Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 14, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guests today are Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, the couple behind the legendary American Splendor book and the film of the same name. Great to have you here.
Harvey Pekar: Thank you.
Joyce Brabner: Thanks.
Paulson: You know, all over town there are these Joyce and Harvey sightings. You know, people keep saying they’ve seen you on the street. And that couldn’t have happened before the movie, right?
Pekar: I don’t think so.
Brabner: No, it doesn’t even happen where we live.
Paulson: Which is Cleveland?
Paulson: We have a motive here. This television show is on in 70 cities across the country, all over Ohio — Dayton, Akron, Youngstown — but not in Cleveland. You are a calculated bid to get in the Cleveland market.
Pekar: [Scoffs] Lots of luck. [Laughing] The mayor hates me already.
Paulson: Are you cult heroes?
Brabner: No, he’s considered to be, he’s considered to be a threat to the city’s pride, because he talked about its being a Rust Belt city. So, we’ve kind of slid from favor. They started out giving him the keys to the city, because he got a movie made in Cleveland. And then they’re taking them away, because he talked about, you know, depopulation because, you know, the failure of industry and things like that.
Paulson: And you’ve not been all that kind to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame either in your writing.
Pekar: Oh, well, I — you know, I think that — you know, I’d like to see — at best, I’d like to see them build the city back up. And it is a Rust Belt city. I’m, I’m not blaming anybody for that. You know, it’s —
Brabner: And not the present administration.
Pekar: Yeah, it just has been going on for a long time. They can’t make steel products that are as cheap as they can in Japan and China, so, they’re going to suffer. You know, and ideally you’d like to see them build industry back up. But they’re just talking about getting a new convention center. And, like, that’s going to solve all the problems. That’s all I ever hear about when I hear about these cities in trouble is, they’ve got to get a new convention center.
Paulson: Right, it’s all —
Pekar: I don’t know if there are that many conventions to go around.
Paulson: And a lot of cities facing the same challenges as Cleveland. Well, that really reflects the kind of work you’ve been doing. You have always written what you believed. This show is about free speech and free press, and your work on American Splendor was always a reflection of the truth: what you believe, what your life was all about. A lot of people now are familiar with it because of the movie, which received major recognition at Sundance and, and will be out soon on DVD if it’s not out already.
Brabner: Not yet.
Paulson: And, and along with, actually, a companion volume, I understand you’re doing a comic book to go with it.
Brabner: We do. We’ve got a couple of projects in mind. We may actually do the comic book Our Movie Year. But Harvey’s regularly published by Dark Horse Comics, and he’s going to be turning out regular issues of American Splendor.
Paulson: Well, for those who have not seen the movie and who are not fans of graphic novels or comic books, American Splendor was groundbreaking in every way. It began in 1972?
Pekar: I started doing — yeah, I started doing alternative comics in 1972, and American Splendor was first published in 1976.
Paulson: And some of this grew out of a chance meeting with R. Crumb.
Pekar: That’s right.
Paulson: How did you get to know one of America’s foremost artists?
Pekar: Well, Crumb had been — he’s four years younger than me, and he had been living in Philadelphia. And he was a year out of high school, and he couldn’t find work there or do anything, so, he had been corresponding with a guy who lived in my neighborhood by the name of Marty Pauls. And Marty invited him to come and, and live with him, be his roommate. So, Crumb came to Cleveland and moved into the same neighborhood that I lived in, about a block away from me. And what we initially had in common was our interest in record collecting and more particularly jazz. But Pauls urged me to look at some of his comic book work. And I was familiar with comics, as I had collected them as a kid. But I’d given up on ‘em about the age of about 11. I’d given up on most of them, because I, you know, I just thought they were aimed at kids and they just weren’t being used to their full potential. Well, when I saw Crumb’s work, I just thought, “Well, this is the way you should be using comics.” Comics, you know, can be used for anything that any other art medium can be used for. And, so, he showed me this one story he did. It was a sort of a, a satire of a novel about the Middle Ages. And I got a big kick out of it. And I started theorizing about comics and thinking about all the different things you could do in ‘em and all the things that hadn’t been done in ‘em. In 1972, finally, when Crumb was visiting me in Cleveland, I showed him some storyboards of some stories I had written that were autobiographical and that were, you know, meant to emphasize, you know, quotidian existence, not, not just the big highs and lows in people’s lives, but just their everyday life, because I thought that their — that a lot, a lot of these experiences added up to a big influence on a person’s life. And I also felt that the humor of everyday life was much funnier than what you saw on the, you know, in the movies and on TV and stuff like that. So, I showed ‘em to him, and he liked ‘em, and he agreed to illustrate some of them for me. He actually didn’t even — he offered to. I was, I was too afraid to ask him. And, so, that gave me instant credibility when I got hooked up with a guy like that.
Paulson: Sure, and your work has been illustrated by many different talented artists over the years. It has to be an interesting feeling to see yourselves portrayed by different people. Sometimes you’re tall; sometimes you’re squat.
Brabner: I didn’t know what he looked like. We — you know, I was reading American Splendor, living on the East Coast and had a distribution problem with my comic-book shop. So, I wrote to him about getting comics, and we immediately started writing and arguing and eventually met; but up until — it’s — and it’s done beautifully in the movie. I — there was such a range of artists doing them. There’s Crumb. You know, Harvey could be the hairy ape, you know, the — you know, just no brow, or anything like that, or he could have been this young Marlon Brando that these other artists do. And it just sort of, you know, we talked on the phone, and we corresponded, but I never saw any photos of him until the day, you know, we showed up and we met face-to-face.
Paulson: I want to talk about that first meeting. But because you have a background as somebody who actually marketed his work, read his work as a fan, if you were to explain to somebody who’s watching the show today who’d never seen American Splendor, what set this apart from the rest of America’s graphic novels and comic books?
Brabner: Well, Harvey’s comics were about ordinary working-class life in Cleveland, a guy who ended up putting 30 years in as an entry-level government file clerk at the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital. And he never, you know, took any promotions or made any career moves up. He just did enough work to be able to get a pension and health insurance. And you know how most guys, they’re the musicians, and the wives have the pink-collar jobs, you know, so, they can play and compose and all that stuff. Well, he was — had his own pink-collar job, and he was supporting himself in his own art. And the stuff that I found about them is that they’re extremely honest, and he wasn’t afraid to deal with the small — observing small things. I mean, Harvey’s got a story about opening up a can of lemonade — you know, just frozen lemonade — and drinking it. And it’s, you know, a wordless story. And it’s just little, tiny things. Now, you know, that happens in great literature. That happens in high-end Japanese literature, novels like, you know, The Tale of Genji or something like that, where people are trained to observe something small, like a snowflake on a chrysanthemum bud or something like that. So, with Harvey, it’s going to be a piece of grit on a window on a rapid transit, you know, going into the big city for work or something like that. You know, he had that ability to slow down and pay attention and take notice. And that’s what I really liked.
Paulson: I know you never were — grew wealthy from American Splendor. But were you surprised at the number of fans, people who responded (a.) to your life, and (b.) your way of telling about your life?
Pekar: Yeah, somewhat, although, you know, I — my sales sort of got to a certain point and leveled off, and, and I was, you know, continuing to do what I thought was, you know, my best work. You know, I was — you know, I’m real particular about what I published. You know, I wanted the — you know, I had real high standards. And after a while, you know — and I, you know, and I was credited with influencing a whole lot of younger guys. And some of them who are — you know, have admitted it and, you know, I mean, in print and stuff like that. So, I guess I could prove that. But, you know, after a while, the kind of — I stopped getting, you know, any kind of notice from the press or, or anything like that. And I kind of —
Brabner: Well, you disappeared for a while, because you had cancer.
Pekar: Well, before that, this had happened.
Brabner: And you’d been self-publishing. That’s the other thing, is that Harvey, on his minimal, bare-bones, hot-dogs-and-peanut-butter-sandwiches budget, would put away the money every year to publish an issue of American Splendor and distribute it by himself out of, you know, his living room. That’s why we had so much trouble reading and finding it. After he got sick, he was picked up by a commercial publisher and has had, you know, somewhat better distribution. But it’s kind of like, you know, we’re in Nashville. You were kind of in the position of, like, the old blues man or somebody who mentors the young guy who goes out and, you know, becomes a big-hit rock star with what he’s learned from you. That’s what some of these younger guys have done.
Paulson: And the movie makes it clear just what a pioneer Harvey has been and his impact. But it, it also tells a story of the two of you getting together. And I’m intrigued. Based on the comic books, what did you see in the comic books that gave you some sense that this might be the man you want to spend the rest of your life with?
Brabner: The cold shiver up my spine and the feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach, because I had just unloaded a particularly worthless first husband and really had no interest in getting married again.
Brabner: I valued the honesty. I valued the fact that he was willing to put his muscle and his money behind his own art. He doesn’t — expecting a free ride. He wasn’t, you know, I mean, you know, we could talk about — with this from a larger perspective now about recognition. But he was willing to do this piece of work for the rest of his life, to pay for it for the rest of his life, no matter how many people read it, no matter how — that was where — you know, when we negotiated our marriage — because we decided to get married the day after we met. We had to work things out really fast.
Paulson: OK, we need to back up here. When you, when you had dinner the first time, did either of you have an inkling that this was going to be a relationship, or was this just —
Brabner: We knew.
Pekar: We talked many, many times on the phone previously.
Brabner: We talked on the phone, yeah.
Paulson: And you connected during the dinner?
Brabner: I just had to make sure that he didn’t look like a Crumb drawing or he didn’t smell or those wavy lines weren’t stink lines. Like, if he had this, you know, unsolvable body odor or something like that, I don’t think we would have hooked up.
Paulson: That’s pretty romantic. It was going to work out as long as he didn’t stink.
Brabner: As long as he didn’t stink, you know, and I didn’t —
Pekar: I could make that.
Paulson: Did — well, you had, I guess, an advantage in that you at least had artists’ renditions of Harvey. Did you have any inkling at all about Joyce and what she was all about?
Pekar: Well, yeah, I had an idea of what she was about, because —
Brabner: He liked my handwriting.
Pekar: I — oh, her handwriting is wonderful. And I liked, you know, I loved talking to her on the phone. And, you know, I mean, well, you know, I — I’d lie if I tell you — if I told you I wasn’t curious about what she looked like, but, you know, I’m not, you know, that picky or anything like that.
Paulson: This is the kind of —
Brabner: I mean, I was, I was actually alive and breathing, and this was kind of good.
Paulson: They’re going to run this show on Valentine’s Day, I’m sure. [Laughing] So, how did you — well — why did you decide to get married so quickly?
Brabner: What sealed the deal was this — is that — this is actually addressed in the movie. We break some ground in the movie. We met, and the first date was pretty awful and awkward. And I was just feeling increasingly more depressed, like, “Oh, God, I’m going to have to marry him. What am I going to do?” And then I got food poisoning, and I vomited. I backed up his toilet, everything like that. I had just asked myself — or I just said, you know, “Dear God, show me a sign.” And that was the sign. Because when I saw this guy on our first date mopping everything up and bringing me tea — he doesn’t drink tea. He drinks, you know, orange soda pop for breakfast. Or at least, you know, he did. And he’d figured out from our conversations that I liked herbal tea. And he bought about five or six different kinds of herbal tea, you know, for my stomach. And he just, you know, tried to make me feel better. And that’s really all I, I needed to know. I mean, you know, we could do the — we could figure out later on who’s got the favorite band or, you know, what kind of jogging togs we want to buy and run off in, and we can date later. But, you know, I knew that this guy, you know, was a stand-up guy, even though everything else was working against us.
Paulson: That’s actually a wonderful story. Now, the movie — you know, I said at the outset people now recognize you, because you’re in the movie.
Paulson: You are played in the movie, you appear in the movie, and you are animated in the movie.
Paulson: I’ve never seen anything quite like that.
Brabner: Well, we were also played on stage in the movie, where actors playing us watch actors playing them who are playing us on stage, too. I mean, it’s a Chinese box thing.
Paulson: So, the logical question is, did you enjoy the movie?
Pekar: Yes, I did. I thought that, that aspect of it, casting a character in multiple ways — which was done not only with me, but with Joyce and other people — and the mixture of footage of documentary footage and straight narrative footage and animation and stuff like that, I thought all of that — you know, plus, you know, showing still cartoon figures and stuff — was very innovative. And I’m big on innovation in art.
Pekar: And I wasn’t — you know, I knew that the people that were making the movie were real competent, but innovation is rare. And you, you just — you know, I don’t even hope for it or anything like that. It’s — and when I saw it, I was just amazed that, you know, they made the kind of movie that I, that I would have liked to have made, you know?
Paulson: And did you have any voice in the plot, the script? Did you have veto power at all?
Brabner: Sure, I mean — well, they — you didn’t want to have a lot of veto power. Because for us, we’d seen the thing — we’d seen our stories produced on stage four times in, you know, different ways. And the fun — just as with Harvey, the fun is after he completes his storyboards — send it out to the artist and see what the artist adds to it and brings back. The fun is in the collaboration. And we didn’t want to stand all over these people and tell them how to make their movie and what to do. We, you know, yes, of course, we were asked to write a script for it. We wrote a script. We put our ideas in writing. We had plenty of interviews. There were a couple of ground rules set up, you know, regarding — particularly keeping Danielle’s privacy.
Brabner: Danielle is a girl who came to live with us through American Splendor.
Brabner: Her dad was interested in the comic and came over to visit. We have him portrayed as an artist in the movie. And she liked who she met. She liked me, and she said, “Would you be my substitute mother, and can I move in?” And she engineered it so that she did move in.
Paulson: And you are a family?
Brabner: And we’re a family, yeah. We’re her guardians. We’ve lived together for six years.
Paulson: Did you have any say in who played you?
Brabner: No, no. Why would we do that?
Brabner: I mean, we know who auditioned, and we have all kinds of opinions about that. But that’s, I mean, that’s for them to do and to bring it back and give us a surprise, treat us.
Pekar: My expertise has its limits. And I’m — and I was — you know, I respected the people that I had met connected with the movie, and I wasn’t about to tell them how to run their business, because the movie business is not my business. And I think it worked out real well, because they, they really told me afterward, you know, more than one of them, that they were glad that I didn’t come around meddling.
Pekar: And also I think that beginning with Ted Hope, the guy who was the producer of the movie, he, he made some excellent, excellent choices in terms of personnel.
Brabner: One of the first things, first things that Ted figured out was that Harvey’s story had long since passed being the story of a lonely alienated bachelor who is self-publishing comics and living by himself and that, you know, it was a more mature story. And we’d had a really good experience working with the Independent Eye — it’s a husband-and-wife theater company in Sebastopol, California. And we felt that a husband-and-wife team would be the best for us. In fact, we went through a couple of meetings. There were a couple of directors and things proposed. And when we met Bob and Shari, you know, they understood what it’s like to work as a team. So, we felt very comfortable just, you know, turning a lot of this over. I mean, there, there’s vanity that gets bruised with the first time you see it. It’s like, “I wasn’t wearing that purple sweater. That’s all wrong. The whole — this whole movie’s a fake. I don’t have a purple sweater.”
Paulson: Oh, and Paul Giamatti plays you.
Paulson: And what’s remarkable is that the audience can watch Giamatti, can watch you, can watch the cartoon version of you —
Paulson: — and never lose track that it’s all you in some way, which is remarkable.
Pekar: Right, and get, and get different takes on me as well.
Paulson: And of course, you have this extraordinary bonus of participating in a film you feel good about and that everybody loves. I have yet to see a negative review of it. I’ve got so many friends who don’t share my passion for comic books but, but went to see the movie anyway and just came away amazed. And the good news is going back to look for copies American Splendor of, which is a real positive, too.
Pekar: Yeah, yeah.
Paulson: That’s got to be a renaissance.
Pekar: Yeah, that really helps. I mean, that’s what it’s about.
Brabner: We think of it as things like dental bills. You know, it actually is translating into, into some income. We’ve got enough money to put Danielle through school, for example, and that’s great.
Paulson: Harvey, I’m curious. This is your voice, your book, your invention, your life. And then you take a partner. How did the writing change? How do you go from being one voice to two?
Pekar: Well, we, we collaborated on a couple of things, and we just —
Brabner: We fought.
Pekar: Yeah, we fought.
Brabner: We fought.
Pekar: We talked, we talked over things. And, you know, like when I got married, you know, of course, I realized that the stories would be affecting her. And we talked about ‘em, but she, you know, thankfully, didn’t ask me to change my style or anything like that.
Brabner: A lot of — at times, it’s something like — if we both experience the same incident, I may say, “This sounds like a story” or, if I’m looking at what Harvey wrote, I’ll say, “You know, I heard this as well. I think this would be a letter line.” And, so, it’ll be just my, you know, my take, you know, my camera.
Paulson: Well, you, you both treasure candor, I know. And your bout with cancer ends up being a book.
Paulson: And what a courageous thing. And I have to believe that a lot of people who read of your real experience with cancer took comfort and strength from it. And some were probably horrified by it, because parts of it are, well, very candid.
Brabner: Well, he had cancer again right after the movie wrapped. And it was not as bad as the first time around. It was a lot easier.
Paulson: But, Harvey, was it a tough decision to go ahead and tell that story?
Pekar: No, it wasn’t a decision at all, because it was something that, I mean, I’m writing this continuing autobiography, and this was certainly a big part of it. I had to do it. And I wanted to do it with, with Joyce, because it was a shared experience that we had together. And, you know, I want — also I wanted it — there were, there were times when I couldn’t remember things accurately and stuff —
Pekar: — and I would ask her, “How did this happen?” And, you know, and then she said, “Well, why not — let’s just collaborate on it?” And I said, “Fine.” So, I — it wasn’t this — you know, real easy to do that. We went in different directions.
Brabner: No, we were doing it at the really wrong time. We should have been walking away from it and getting, getting on with our new post-cancer lives. Instead, we go immediately back and start mining it. But it was the most honest thing we tried to say and the mostly important thing to say in that book was that cancer, too, is a mundane experience. And while it’s a very frightening thing, it’s no longer the worst thing that can happen to somebody. There are other things going on in other countries, things happening to children, other kinds of illnesses that are worse. And this is just something — it’s manageable.
Paulson: You know, people watching this show who —
Brabner: Take the fear out of it, ’cause it’s not noble. You know, it’s not noble to survive — or courageous to survive. What else are you going to do? You just show up. You take your chemo, you know, wait.
Paulson: One of the stories I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed is a property called Howard the Duck that Marvel Comics had.
Paulson: And you talk about paying bills. You had an opportunity to write Howard the Duck, which is an alien fowl that smokes cigars and actually is based in Cleveland, if I recall correctly.
Pekar: Right, exactly.
Paulson: It was a truly horrible movie in addition to being a pretty good comic book. And you passed up the opportunity to do it.
Paulson: And you weren’t very happy about that.
Brabner: I said I’d write it and sign his name to it. I wanted the money.
Paulson: But you wouldn’t do that?
Pekar: No, I wouldn’t do it. I mean, this — just nothing good came to mind when I thought about doing it. If I, if I thought that I could do a real good satire of Howard the Duck, I would have, I would have done it and taken the money gladly, ’cause money is, you know, like a big thing now, getting Danielle through school and, you know, and, you know, my basic income is a pension from the federal government, which is better than Social Security but still, you know, not, not enough.
Paulson: On some level, does it irritate you that you’ve done this extraordinary comic book for all these years and, and most of the world hasn’t noticed; and then suddenly it’s made into a movie, and you’re getting all kinds of press and attention?
Pekar: Well, I, I, you know, I hear what you’re saying, and, yeah, I mean, it, it does make me feel — it does annoy me. But on the other hand, you know, where would I be without the movie? So, you know, obviously I’m glad it happened. I mean, you think about a guy like Van Gogh, who, you know, lived his whole life and sold one painting or no painting, depending on what you, what you get to hear. And then, you know, you think, “Well, maybe I’ve been pretty lucky to get the recognition I’ve gotten.”
Paulson: And the good news is that people, having seen the movie, will go out and seek books like this and reread American Splendor and hear your story. My favorite — one of your favorite story lines is the classic where you talk about how you finally kick the record collecting habit —
Pekar: Oh, yeah.
Paulson: — to, to start American Splendor. And it’s, you know, it’s almost — it’s somewhat typical of everything you do in that it’s just — it’s basically a person — it’s almost a stand-up comic or a narrator just speaking straight from the heart to a reader, and that is so rare. And a lot of people are going to understand the, the passion and the joy of American Splendor after having seen the movie. So, that’s a very positive thing. Thank you so much for joining us here today.
Pekar: Thanks for having us.
Brabner: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guests today have been Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, the talents behind American Splendor. Join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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