A Mensch for All Mediums

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Harvey Pekar — blue-collar scholar, retired file clerk, television celebrity, journalist, observer of life and creator of the 25 year-old comic series "American Splendor" — can now add "movie star" to his c.v. "American Splendor" started in 1976 as a self-published autobiographical comic book that chronicled the author's living and working in Cleveland. Disarmingly low-key and driven mostly by the working-class intellectual author's irascible but entertaining personality, "American Splendor" uses a medium associated mostly with sensational escapism for odes on the frustrations, triumphs and mundanities of ordinary life.

Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar
Actor Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar attend the Los Angeles premiere of "American Splendor"

The movie adaptation starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis opens next week and may be the most ambitious film adaptation of a comic ever attempted. Co-directors and script-writers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini combine re-enactments with animation and documentary footage of the real people being played in the movie — including Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner — sometimes putting the actors and their real-life counterparts in the same frame. Giamatti gives a hilariously simian characterization of Pekar as he struggles to find meaning in his life. Essentially a story about the redemptive power of art, Pekar's comix lead him to his wife and get him through a bout with cancer. The real Harvey Pekar, now 63 and sounding weary but not at all cranky, spoke with TIME.comix by phone from Los Angeles:

TIME.comix: Why did you start doing comics as opposed to other forms of literature?

Pekar: First of all I was familiar with them from reading them as a kid. I was familiar with the form. I used to collect them like a madman when I was an elementary school kid. But I got sick of them. I just thought they got predictable after a while, the stuff I was reading — the superhero stuff. So I just thought there was something limited about the medium itself. You could only do so much with it. I think a lot of people think that about comics. I sort of kept an eye open. I liked "Mad" comics and what [Harvey] Kurtzman [editor of "Mad"] was doing.

TIME.comix: That would seem kind of prohibitive to your actually starting your own comic.

Pekar: What happened was that in 1962 I met Robert Crumb. He moved to Cleveland, and initially we had in common jazz record collecting. He showed me some of the stuff he was working on including this graphic novel called "The Big Yum Yum Book." I was very impressed with [the book] and it started to dawn on me that you could do anything in comics that you could do in other mediums. And I started to wonder, 'Why hasn't this been done before? Why haven't they done realistic comics?' It's just because people had no confidence in comics. (Except for the people who liked superheroes. Those were the only people who cared about that stuff.) So I started theorizing about doing comics and what kind of comics I'd like to do.

TIME.comix: What was the inspiration for doing comics based on your own life as opposed to doing satirical or fictional comics? That was unprecedented.

Pekar: I was influenced by autobiographical writers like Henry Miller, and I had actually done some autobiographical prose. But I just thought that comics were like virgin territory. There was so much to be done. It exited me. I couldn't draw very well. I could write scripts and storyboard style using stick figures and balloons and captions. So I decided I would do that and see if I could maybe come up with an artist. And I was paying attention to what the underground cartoonists were doing in the sixties and the early seventies. Crumb moved out of Cleveland in 1966 but he kept in touch. I followed his work and continued to buy underground comix. And I just saw more and more possibility in comics.

TIME.comix: Do you consider "American Splendor" to be more literature or journalism?

Pekar: It's just autobiographical writing. That's what it is — my take on everything.

TIME.comix: Do you think of yourself an artist? Not in the literal sense but in the broad sense?

Pekar: Yeah I do. Why not?

TIME.comix: What do think of as your art? What are you trying to communicate?

Pekar: I concentrate, more than I think virtually any comic book artist has in the past, on the so-called mundane details of every day life — quotidian life. What happens to a person during a working day, marital relations, and stuff like that.

TIME.comix: What do you feel is the value in doing that?

Pekar: I think the value is that this is most of what life is about and yet nobody talks about it or writes about it. These so-called minor incidents often can add up to something pretty major. Also I think some of the funniest, best humor is stuff I run into in every day life. [The stories are about] stuff that people can identify with. Although superhero-comics people don't want to identify with my stuff apparently. They sure as hell don't buy it. But I like to read stuff that I can identify with [and think] 'Well, gee, I'm not the only one who's gone through something like this or that.'

TIME.comix: What's your feeling about the movie version of American Splendor?

Pekar: I'm very happy with it.

TIME.comix: I notice that the movie version altered certain aspects of your life. Did that bother you at all?

Pekar: No that didn't bother me too much. That happens very often. Some of it was done with the idea of protecting my kid's privacy. Some things were telescoped into one. But they took a lot of chances in that movie. They had a lot of people playing me. They used various film forms, including documentary, straight narrative, animation, and putting the real person and the actor in the same scene. I thought it was a very innovative, excellent film.

TIME.comix: One of the key moments in the movie is just before your last scene with David Letterman when you start to feel co-opted by corporate America and you say, "I never felt like more of a sell-out hack in my life." Is that a feeling you're getting now?

Pekar: No. I'm not getting that feeling. I felt Letterman had been co-opted by these corporations. I certainly wasn't getting' much for it. That's why I started arguing with him about it. No I don't feel like I'm selling out or anything like that here. I got reasonably well compensated for the film. I mean I'm not being taken care of for life or anything like that. I'm really kind of scared of what the future holds for me. I've got to put my kid through school. I got this small pension from the federal government and I gotta supplement that with other income, hopefully from freelance writing. And I'm just wondering if this movie is going to be enough to do it — to gain me that attention to get that income.

TIME.comix: Are there any plans for you to return to Letterman?

Pekar: No. I haven't heard from him.

TIME.comix: Are you going to continue doing comics?

Pekar: Yeah I'm gonna continue doing comics. I'm gonna continue to try and write in every form I can and I'm hustling really hard to get work. I'm actin' like this is over with and I still gotta survive. I'm working like that.

TIME.comix: So you're never going to relax?

Pekar: Unfortunately I have a really hard time relaxing. Maybe I should smell the roses. But I'm having a tough time doing it. It's the way I am.

"American Splendor" the movie, opens next Friday, August 15 in New York, L.A., and Cleveland. It will slowly open nationwide over the following weeks.

Ballantine is re-publishing the first two "American Splendor" collections as a single volume. Other collections and "Our Cancer Year," co-written with Joyce Brabner, are also still available.