[Marxism] Paul Buhle on working with Harvey Pekar
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Tue Jul 13 08:45:54 MDT 2010
July 12, 2010, 05:00 PM ET
Memories of Working With Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar—known for his popular comic-book series American
Splendor—died Monday at the age of 70. During his career, he
collaborated with cultural historian Paul M. Buhle, professor emeritus
at Brown University, on five books. The Chronicle asked Buhle about
working with Pekar.
Q. You worked with Harvey Pekar on several projects, including books on
the Beats, SDS, the Wobblies, and the New Deal. How did your
collaboration come about?
A. I was working on my second historical comic, about the Students for a
Democratic Society, and I could gather (in some cases writing about my
own life) local stories that worked as scripts, but the big narrative
was terribly difficult for me, probably because the collapse of SDS was
such a huge disappointment in my younger life. Harvey happened to call
me and he needed money. I offered him my advance if he would write the
narrative. We started there and went on til the end.
Q. Pekar was known for his sometimes irascible commentary. What was it
like to work with him?
A. He pretended to be grumpy. He was grumpy about making very little
money for his work, and also about the rightward drift of America after
his earliest years, in a family that admired FDR and hoped for a more
egalitarian society. But he was truly sweet, generous and supportive of
Q. How was his viewpoint on life reflected in his work?
A. Harvey was able to conceive of his work as his life and vice versa.
He may have borrowed the idea from his 1960s close friend, Robert Crumb,
but he took it in a different direction, to deeply ethnic, blue collar
Cleveland. Many of his early stories were about his own personal
relationships but also about his neighborhoods, his job (work at the VA
hospital for 36 years) and his interests, such as jazz.
Q. You're a historian. How did Pekar's perspective inform your
interpretation of history?
A. I like to think that I broadened his vistas in his published work, in
the sense that in our five books, he read very widely about large
historical questions and developed scripts that tell the story
differently from a scholarly study, but just as well and in many cases,
much better. You didn't need to agree with Harvey's take on SDS or the
Beat Generation, for instance, to see that he had strong opinions and a
distinct aesthetic. He was deeply interested in history, as he was in
literature and art. If I were describing some Cleveland setting, I would
start with demography. He would start by describing a local Serbian
restaurant he liked whose owner was actually a Croat, and so on: that
was his way of explaining and exploring history.
Q. What do you think will be his legacy in the world of comics and
A. There were not many artists and writers (he never drew comics, but he
gave artists very specific directions, along with dialogue) in the US
whose work, before the turn of the new century, shaped the emergence of
comics as an accepted, serious art form. Along with Harvey, I count
Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor and Alison Bechdel. These were
also practically the only artists of "alternative comics" who made a
living. He expanded what comics can do. When I worked with him on the
adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working, I realized—as an oral historian
and teacher of oral history—that he was also to comics what Studs was
to the interview. He knew how to listen to people. He raised the level
of comic art.
Q. Did you have another project in the works with him?
A. Yiddishkayt or Yiddishland (we are still debating the title) will, I
hope, appear next year. It meant a lot to Harvey, a native Yiddish
speaker. It's the story of secular Jewish-Americans who carried on the
centuries-old legacy of Yiddishkayt, and did wonderful things with the
language and culture until time ran out. His scripts for this book, to
be published by Abrams ComicArt, are more than masterful, and he knew
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