An Interview with Harvey Pekar, author of Ego & Hubris
Q: Where did the title of your comic, American Splendor, come from?
Harvey Pekar: When I was a kid, back in the '40s, I was a voracious comic book reader. And at that time, there was a lot of patriotism in the comics. They were called things like All-American Comics or Star-Spangled Comics or things like that. I decided to do a logo that was a parody of those comics, with "American" as the first word.
Q: What about "splendor"?
HP: For some reason, Splendor in the Grass always struck me as a hilarious title, so I figured that if I put it together with "American," the result would be kind of humorous and ironic.
Q: You started out as a jazz critic. Did jazz itself, the music, and then your critical writing about it, influence your structuring and writing of American Splendor?
HP: It helped me discipline my thinking and my critical faculties. I don't know about any particular techniques . . .
Q: I guess I've thought sometimes that there was an improvisational quality to American Splendor that maybe owed something to jazz.
HP: Well, I do improvise it in a way. The way I write is, I listen to things in my head and then I copy them down. I memorize conversations and things like that; I seem to be able to do that pretty well. I suppose in that respect there's some improvisation, although I work over the stuff after I've got it down on paper.
Q: What about your relationship with the various artists that illustrate your work?
HP: There is a lot of back and forth between us. What happens is that I write the story in a storyboard style, with captions and word balloons, and I put instructions in the story about how locations and people are supposed to look. Then I'll send it to the artist, and I'll go over it with him panel by panel. I don't try to dictate the way my characters look down to the last pimple or anything. I've seen scripts of some comic book writers that are incredibly detailed. But I wouldn't want to go about it that way. If you respect an artist and his judgment, he needs some flexibility to see how things work out after he draws them. If he draws what I've indicated, and it turns out it doesn't work out, it doesn't look good, then he's got to have the freedom to change it around.
Q: How do you decide which artist is the right artist for a particular story?
HP: A lot of times it's just who's available. When I started out, and I was publishing my own books, there were a lot of artists who weren't too crazy about working for me, because I couldn't pay much. And I don't blame them. I can pay a little bit better now, which helps, but let's face it: nobody's going to get rich illustrating my work. Then there are people I may want to work with but that are caught up in other jobs. It turns out there really aren't that many people I can work with on any particular project, especially if it calls for a time commitment of six months or longer. So what I do is, I narrow it down to who's available and then I consider the type of story it is and the artist's style and decide what matches. Some people are better at doing humorous things and some are better at grimmer things.
Q: Have underground comics gone mainstream?
HP: No. I mean, there is some success now with so-called graphic novels.
Q: Why do you say "so-called"?
HP: It's just a marketing term. This kind of stuff was out there before anybody started calling it that. The real underground stuff is still out there too, but you have to look harder to find it. In September I went down to the Small Press Expo, which deals with small publishers and self-published comics, and a lot of kids came up to me and gave me samples of their work. I took home a box of it. There was some very nice stuff there. The problem is with distribution. At least when I started doing underground comics, there were distributors for them. Now comic book distribution in America is pretty much monopolized by Diamond Comics, and I don't think they have much interest in distributing zines and stuff like that. There's no money in it.
Q: I guess that's why there's such a do-it-yourself attitude.
HP: Yeah. I thought maybe there was less interest in them, but what I'm seeing now is that there's just less opportunity to get them. You don't have head shops like you did back in the sixties and seventies. I'm sure there are small, independent bookstores that stock this stuff, but it's harder to find. I couldn't tell you where to find any of this stuff in the Cleveland area.
Q: Who is doing interesting comics work today?
HP: There are some guys getting attention, like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, and I think their work is good. I like Joe Sacco's work a lot.
Q: The new American Splendor collection, Ego & Hubris, seems like a new direction for you. It features a main character, Michael Malice, who is not autobiographical and whose personality and politics are very different from yours.
HP: Did you read that?
Q: Yeah, I read it.
HP: Did you think it was okay?
Q: I liked it. I thought it was interesting partly because of the reasons I was just asking you about.
HP: It's a book I'm actually kind of scared about. I mean, I've written about other people before. I featured a guy in another graphic biography that not many people know about called Unsung Hero. That was about a guy I worked with, a black guy that was a decorated Vietnam veteran. It was put out by Dark Horse, but it wasn't well distributed, so nobody knows about it. People are thinking this book is the first time I've featured somebody besides myself, but that's just not true.
Q: If Ego & Hubris isn't such a big departure for you, why are you so worried about it?
HP: I'm kind of concerned about Ego & Hubris because I'm thinking that people will read it and maybe even be entertained by it, but at the end of it, you know, they"ll wonder, "Why did this guy write this? What was the point of it?"
Q: Well, why did you write it?
HP: The reason I wrote it was because this guy, Michael Malice, was similar to me in some respects and way different in others. Normally you meet somebody, you take note of their characteristics, and then after a while you make some kind of judgment on them. You know, they're a good person, they're a bad person. You categorize them. But this guy, although I like him, I haven't been able to categorize him. He constantly surprises me. He's motivated by things that are different than what motivates other people, and he has a pretty different set of values.
Q: How did you meet, and how did you collaborate?
HP: We met because of a book that Michael was working on at the time. He was writing a book about a band, Rubber Rodeo, and one of the members of the band was a guy who had done some animation on the American Splendor movie. So they knew each other, and they got to talking about me, and Michael said he would like to meet me. So a meeting was set up, and I met him. After I met him, I couldn't quite get where he was coming from. It was a real puzzle.
Q: There's that story in American Splendor about the New York blackout in 2003 and his efforts to save his tropical fish.
HP: That was the first story I did about him. A lot of people who read that story got the impression that he was a sweet, kind guy who was really concerned about the well-being of his fish. But in the story, he rejects that interpretation. He says something like, "I don't like my fish like they're people, I like them like pets, like objects." They were valuable objects to him. Or at least that's what he wanted me to believe. He wanted me to have the impression that he didn't have any kind of emotional involvement with them.
Q: Well, so which was it? Did he or didn't he?
HP: See, that's the thing. I don't know. I wonder. In Ego & Hubris, he calls himself a viper at one point. But, you know, I've seen the guy do some nice things for people.
Q: Were you attempting to portray him in a certain way in Ego & Hubris or just letting him speak for himself?
HP: It was like a kind of a Studs Terkel interview, or like this interview that you're doing with me now. I had a lot of material to work with, and I basically decided what to use and what not to use, but always letting him speak for himself. The words are his words, not mine.
Q: Was it difficult for you to back off and be more of a conduit for the story instead of actually being the story?
HP: No. It was easy. Like I said, I've done it before. The hard part was trying to make sense of this guy.
Q: What about the title, Ego & Hubris? Isn't that sort of an ironic comment on him?
HP: It's a title he wanted to use. And he thought it was ironic too. But I do think that he might have problems in that respect.
Q: According to my dictionary, "hubris" means "exaggerated pride or self-confidence."
HP: Right. Overweening self-confidence.
Q: The gods punished it. I mean, in the old Greek tragedies.
HP: Maybe he means it in a different way, I don't know. Some of his stuff can be interpreted as being pretty cocky. He doesn't often admit he's wrong. But I like him. He's reliable. That's a big deal for me. He was helpful, and he knows what he wants. He's not difficult to work with at all. And he's tried to do me favors. It's not like he's clueless. He recognizes that other people might consider him to be a jerk because of things he does or says, but it doesn't seem to matter to him. I mean, the portion of the book where he's making fun of a friend of his who's just committed suicide. That's kind of rough.
Q: There are a lot of points like that. He has a very sharp wit, the kind that draws blood. But he's also a very funny guy, which comes out on his website, Overheard in New York.
HP: The thing about a guy like Michael is that trying to figure him out sort of throws light on your own values, your own motivations. What I'm trying to do in this book is get people to think. I'm trying get readers to ask themselves, well, what makes this guy tick? And hopefully that will open up areas for them to reconsider themselves.
Q: Do you feel secure at last after all the years of struggle and worry and depression? Has that changed since you've become successful?
HP: No, I'll always be worried. That's just a sickness I've got. I try to mitigate it, and I take pills and stuff like that. I've been in the hospital because of it. I got fucked up as a kid, and I could never really shake it. So now, when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is what do I have to worry about, what do I have to take care of, what's been left undone that I have to finish up. That's the way my mind works. I just am constantly trolling over things, trying to see if I left myself vulnerable or if I've forgotten to do something that will screw me up, in every aspect of my life. I guess most people would say I've had a run of success. I guess I would agree with them, you know, from the time that the movie came out until now.
Q: Because from the outside looking in, you've accomplished a lot. Your books are respected, influential, and now they're even selling pretty well.
HP: See, my basic problem is that I don't make enough money on my pension to take care of my wife and kid. So I can't retire. I have to be a freelance writer for the rest of my life, unless I get some kind of real lucky break. But other than that, I'll always have to work. I always worry about whether my stuff is going to get over. Will they like this, will they like that? Before, when I had a job at the VA hospital, I didn't have to be concerned that much about whether the stuff would sell. As long as it was good, and people thought it was good, that was fine. But now it's all got to sell, and I'm scared. I'm always scared. If I do a project and it goes over real well, after awhile I start taking it for granted and worrying about the next thing I gotta do. So I'm an obsessive-compulsive kind of person. I'm constantly worrying about stuff. I try to talk to myself and reason with myself, but it's not going to completely go away. I'm sixty-six years old. By that time, if you're going to solve a problem, you should have solved it already.
Q: I wanted to ask you about your most recent book, The Quitter. That's more in the autobiographical vein, isn't it?
HP: Right. DC is the publisher. The official publication date was October 5. When I was in New York a few days before that, they told me that they had already sold out of the first printing. So that's real encouraging. It's gotten a lot of press coverage, and it's been overwhelmingly favorable.
Q: It's the most extensive treatment you've given to your childhood. Are you happy with how it turned out?
HP: I'm real happy with it. I was just looking at it again today. I hadn't looked at it for a while, and I was sort of wondering, like I always do, what basis will people criticize me on? So I went back and looked at the book, you know, read about fifteen pages of it, and I thought that I'd done what I'd set out to do in it. I mean, I can give you a reason for everything I did. Although it didn't take me a long time to write, I knew just what I was doing in it. In some respects, it's the best book I've ever done.
Q: Maybe you were building up to write that book all these years.
HP: That's possible. Although the way it came about was not planned at all. It was a kind of a pay-off to Dean Haspiel.
Q: He's the artist.
HP: Right. He's the guy that hooked me up with the people who produced the American Splendor movie. I got a lot more recognition from that, you know, it really helped me a lot financially and otherwise at a tough time, so once things had calmed down a bit from that, I said, "Look, Dean, what can I do to even it up? You did me a big favor. Is there anything I can do for you?" And he said, "Yeah, I'd like to illustrate a long piece that you've done." Since I was thirty-two years old, when I first started writing comics, I've always written about what's been in front of me, what I've gone through that day, you know, that sort of stuff. But I hadn't really talked much about when I was younger. I mean, I've done some stuff, but not a lot. And I haven't tied a lot of that up. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a long narrative about when I was younger and it would kind of fit into my oeuvre, because it would be kind of a prequel to American Splendor. It would show how I got to be the mess I am today.
Q: Why have you stayed in Cleveland all these years?
HP: Well, I never had any confidence that my art would make any money, for one thing. The thing about Cleveland is that I had a steady job here. A job that paid me enough, that was simple, so that I didn't have to go home and worry about it, that had good fringe benefits. It was a real secure situation. Even today, I wouldn't take a chance of moving somewhere else. I mean, the economic future of the US doesn't look that good as far as I'm concerned. I'm gonna hold on to what I got, man.
Q: Do you like Cleveland?
HP: Not particularly, no. My own neighborhood I like. The people in it. But there's things about Cleveland I don't like. There's things about Ohio I don't like. You know, it's a real red state.
Q: Do you miss the anonymity you had earlier in your career, when people didn't know you as Harvey Pekar, comics writer, and didn't expect that any interaction with you could wind up in a book? I imagine people are more on their guard around you now. Or are they performing.
HP: They're not, for the most part. I don't really have a lot of social contact. Maybe it's because it's so hard to believe in me as a writer that's had national exposure. I mean, my lifestyle has not changed at all. I'm still the same schlep I used to be.