Remembering Harvey Pekar In All Of His 'Splendor'

Harvey Pekar

hide captionHarvey Pekar, pictured here in a self-portrait, told Terry Gross in 2005: "I just tried to live on two different levels. I knew I couldn't make money at the stuff I liked doing so I took a job that was not challenging. When it was slow at work, I used to sneak off in the corner and read."

Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel 2005. Art by Dean Haspiel

Ohio's 89.7 WKSU Special Feature:

Comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who published a series of caustically funny autobiographical stories about the ups and downs of everyday life, died Monday morning. He was 70.

Pekar started writing his series American Splendor in 1976, almost two decades before his life story was adapted into the 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti. The series touched on the prosaic quirks of a file clerk working to make ends meet — while Pekar mused on everything from collecting jazz records to dealing with annoying friends and strangers on the street.

Pekar appeared on Fresh Air twice — first in 2003 with wife Joyce Brabner to discuss his book-length comic Our Cancer Year, about his diagnosis with lymphoma; and then in 2005 to discuss his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in Cleveland in the 1950s and '60s.

In that interview, he explained to Terry Gross why he continued writing comics — even though public attention didn't come to him until much later in his life.

"I was sort of on a mission with American Splendor," Pekar explained. "I wanted to try to prove that comics could do things. I wanted to expand them beyond superheroes and talking animals. And I knew that was going to take a long time. But I just started writing an autobiography about my quotidian life. Because I think everybody's life is interesting, and I just kept on going at it."

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Harvey Pekar, whose comic book series "American Splendor" chronicled his daily life in Cleveland as a file clerk, died Monday at his home. He was 70.

Pekar wrote about the ordinary: working as a file clerk in Cleveland's VA hospital, running into annoying friends and strangers on the street, dealing with the ups and downs of married life and being constantly disgruntled about how little money he makes.

He published his first "American Splendor" book in 1976. He couldn't draw, so he collaborated with several illustrators, most notably his old friend R. Crumb. Though he worked nearly 40 years in the VA hospital, Pekar was also an avid jazz collector who wrote reviews for several magazines.

He also appeared on "The David Letterman Show" and co-wrote a book-length comic with his wife, Joyce Brabner, called "Our Cancer Year" about his experience battling lymphoma.

Pekar's life and work were dramatized in the film "American Splendor," starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Brabner. The couple first connected through letters and phone calls when Brabner was a partner in a Delaware comic book store and a fan of Pekar's work. Here's a scene from the film of one of those early phone calls.

(Soundbite of film, "American Splendor")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor): (As Harvey Pekar) So you're married or what?

Ms. HOPE DAVIS (Actor): (As Joyce Brabner): Im divorced, thank God.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Look, I think you and I got a lot in common, you know? How am I going to get you to come visit me in Cleveland?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) Cleveland?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) You think that's a good idea?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah, it's a great idea. You know, you should meet me because I'm a great guy. You know, despite the way my comics read, I've got a lot of redeeming characteristics.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) I don't know. Where would I stay?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) I don't know, with me. You know, don't worry. I'm not going to put no moves on you or anything...

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) I'm not worried about that. Hold on. I just spilled my chamomile tea all over me.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner in 2003, when the film "American Splendor" was released.

TERRY GROSS, host:

You met Crumb in 1962, when he moved to Philadelphia from when he moved to Cleveland from Philadelphia. And he lived around the corner from you, and you used to go record collecting together. He wrote an introduction to the first collection of "American Splendor" comics, the first anthologized version.

And I'm going to read something that he said. He said: Harvey was the first person I ever met who was a genuine hipster. I was very impressed. He was heavily into modern jazz, had big, crazy, abstract paintings on the wall of his pad, talked bop lingo, had shelves and shelves of books and records and never cleaned his apartment. He was seething, intense, burning up, always moving, pacing, jumping around just like a character out of Kerouac.

What kind of connection did you make with Crumb? I know you shared a passion for music, for record collecting. But, like, what was it about your sensibilities that you think really connected?

Mr. HARVEY PEKAR (Comic Book Writer): Well, I liked him very much personally, I'll say that. He was a real calm, quiet person. I mean, I know he's done some pretty wild things, but talking to him, you know, had a calming effect on me, and I guess you could figure if I was like Crumb said I was, I needed some calming down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: And later on, I can remember discussing my theories about comics with him, I guess, to what kind of stories you could put in them, or, you know, I was telling him I thought you could any kind of stories in them or, you know, things like that. And so for years, these ideas were percolating in my mind about how to do a different kind of comic book.

In 1972, when Crumb was staying with me at my house, or at my apartment building, I wrote down some of the stories I had made up, and I did it in storyboard fashion, with panels and dialogue and captions and directions to the artist.

And he looked at them, and he said wow, these are fine, you know, like, could I take some of these home and illustrate them? And I was just totally, you know, knocked out. I mean, that Crumb illustrating my stuff would give it instant credibility, you know, and I was thrilled.

I was very I've always been very grateful to Crumb for doing that, I mean, if not for him, I probably would not have gotten into comics at all.

GROSS: When he first drew you, now you're used to all kinds of artists drawing you, and you're used to actors portraying you, but that first time when he drew you, when you were not used to it, what did you think of the way he drew you? And I should mention that I think of all the artist portrayals of you that I've seen, his portrayals of you are the most kind of, you know, like, neurotic and worried-looking and ethnic-looking.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, well, I was a neurotic, worried ethnic and still am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: I think he, you know, I was just very impressed. Crumb just never disappoints me when he illustrates my work, and he sometimes surprises me by doing things I didn't expect. I mean, like for example, in a story called "Hypothetical Quandary," and maybe some other stories, too, his work really knocked me out because this was a straight, serious story, and he his illustration was less cartoony and more realistic than it normally was, and it worked.

It seemed like nothing this guy could do, you know, it seemed like everything the guy did worked. You know, he was that sharp, that keen.

GROSS: Joyce, you were a reader of "American Splendor" because you met Harvey.

Ms. JOYCE BRABNER: You should ask me about how I looked when I how I felt when I was first rendered in the comic.

GROSS: Go ahead, answer that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRABNER: Okay. I did ask that I not be drawn like a comic book female, and the first artist who drew me...

GROSS: Wait, comic book female meaning, like, big, curvaceous, lots you know, big bosom...

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, basketballs pushed down inside a Spandex leotard, things like that.

GROSS: The standard R. Crumb female, in other words.

Ms. BRABNER: No, no, no, no, no. Crumb never drew me. The first artist who drew me drew me as well, he'd been doing a lot of illustrations for a local strip joint, for ads or something like that. So I came out looking like a Barbie doll.

And I'm not even talking about the new, modified Barbie doll, who has had breast reduction surgery or something like that. I was long-legged, straight-backed, you know, enormous front. And the weird things was is that I was blonde.

Harvey and I have the same color hair, and I remember bringing this to the artist's attention after it was done, and he said oh, my God, you're not blonde. And that's because in comic books, women are supposed to be voluptuous and blonde and completely not looking like me.

GROSS: Joyce, when you got married to Harvey, you knew that you would be a character in his stories because the stories are autobiographical. And so it changed your life not only because you now had, you know, a partner in life, you were also in a position where parts of your life together were going to be described in this comic book.

What was it like for you to suddenly be a part of the comic book that you had read and to know that things that you said, things that you did might end up in the story?

Ms. BRABNER: It was sort of incumbent upon me to make sure that our marriage had a happy ending. I first became really aware of what was going on when, after about a year or so - people, you know, sent fan mail to Harvey all the time, and we got letters that said things like: Well, we weren't real sure about you, you know, in issue nine, but now that we've seen what's going on in issue 10, you know, it seems like you're here to stay, and you're good for our man. And so, you know, the marriage was approved of by all these people who don't know who we are but just read about us in comics.

GROSS: That's kind of weird, isn't it, I mean, to have readers weighing in on whether you're the right choice?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, it's either people like that or relatives, and Harvey didn't come with a whole lot of in-laws and relatives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny. So you have to please the readers.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, and it matters just about as much. You know, we'd see them and hear from them about as often as you'd hear from, you know, long-distant aunts and cousins.

GROSS: Harvey, I'd like to ask you a few things about your background, starting with your parents. And this comes from one of your comics. You wrote about your family's attitudes toward getting into fights when you were a kid.

You wrote: My family considered physical violence and even sports as unthinkably barbaric activities fit only for gentiles. So tell me a little bit about your parents.

Mr. PEKAR: Well, my parents were both from northeastern Poland, from shtetls. My mother is from a place called Brzeznica(ph), and my father is from place called Nowy Dwor. And my mother came over to the United States first, in the 1920s. And I don't know, I think maybe partly because she was, like, really short, you know, she couldn't find a husband. And they sent she got send back to Europe again in 1935, and I guess at that time, you know, she was on, you know, she was supposed to be or maybe my relatives who were still there were supposed to be, you know, looking out for her and trying to find her somebody.

And she did come up with my father. My father's he as long as I've known him, my father's been real religious. And my mother was a communist. We were for Henry Wallace in 1948. But they seemed to have resolved their differences that way. I know that they...

Ms. BRABNER: They were both short.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, well, you know, my mother wouldn't go to shul on the high holidays and stuff like that. But they got along. They respected their differences. I don't know of too many cases that are like that because they both believed pretty strongly in what they you know, in my mother's case, in her politics, and in my father's case, in his religion.

GROSS: I could see both a communist parent and a religious parent would think that reading comic books was frivolous and something to be discouraged. What did your parents think of your interest in comic books and music or any other parts of pop culture?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, they thought yeah, they thought it was just, yeah, it was just a waste of time. I mean, and my father tried to be tolerant of jazz, although I don't think he liked it very much. He collected (foreign language spoken) records, you know.

GROSS: What kind of records?

Mr. PEKAR: (Foreign language spoken), you know, like cantors, records of cantors, like Yossele Rosenblatt or Moshe Koussevitsky, or, well, you know, there used to be a guy who used to sing for the Met that was also a cantor by the name of Richard Tucker. I don't know if you know about...

GROSS: Right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, he was so my father was actually he was into collecting these records, too. I wasn't the first record collector in the family.

GROSS: Did you like those cantor records?

Mr. PEKAR: At first, I they just made me so depressed and sad, I couldn't take them, but...

GROSS: Why were they depressing?

Mr. PEKAR: That's the way they have you heard them? You've heard them, haven't you?

GROSS: Well, I've heard cantors. I'm not sure I've heard the records that you're talking about.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, but the style is extremely, you know, it's really, you know, like a melancholy, pained style of singing. And I really like it now. I really do. But and I, you know, I collected about, I don't know, maybe 100 or more cantorial LPs, you know, just to have - so that I could refer to them.

But it's well, one guy described it as the cantors were men with tears in their voices.

GROSS: I regret that we're really out of time. So one last question for you both.

Mr. PEKAR: Oh, okay.

GROSS: How do you, and how do you not, want the movie adaptation of "American Splendor" to change your lives?

Ms. BRABNER: The big thing about doing the movie is access. It grants Harvey access to more chances to work. You know, I think at this point, it would be nice if he wouldn't have to keep proving himself every time he got a gig. So we like that.

According to form, we're supposed to get divorced as soon as the movie peaks.

GROSS: I mean, because that's what happens when celebrity strikes.

Mr. PEKAR: That's just what happens, exactly. As soon as celebrity strikes, I'm going to have to run away with, I don't know what, a cameraman or something like that.

GROSS: Or Harvey gets to run away with a 25-year-old model, right?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, he can't really run.

Mr. PEKAR: Perish the thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Harvey, what else do you or do you not want from the movie?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it's pretty much like Joyce says. I'd like the opportunity to get more writing jobs, and, you know, like as a matter of fact, every time somebody will interview me or something like that, well, I'm not going to do this to you, Terry, but I would ask them if there's anything, you know, anything at their magazine or anything like that that I could do. Can I write some jazz criticism for you? Can I write some, you know, literary cricisim for you?

I'm pretty aggressive and maybe obnoxious about trying to get work. But I realize that it's really essential that when the, you know, when the dust is settled from this movie, that I still am, you know, somebody that people want to work with.

GROSS: Are you willing to risk being obnoxious to get that?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, it comes easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, I don't think there's any risk involved for the being obnoxious.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I can't help myself. What can I do?

GROSS: Well, I regret we're out of time. I really enjoyed talking to you both.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks.

GROSS: I love the movie, love the comic, and thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Terry.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2003. Pekar died Monday at the age of 70. We'll listen to a 2004 commentary by Harvey Pekar after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're remembering Harvey Pekar, whose "American Splendor" comic books portrayed his life in Cleveland, where he worked as a file clerk. Pekar also recorded several commentaries for NPR member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. Here's one he did for Valentine's Day, 2004.

Mr. PEKAR: Well, of course, my thoughts on Valentine's Day turn initially to my wife, Joyce, which is at it should be, but also to two important creatures who I care a great deal about: my cats, Phoebe(ph) and Phoenix.

Actually, when I married my wife, at age 43, I got her cat Inky, as well. Up to that time, I'd never had a pet and didn't want one. They were just extra work, and Inky didn't appear to be my kind of an ideal cat.

Joyce had rescued him from an animal shelter when he was about six months old, and he'd already developed some antisocial attitudes by then.

He had a mean streak, like he'd come up and start licking my sweaty hand not out of friendship but because he likes salt. After he'd gotten his fill of salt, he'd bite me, literally bite the hand that fed him.

And he liked to climb up on top of high things and then jump on me, often leaping off a bureau and landing with all four feet on my stomach, when I was in bed.

At first, I considered him a nuisance, but then I started watching him, noticing how he solved problems like opening doors and getting the food that was stashed in hard-to-get-at places.

He definitely had cognitive ability. He figured out how to get around difficulties so unique that his solutions couldn't be attributed to instinct.

As a result of this, I started reading books about animal cognitive powers, which are far great than is generally recognized. I found out that human beings aren't the only animals that can reason, play and express warmth.

At that point, I started regarding Inky as more a companion than a pet. He never did get to be friendly in a cuddly sense, but we developed a sort of mutual respect.

Once, I remember losing my temper about something he did and tossing him off of me. He hit a wall and apparently had the wind knocked out of him or something like that. As he lay on the ground, seemingly unable to catch his breath, I ran up to him and started petting and apologized to him. After a few seconds, he gathered himself and walked, not ran, away from me, as if he had contempt for me for using my superior strength unfairly.

I probably misinterpreted his action in that instance. In all likelihood, he wasn't physically able to run from him. I was able to normalize our relationship, although he avoided me for several days, expressing wariness but not fear.

Inky died at a ripe, old age of natural causes, shortly before I was diagnosed with cancer. After months of chemo and radiation therapy, I went back to work only to find that the steroids used in my treatment had cut off the flow of blood to my right femur, and it was disintegrating, causing me to limp and be in a lot of pain.

The doctor wanted me to postpone getting a hip replacement for years because it would eventually wear out. Having just gone through the cancer treatment and finding out that I'd be having hip pain for some time to come was very depressing.

Partly to cheer me up, Joyce got us two kittens, and it really helped. They didn't care how lousy I was feeling. They still played and expressed warmth.

There have been times in my life when I've had to live alone for years at a time and been very lonely. Having cats probably would have made a difference. Everyone needs unconditional love, and on Valentine's Day, I appreciate the affection of my cats.

DAVIES: That was comic book author Harvey Pekar's Valentine's Day commentary from 2004. Pekar died Monday at the age of 70. We'll hear from a 2005 interview with Pekar in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Today we're remembering Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at his home near Cleveland. He was 70. Pekar was best known for his "American Splendor" comics, which chronicled his every day life when he was working as a file clerk at a VA hospital.

After he retired, Pekar wrote a book-length comic about his childhood called "The Quitter." Terry spoke with Pekar in 2005 when "The Quitter" was published.

GROSS: What really surprised me reading your new book was that you were a street fighter when you were young. You always struck me as more argumentative but not as someone who would enjoy a good fistfight. So I don't know, is this like a more hidden part of your past?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I guess it's hidden if you don't know about it. It's - I didn't write very much about my early life in previous, you know, issues of "American Splendor," and so I didn't talk about it. It used to be a big part of my life. And I didn't used to really enjoy beating up people. What I used to enjoy was like, you know, the acclaim and stuff.

You know, I was living in a neighborhood where the toughest guy was, you know, got the most respect and, you know, I wasn't getting a whole lot of respect in those days. And I didn't used to pick fights but, like if I'd get in an argument with a guy, you know, and it'd go to a certain point or he started cursing at me or something, I'd smack him.

GROSS: Well, let's go back to the neighborhood you grew up in. You write that, you know, when you were growing up your parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. You lived in a neighborhood that had become predominately African-American so you were one of the few white kids in your school and you actually got beaten up a lot. How did it affect your self image to be beaten up a lot?

Mr. PEKAR: I didn't like it. I mean it didn't - it really messed me up. Every day when I would come back from school or go to, you know, back to my house for lunch of something like that during a lunch break, you know, there'd be a bunch of guys, you know, that would jump me. And I had to, you know, I had to fight through that kind of scene for, you know, a couple of years. And nobody talked to me on the street. I was just, you know, completely shunned. And as a result, I actually started to think of myself as some kind of an inferior and, you know, you know...

GROSS: Why do you think you were picked on so much? Did it have to do with being white or being what they considered nerdy? Like what was it do you think?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it was being, probably it was being white. They used to call me white cracker. That was my nickname. And so, I would just, you know, be by myself all the time. And then I'd, you know, I got going when I started reading, that helped me out a lot. I learned how to read and I would read comic books and stuff and that helped.

GROSS: Well, I think it was when you were in high school your family moved to a different neighborhood and this was a predominately white neighborhood.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: And then, instead of being picked on all the time, you know, turned into a bully. How did that happen?

Mr. PEKAR: I didn't exactly turn into a bully. It's just gradually - I'm pretty strong for my age. I mean I was pretty strong for my size and my age in those days and I was a pretty decent athlete. You know, I never got a chance to find out about this until I moved to this other neighborhood because I, for instance, when I was fighting I would always be fighting several guys at once and I never had a chance to participate in sports or anything like that because I was sort of, you know, just left out of it. Nobody wanted me.

GROSS: So in high school you feel like you didn't exactly turn into a bully, but now that you were fighting people one on one...

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I would fight.

GROSS: ...instead of one against a group...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you did well. You won most of your fights. So...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...how did that change how you carried yourself in school and how you thought of yourself?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I was a lot more confident about myself because, you know, I bought into this idea that the toughest kid was the most respected kid and I figured that I, you know, I was the most respected kid. And I noticed that even though, you know, like, you know, I read a lot and I was kind of scholarly in some ways, nobody used to give me a hard time about it because they know I, you know, I would fight back.

GROSS: Your new book is called "The Quitter." What are some of the things you quit when you were younger?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I quit baseball. I quit football. I quit classes in school that challenged me to take easier classes. Then after I got out of high school, I got a bunch of jobs and some of them I quit because I was - I had these, you know, kind of crazy fears about just being a failure no matter what I did.

Like, for example, in the post office, I worked at the post office and I would be afraid to - I mean, yeah, I would think I was going to be screwing up if I bound up, you know, bundles of letters in twine because I thought I was so mechanically incompetent that I would just, you know, I wouldn't tie them tightly enough and they would come apart and, you know, the bosses would blame me for screwing up, you know, so before that could happen I quit. I know it sounds crazy but, yeah, you know, it was kind of a crazy scene and there wasn't really much I could do about it.

GROSS: You joined the Navy and you didn't quit that but you were asked to leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I was asked to leave because I again, you know, with the mechanical stuff. I couldn't pass inspections. I just got all hung up about the, you know, about washing my own clothes. And I couldn't tell whether my clothes were dirty or clean and I would be standing there at the, you know, at the sink scrubbing my clothes when everybody else was through and I wouldn't know whether they were clean or dirty.

GROSS: GROSS: You were told that you didn't have the flexibility for Navy life.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. That was officially, you know, what they said. Well, I guess I didn't. Not that I really loved the Navy that much. But I was just looking for a place to land, a place that I could survive, you know, some kind of job, something. After a while I set my sights really low. You know, I just wanted to find something that was easy and paid me enough to, so I could just barely get by and something that was steady. And, you know, finally I found that in the civil service working for the VA hospital.

GROSS: As a file clerk.

Mr. PEKAR: That's right. I was a - actually, I have a total of 37 years in with the federal government as a file clerk.

GROSS: And you did that until your retirement. And here's something I find real interesting, you're is called "The Quitter," as a young man and as a high school student you quit all kinds of things, but you've also had incredible stick-to-itiveness. I mean you stayed at this one job for what, 37 years. You started doing comics when you were what, in your 20's?

Mr. PEKAR: Thirties.

GROSS: Thirties.

Mr. PEKAR: Thirty-two.

GROSS: But, 32. Okay and you're about 65 now and you're still doing them.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: And you've done them and you're now like pretty well-known for them. You've been married how many years?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, this last time I've been married for 22 years.

GROSS: That's a pretty long time. And you've been in your house how long?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: I've been in my house about 15 years.

GROSS: Yeah, that's a pretty long time too. So how do you kind of reconcile the part of you that's a quitter with the part of you that kind of finds something and just stays with it?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, when I find something I can handle, you know, that doesn't, you know, mess me up or anything like that I stick to it. I hold on to it with a death grip, like my civil service job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: God, I thought, God I'll never find another job like this again, you know, it's so ideal for me, you know. It's easy. I don't have to go home and worry about the work. I just go and, you know, do the work and go home and think about writing something. And, you know, I had health insurance. And so, I mean why wouldn't I want to stay with it? I didn't think I possibly could do any better than that. I thought that was the best I could possibly do and, you know, maybe I was right.

GROSS: Now what about sticking with "American Splendor," the comic series that you've been doing for about 30 years or more? Did you, you know, it didn't start out - I mean it hasn't - until the "American Splendor" movie, it wasn't and maybe even after that, it hasn't been a very lucrative thing. And the attention that you've gotten for it came I think kind of slowly. So what kept you doing it even when you weren't getting a lot of like financial awards or acclaim or recognition?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I did get some critical notice and that was a big thing to me. I mean it was a big thing to me to be a writer, and I was like sort of on a mission with "American Splendor" too. I wanted to try to prove that comics could do things. I wanted to expand them beyond superheroes and talking animals and I knew that it was going to take a long time.

But I just started, you know, writing autobiography and about, you know, my quotidian life. And, you know, because I think everybody's life is interesting and I just kept on - so I kept on going at it and I developed a small group of followers that, you know, used to write to me, and I mean it was like I had -you know, people say get a life. Well, I mean that was part of my life. You know, it was a social connection. Other than that, I really didn't have too much. I would just get up and go to work and come home.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at the age of 70. After Pekar retired from his job as a file clerk for the VA hospital, where he had worked for nearly 40 years, he wrote a memoir about his childhood called "The Quitter." Terry spoke to him in 2005 when it was published.

GROSS: Now that you don't have your day job, you're retired from that, you can spend as much of the day writing as you'd like. I think most writers find it really hard to write for a good deal of the day. So what's your work schedule like? You might have dreamed all your life of having that kind of flexibility. Now that you have it, what's it like to have it?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. It's a very good question, Terry. It would be pretty hard for me to write, you know, 40 hours a week, you know, eight hours a day to work that kind of week like I did when I was at the VA. But I need these writing gigs to get extra income. I'm taking just about any kind of job I can get and some of the jobs don't pay that much. So I'm finding that I'm spending more and more time writing, actually and I think that's the way it's going to be if I'm lucky. If I'm lucky, I'll just be busy and I'll just have to grit my teeth and write for however long it takes to, you know, to do the job, because I want to, you know, I have a wife and a kid to support. I want to take care of that. That's important to me.

GROSS: Did you have to learn how to deal with an unstructured day - a day that wasn't structured by a 9 to 5 job?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. I did. At first it freaked me out. In fact, you know, I got so depressed and screwed up I was hospitalized, you know, for major depression.

GROSS: When was this?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I retired like in October of 2001 and then in November they shot the movie and, you know, I had a good time going down on to the set and watching them shooting the movie and stuff. But when it was over, there was no structure in my life. But when it was over, there was no structure in my life and think this happens to a lot of guys when they retire. And I just got real nervous and depressed, and had to be hospitalized for it. And for about a year and a half I was in and out of the hospital several times, until I just made up my mind that, first of all, you know, being in the hospital wasnt going to help me and I just have to grit my teeth and just do what I had to do or, you know, die trying or something.

GROSS: How do you think it's affected you life, to have put so much of your personal life out there? In your comics over the years, youve written about, you know, fights with your wife and, you know, arguments with friends and workers and insecurities that you have. I mean, it seems that like all kinds of things that goes through your mind or all kinds of things that youve experienced, for better and for worse, have ended up in your comic over the years. And your goal in these comic isn't to just present yourself in a flattering light. It's to try - I think its to try to be really honest about what day to day life is like.

Mr. PEKAR: Right.

GROSS: So how has that affected you to have all of that out there?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, for some reason I mean I dont mind it if I show myself being cheap or, you know, being, you know, unreasonable sometimes. You know, at least I haven't killed anybody. You know, that's not a problem for me. If I did something really heinous, I guess, maybe I wouldnt want to write about it. But, you know, I've continued to write about my life as it is, hoping that people will identify with, you know, some of the things that I do, some of the things that I think, and, you know, take maybe even comfort.

Like for example, when my wife and I did this book "Our Cancer Year," I got a -it didnt sell very well. I think it's the worse selling of all my, you know, Squareback books.

GROSS: And this is the journal of when you had cancer.

Mr. PEKAR: Right. About...

GROSS: In comic form.

Mr. PEKAR: Right. It was something like 212 pages about what it was like having cancer and what it was like for my wife to take care of me. And people have, ever since then, you know, told me that they really, you know, it was really important for them to read that book, because, you know, they thought that maybe they were the only one that was going through this stuff. And I guess when their experience was universalized, I guess it made it a little easier to take.

GROSS: You know, when I think about your life I think about somebody who has this almost like inherently bohemian spirit. You know, somebody whose life is so caught up in jazz and literature and language, and yet you spend so much of your life having this really straight nine to five file clerk job. And do you see that as a paradox of your life? You know, leading this like very straight life, but at the same time being just, kind of, inherently bohemian at the same time?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. Well, no I mean I just try to live on, you know, on two different levels. You know, I knew I couldnt make money at the stuff I liked doing, so I took a job that was not challenging. And, you know, when it was slow at work I used to sneak off in a corner and read, as a matter of fact. I would take books with me, all the time, to work. I could get my work done, you know, pretty quickly and then I would, you know, like I would sneak off some place to, you know, to read or write. And, you know, it worked out. I guess if I'd had a tougher job, maybe I wouldnt have read so much.

GROSS: Well, Harvey Pekar, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks a lot, Terry.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2005. Pekar died at his home Monday at his home near Cleveland. He was 70.

You can find a link to all of Pekar's radio commentaries on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film, "Inception."

This is FRESH AIR.

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