Light, and Mark Badger and Wayne Van Sant on Activists as examples.
While both Pekar and Brabner have written comics on their own for a number of years, they have only recently decided to collaborate. Their first work together was Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel that related Pekar’s fight with lymphoma, the couple’s struggle to buy a house, and Brabner’s relationship with a group of young activists during the time of Desert Storm. The graphic novel is a ground-breaking work that stretches the possibilities for the comic book medium, but both Pekar and Brabner agree that working together was a unique, and sometimes difficult, process.
“In the very beginning I wasn’t supposed to be working on Our Cancer Year, but Harvey had been coming to me with questions and ideas,” Brabner remembers. “I began to realize that I was giving him story information, in part because Harvey had suffered some memory loss about what happened. Eventually we realized that we would be working on this thing together.”
Pekar recalls that the pair wrote a lot of the work together, but certain scenes were written individually. “There were times when we compromised on things. It wasn’t easy to do. If you’re working with somebody, and you both have a lot of commitments to what you’re doing, and you both have lots of ideas, there are built-in problems. You’ve got to solve them or else never speak to each other again. But we worked them out.”
Brabner acknowledges that while working on the book was difficult, their effort helped them in the healing process. “We were doing what we shouldn’t have been doing as cancer survivors. Instead of putting it behind us, we decided to rip it apart. However, it’s a lot better for us to look back and see this book instead of just seeing all of the pain Harvey and I went through.”
Pekar and Brabner have worked together again more recently on Pekar’s new series. All of the stories in American Splendor: Windfall are written by Pekar—as was the case with the previous American Splendor comics—except for “Be Careful Not to Pull Too Hard on Loose Ends,” which was written by Brabner. “I did that story because it gave people an opportunity to see what happened after Our Cancer Year, and because it gives you a different point of view on Harvey, which can be really interesting.”
While Brabner enjoyed working on American Splendor, she acknowledges that there is one drawback to her relationship with her husband. “I’m losing out by being married to Harvey. I don’t get to look for the new issue of American Splendor and read it. That’s something I gave up when I married him.”
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer from New Jersey who doesn’t get out much.
FYI: The first issue of American Splendor: Windfall should be out now in your local comic book store, or you can call Dark Horse Comics at
1-800-862-0052. The black-and-white series features artwork by Joe Sacco, Frank Stack, Joe Zabel and others. Our Cancer Year was published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1994, and the company also published a trade paperback of earlier American Splendor issues.
The Book of Ballads and Sagas: With more and more self-published comic books popping up every month, it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out which books will be worth the price of admission. One comic that is sure to be worth every penny is The Book of Ballads and Sagas, a six-issue series that is the first venture into self-publishing for popular fantasy artist Charles Vess. In every issue of Ballads, Vess has gathered together an impressive list of writers (including Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Elaine Lee and Sharyn McCrumb) to help adapt several popular ballads that have been passed down from generation to generation. Aside from showcasing Vess’ ballad adaptations, every issue of this breathtaking, beautiful series will feature an installment of “Skade,” a story written by Ragmop creator Rob Walton and illustrated by Vess. Just by looking at one page of Vess’ vibrant penstrokes from The Book of Ballads and Sagas, you can see that he has poured every ounce of love and dedication into this project. If you have trouble finding the first issue (which is in stores in September), send $3.50 to Green Man Press,
10518 Rich Valley Rd, Bristol, VA 24202 for a sample.
Schizo: Ivan Brunetti is a wickedly humorous cartoonist with a tremendous self-deprecating streak. Check out Fantagraphics‘ re-release of Brunetti’s Schizo, which was originally published by Antarctic Press. Write to Fantagraphics at 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 or call 1-800-657-1100 for more information.