Of all the fine tributes to Harvey Pekar appearing this week, none surpasses Anthony Bourdain’s. I’d like to lead today with a quote from Bourdain’s beautifully-worded homage to the man who left his mark on all of us:
He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic–his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?”
His continuing compulsion to wonder what’s wrong with everybody else was both source of entertainment and the only position of conscience a man could take.
Oh Harvey. How we’ll miss you.
In yesterday’s installment of our interview with Paul Buhle, we discussed Harvey’s politics. Today we conclude our interview with Paul by reflecting on questions of creativity and meaning, and Harvey’s impact on those who worked with him: the artists, and Paul himself.
What was Harvey’s secret formula in American Splendor? How was he able to make an event as ordinary as taking a nap into a moving story?
I don’t think that anybody has ever been able to discern what that was. But it occurred to me, thinking about this, that Crumb also was looking at himself very carefully, observing himself very carefully, and observing the things going on around him very carefully. And the two of them sort of grew up together, you might say, even though they were in their 20s, and they were thinking about what was going on, and how to take comic art someplace it had never been. Maybe with Crumb it was more instinctive after he dropped all that LSD, because he’d grown up drawing comics. Whereas for Harvey, he learned a lot from Crumb: enormously. Maybe the most important thing he learned was being inspired to think he could do it. And maybe he would have come back again to novels. My wife says I would be a lousy novelist, because I don’t observe the details of daily life very well, the way the sofa looks, you know, that kind of stuff. But Harvey did.
Who would you mention as counterparts of Harvey’s in their ability to highlight the splendor of daily life?
That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. I suppose Alison Bechdel would be an example. I’d probably be able to come up with a whole bunch of other people if I were capable of thinking about it clearly. Seth, the Canadian artist, is another one. I gave his books to a couple of friends who teach across the border in Winsor, and they said he had perfectly gotten down the way rural Ontario farms, and small industrial cities look. And I think that’s probably right. So that’s another point. Crumb, Pekar, and Seth are all deeply nostalgic for the signage, the way the streets looked, the way the cities felt, before automobilization. They not only liked the way the old comics and cartoons looked in publications, they just liked the vernacular that had virtually ceased to exist.
Can you spend a moment reflecting on the impact Harvey had on the artists that collaborated with him?
I have to see if I’ve kept Gary Dumm’s comments to some blog or other. He said it was hard to “get” Harvey, because Harvey was so determined to have exactly what he had in mind come out on the page. An artist had to learn to do that to Harvey’s satisfaction, which many artists just would never do. Or couldn’t do! One or the other. And certainly some of those I work with and love the most dearly would never allow themselves to be dictated to in those details. A good case can be found in FDR and The New Deal, the new “For Beginners” book that I mostly wrote and Sabrina Jones drew. Sabrina and Harvey had an artistic conflict over one two-page sequence. And it was just two pages, so she agreed to his demands. [laughing] But you know it’s not in the nature of most artists to wish to do that. So he tended to work with young artists, because they were more willing. Or maybe because they worked cheap! But it comes to the same thing. He worked with Joe Sacco when Joe Sacco was really young. And so forth and so forth. And I guess you would say more than not they were learning the trade while they were working with him. Which really sets them off from Crumb, of course.
Do you want to say, in just a few words, the impact Harvey had on you?
Oh, gosh. I probably can’t pull it together. But I guess I would say that I always wanted to do social history. And that’s what I’ve done all these years, teaching and writing. But it always seemed I was never quite putting the message across. And Harvey’s storytelling made it possible to put the message across and realize it in an art form, which is something I could not have done, left to myself.
So if you wanted readers to pick up one book, which would it be?
I’m shy to say it’s one of the books he and I did together, but I’m not too shy. The most popular one with readers is likely to be The Beats, but the one I would like to remember Harvey working with me won’t be out until next spring from Abrams, and it’s called Yiddishland.