Sunday, November 30, 2008

Harvey Pekar Conversations

Oh, the business of the semester! After a long dry spell, VillageGrouchy is finally back on the air, taking a look at this collection of various interviews with Harvey Pekar, gathered together and edited by Michael G. Rhode (University Press of Mississippi, 2008). Containing interviews from 1984 to 2007, it covers nearly a quarter-century of Pekar's career, which gives it a valuable chronological depth. And besides the interviews themselves, there's a brief Introduction by Rhode and a fairly detailed chronology of Pekar's life and works, which may be useful if you, like me, were unaware that Pekar had appeared on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

The interviews themselves, as Rhode notes, often go over much the same ground, time after time: "Harvey's told some of his own stories so many times that he's overly familiar with them," Rhodes writes (xi). As a result, we read several times how Pekar and Crumb met in 1962 (an encounter also narrated multiple times in Pekar's comics), that Pekar claims his major influences from prose (fiction) writers, how Pekar and Dean Haspiel came to collaborate on The Quitter, and how the film version of American Splendor didn't really change a lot in Pekar's life. Given the level of repetition across the various interviews, it's sometimes hard to find the nuggets of real interest here. And yet there are some really fascinating moments.

One gem of the collection is surely the long interview by Jim Ottaviani and Steve Lieber, which is billed as "Another Survivor's Tale: The Harvey Pekar Interview," although Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, is also being interviewed. Focused primarily on Our Cancer Year, the two authors discuss their understanding of the book in some detail, discussing Frank Stack's drawing in particular. At other points, Pekar's choices of artists are also discussed, though usually in quite general terms. And when Brabner says that Pekar "started out as a kind of street-corner comedian and would tell the same story over and over again, like the Harvey Pekar name story" (75), it not only contextualizes the repetitiveness of Pekar's own interview responses, but crucially explains something about this important Pekar story.

The interviews are split fairly evenly between interviews conducted for comics-oriented publications and those conducted for broader audiences: even so, however, it is striking to see the degree to which the mass-media elements of Pekar's career are almost obsessively under discussion: Pekar's appearances on the Letterman show and the film version of American Splendor. Though Pekar clearly sees himself as centrally concerned with comics, his interviewers, too often I think, focus on these other aspects of his life.

In the end, while I often hoped for more probing questions on the part of Pekar's various interviewers, I think there's much that is of interest here.

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