[Marxism] Paul Buhle on working with Harvey Pekar

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
young artists.

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 
graphic novels?

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 
it.—Karen Winkler

More information about the Marxism mailing list