NEAL CONAN, host:
Cleveland and the comics lost a giant this year. For decades, Harvey Pekar told the story of the city in his autobiographical comics and graphic novels. He died in July at the age of 70. Many people will remember Pekar mainly as the protagonist of the biopic "American Splendor" based on Pekar's graphic novel of the same name.
Now, another Cleveland native wants to ensure a new generation of writers and comic fans remember Pekar not just as the curmudgeon depicted in the movie but as an unsung hero of the American dream.
Jimi Izrael is a freelance writer, author and cultural critic, and he's developing a course for Case Western Reserve University that examines what Pekar's works can tell us about the human condition. So what about you? What was Harvey Pekar really about? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Jimi Izrael, a regular contributor to NPR's TELL ME MORE and author of "The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can't Find Good Black Men," and he joins us today at WCPN studios. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION again.
Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Author, "The Denzel Principle"): Great to be here, Neal. Thanks.
CONAN: And a lot of people would say: What's Harvey Pekar about? Well, he was mostly about Harvey Pekar.
Mr. IZRAEL: Well, yeah. I think that's fair, but I also think it's fair - you can look at his work in a broader sense. No, Harvey was just - you know, people describe him as Cleveland's curmudgeon, but, you know, nobody is crazy about being broke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. IZRAEL: So that was one the things about Harvey that people should take away, that he was just a working guy, trying to figure out how to navigate the American dream like a lot of us are.
CONAN: Navigate the American dream. You don't think of Harvey Pekar necessarily as, you know, Alger - lifting himself up by his bootstraps.
Mr. IZRAEL: Right. And that's one of the reasons why he made such a great target for David Letterman because David Letterman, you know, he had this guy on with these working-class values and, you know, in his T-shirt, he's hustling records and he's hustling comic books, and he's taken potshots at him. But, you know what? 10 years later, we're in the midst of a recession. You know, a job as a file clerk, you know, with a government wage and government benefits doesn't look to - that looks kind of hot right about now. I wouldn't mind having that gig myself.
So Harvey, you know, Harvey was a hustler in the very traditional sense of what America is about. You know, he wasn't taking the dream for granted.
CONAN: He was also very specifically of a place.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yes. Yeah. He is a Clevelander. You know, he's definitely a face of Cleveland. He isn't the face of Cleveland, but he's certainly a important face of Cleveland. He represents, you know, the working class, you know, that - like I said, you know, people describe him as a curmudgeon, but, you know, being broke, it's not fun.
CONAN: Well, curmudgeon: Is that an accurate description of the Harvey Pekar you knew?
Mr. IZRAEL: No. And that's one of the reasons why I developed my course for Case Western Reserve University, the SAGES program, because the Harvey I knew was - he was a friend, and he was a giving writer and colleague. And I miss him. And it was one of the very first things I wanted to do because I already teach a course over at Case Western Reserve University. And when I pitched this course to them, they were really receptive to it. And I wanted to make sure that we didn't just remember him as a curmudgeon but as a guy that had maybe a perspective on the American dream that maybe not all of us could appreciate.
CONAN: You also portray him in the context of immigrant art. Tell us what you mean by that.
Mr. IZRAEL: Well, he was a first-generation American. His parents came here, and he was just trying to figure out what was going on here. And I think what we learn in his comic books is that he listened to people, and he didn't listen to people like you and I listen to people where we're trying to categorize them or figure them out. He listened to them genuinely, and he wrote about what they said and what they did in a very genuine nonjudgmental way.
CONAN: TALK OF THE NATION is broadcasting from WCPN ideastream in Cleveland today, and the program is being streamed online by webcam. If you'd like to watch video, you can watch by going to the attached link and the...
Mr. IZRAEL: I think my mother is watching. Hi, Mom.
CONAN: I think your mother is watching. All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I don't know what the - WCPN.org. is where...
Mr. IZRAEL: Right.
CONAN: ...you can go to find it. Is that where your mom goes?
Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. That's exactly where she goes.
CONAN: And we want to hear from callers today about the - what did Harvey Pekar's work mean to them? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
And we'll start with Rob(ph). And Rob is with us from Berea - is that right -in Ohio?
ROB (Caller): Yes, sir, that is. (Unintelligible)...
CONAN: And where is Berea?
CONAN: Go ahead.
ROB: Berea, for those who don't know, is called like the Grindstone City. Way back in the 1800s in Berea, you had a quarry here. And there are cities in the Midwest and in Cleveland, especially, where there's buildings made out of Berea sandstone.
ROB: So that's to give you something from there.
Mr. IZRAEL: Good to know.
CONAN: Harvey Pekar.
ROB: Harvey Pekar to me means, I think - he's like this really strong cultural figure. And I think that's really important, because most people like to shove, you know, culture out of the way for, you know, for business to grow, or for, you know, something that supposedly will enrich a community but then, obviously, it doesn't. And I think that's really, really, really important for a place like Cleveland, too, because we have these neighborhoods - and Harvey knew this - of lower-class people who, while they weren't, you know, making tons of money with, say, high-rise apartments or these condos that they built in Cleveland neighborhoods that never got - you know, made money.
ROB: They were enriching their neighborhoods of creating art with community gardens or just being eccentric just like he was. You know, even though...
CONAN: Eccentric? I think you've got something there. Harvey Pekar could be fairly described as eccentric. Don't you think, Jimi Izrael?
Mr. IZRAEL: I wouldn't describe him as eccentric. You know, he was just Harvey. Who among us hasn't had our own kind of quirks and goofball antics, you know. I mean, he was just an ordinary guy. I mean, I don't know who did you expect him to be. You want him to be Laurence Olivier? He was a file clerk that worked at the VA Hospital and he was - I don't know. I wouldn't describe as eccentric. No, I wouldn't.
CONAN: All right. Bob(ph), thanks for the call. And let's see if we can go next to - this is - excuse me. This is Michael(ph), Michael calling us from Denver.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Michael. Go ahead.
MICHAEL: All right. Thanks for having me on. I've been a huge fan of Harvey's for years and years and years. And everybody is mentioning, you know, his personal quirks and things. But I think we need to remember that Harvey was actually a very serious artist. He did a lot of things to really positively change the comic's medium as far as really showing reality to a much greater extent. You could almost call him like the Bukowski of comics. And I don't -well I guess. I can't help him now.
Mr. IZRAEL: I would say, you know, like comic book verite. You know what I mean? He was really - I mean, he was really unfiltered and unfettered by any conventions of the medium because he was - what he was doing was largely untried. He was using the comic book medium in an autobiographical sense. So he - there were no - he made the rules. So he went in and he did this thing, and he was fantastic writer. And it's a real loss.
CONAN: A tremendous ear for a dialogue as well. I mean, he listened very carefully.
Mr. IZRAEL: Absolutely. He - that's one of the things that he taught me as a writer. You know, he gave me a really quick writing course. He said, Jimi, he said: read, write, listen. And it was really impactful to me.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. It is also Cleveland - this is a city that is seminal in the history of comic books. Siegel and Shuster, of course, who created "Superman," were first generation immigrants' boys who lived in Cleveland.
Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm. And you're no stranger to comic books. In fact, you've been in nine issues of "X-Men."
CONAN: I have but...
Mr. IZRAEL: You and I have that in common because - maybe this is a good time to mention that I'm Batman.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I didn't know that. And Gotham is nearby, I take it.
Mr. IZRAEL: Nearby.
CONAN: Yes, okay. The...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But Cleveland, as a center...
Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: ...you think of comic books as this quintessentially American art form. It's obviously been taken up around the world.
Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: But nevertheless, it was so much created by young immigrant boys trying to find their place in this society.
Mr. IZRAEL: It's a dreamer's art form. That's what it is. It's modern mythology. And I - and that's what - again, that's one of the reasons why I want to examine in my course, because, you know, here we have a guy, like Harvey Pekar, who's struggling to put - make some sense of the American dream for himself. And this is how he expresses it. And he's sorting it out. He's sorting out the American dream within the pages of "American Splendor." I believe that. And in my course, we're going to examine that. We're going to examine it, analyze and argue, and see what we come up with.
CONAN: As you look at his comics, can you locate places in Cleveland?
Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, of course, yeah. I mean, I'm in one of the comics. And he - I can locate where we met, right on Little Italy. And, of course, he took me to his job to - for me to meet some of the people that he was writing about. So, yeah, of course, you can read the comic book and locate Coventry Village or - I mean, because most of - a lot of his comic book is set in the Coventry Village, Cleveland Heights area where he lived and worked.
CONAN: Let's go next to Allison(ph), Allison with us from Phoenix.
ALLISON (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
Mr. IZRAEL: Excellent.
ALLISON: I'm just calling because I was not very familiar with Harvey Pekar before we were given a book by a friend called "Our Cancer Year."
Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.
ALLISON: And it just meant a lot to me to read that at the time I did, because my husband was undergoing cancer treatment. And I just really appreciated the honestly with which he and his wife depicted that terrible time in their lives. It just really resonated with me and touched me. So I just wanted to share that.
Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you. Joyce Brabner...
Mr. IZRAEL: ...also a fine writer, his wife, a friend of mine. And hopefully, she'll be - she'll appear at least once in the class to lecture and talk about Harvey, at least once.
CONAN: Because this is, as Allison points out, not merely Harvey's story. It's a story of a marriage as well.
Mr. IZRAEL: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And that's - the course is divided into four modules: life, liberty, love and the pursuit of happiness. So, you know, she - I guess she'd be in the love module.
CONAN: I guess she would. Allison, what lesson did you draw from it other than that other people shared your family's pain?
ALLISON: Well, I just think that, you know, I just - when you're a caretaker for someone who's sick, you have a myriad of emotions. And I just felt, I guess, heartened to see that she was honest about - on, you know, not just her concern for her husband, but the frustration that she often felt and the, you know, being terrified that something terrible was going to happen to him. And, you know, I just - I don't know, I just felt like she was kind of telling my story and I felt like it was important for other people maybe who haven't experienced that yet who might experience to have, I don't know, like a touchstone. I guess it just really validated a lot of what I felt. It made me feel like I wasn't a terrible person for being...
Mr. IZRAEL: Wow.
ALLISON: ...(unintelligible) sometimes, or I don't know.
CONAN: Then, you got a lot out of it.
Mr. IZRAEL: I'm sure Joyce is listening. I'm sure Joyce is listening and appreciates your comment.
ALLISON: Right on.
ALLISON: Well, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: We're talking with Jimi Izrael, a freelance writer and cultural critic, moderator of TELL ME MORE's regular Barbershop segment on NPR News, and the author of "The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can't Find Good Black Men." Also, the designer of a new course at Case Western Reserve here in Cleveland, on the life and art of Harvey Pekar. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Mike(ph), and Mike calling us from Grand Rapids.
MIKE (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. How are you doing today?
Mr. IZRAEL: (Unintelligible) brother.
MIKE: Hey, good. I'm by no means a Harvey Pekar expert, but I'll tell you in watching the movie "American Splendor," that got me kind of motivated to go and Google and read a little bit and YouTube a lot of - some things where I got to see him interact with other people. And just from my impression - I work in the schools and such with kids with autism - I would tell you that I think that there is a possibility that Harvey Pekar maybe fall in the autism spectrum with some of his social oddities. And I wanted to ask you what you think about that.
Mr. IZRAEL: I think I'm not a professional psychiatrist, so I can't make any diagnosis. He was as quirky as any other artists I've known. You know, I got quirks. I'm sure Neal has a few. Any artist you know has some kind of quirks, so I don't know. If Joyce was here, I'm sure she would speak to that. But I'm not comfortable diagnosing Harvey.
MIKE: Oh, no, no, I'm not meaning to diagnose, but I'm saying some of his mannerisms certainly might suggest that, is all.
Mr. IZRAEL: He was just a quirky, old Jewish guy I knew who was a great guy, and always had conversation for me, always had advice for me, and was always there for me.
MIKE: Thank you, Jimi. Great topic today, thank you.
CONAN: Thank you.
Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Where were these sessions conducted? Do you...
Mr. IZRAEL: I'd call him. I mean, I just called him. I mean, he was just a regular guy. And I would see him in the street. I mean, Harvey was - I mean, he really was a regular guy. I mean, I - I mean, Harvey was giving all kind of advice on writing, on marriage, on, you know, on everything. And he was a friend to me. He was a great guy. And I keep saying that. I keep saying that, but it's just 100 percent true.
CONAN: Let's go to Ben(ph), and Ben's calling us from here in Cleveland.
BEN (Caller): Hello, thanks. I'm calling to say that I didn't know Harvey Pekar personally, but my brother lived next door to him in Cleveland Heights. And I grew up with him over many years and I remember vividly watching him on "The David Letterman Show." And I take a great pride in saying that Harvey Pekar is from Cleveland and that I'm - can associate with him and his work and what he means outside of Cleveland, in the bigger world of graphic novels and, you know, Robert Crumb's buddy and all of those other people in that group. It's something I feel very proud about, actually. And I just felt - yup?
CONAN: I would - just wanted to follow up just a little bit on that. Very proud, it's not what the chamber of commerce might have wanted you to say about Cleveland.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. IZRAEL: And as for one of the reasons why I came in with my course because, I mean, Cleveland has a bad habit of not really appreciating its talent until they're gone. And I didn't want too much time to pass for Harvey without us acknowledging his brilliance, you know what I mean?
Mr. IZRAEL: So...
BEN: I mean, it's, you know, and it's - the chamber of commerce would take great strides forward if they acknowledged and praised and put him out there. He's not saying anything that's not honest about the city nor about himself nor the people he knew.
Mr. IZRAEL: Or Americans for that matter.
BEN: But he was - what's that?
Mr. IZRAEL: Or America.
BEN: And Americans...
Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.
BEN: Yeah. And he didn't come from a place of anger. He came from a place of love, when it came from - about Cleveland, and you could really sense that.
Mr. IZRAEL: He had a healthy cynicism about everything. And it's in his comic. Amen, brother. Thanks for calling.
BEN: Yeah. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for calling, Ben. So long. Here's an email we have from Radu(ph) in Akron: Harvey was someone who showed that life is possible even with broken dreams. The search for happiness is endless and we have no choice but to keep searching.
Sounds like Radu would get a pretty good grade in your course.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, I couldn't put it better myself. She's a good writer. She might get a good grade from my course. So, yeah, I - yeah, and I'm teaching it through the SAGES program at Case. So you want to sign up? Come on down.
CONAN: Jimi Izrael is a writer, cultural critic and author of "The Denzel Principle." And he joined us today at WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks a lot.
Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you, brother.