Take a critically acclaimed nonfiction comics writer, a veteran comics figure acting as a combination producer, editor and publicist, a young publisher eager to make a name for himself and an illustrator looking to do the same and what do you have? The winning recipe for publishing Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, an original graphic novel to be released in May, written by the late Harvey Pekar, illustrated by Joe Remnant and published by Zip Comics in collaboration with Top Shelf Comix. The book, which will have a 10,000 copy first printing, is noted for being among several recently released posthumous works by the late Pekar, as well as for the book’s unusual path to publication.
By early 2010, Smith magazine’s ”The Pekar Project", an online collection of freeform Pekar musings and comics shorts illustrated by a trio of cartoonists and orchestrated by editor Jeff Newelt, proved to be a successful experiment in comics, providing an outlet for the author’s characteristic comics while introducing Pekar to a new, mostly untapped generation of readers who typicaly find and read comics on the web. The project had also gained widespread attention from a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today and NPR, enlivening Newelt, who had approached Pekar about publishing an original graphic novel together. At the time, Pekar had a completed script, a part-history of the city of Cleveland and partially a memoir of the author that he had originally developed with Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics.
But Vertigo had been sitting on the script for almost a year, unwilling or unable to move forward with it, and despite an increasingly restless Pekar, Newelt said. The project “just wasn’t a priority,” for Vertigo, Newelt said, and he lamented what he described as the publishers misunderstanding of Pekar’s audience. Newelt said he believes that Pekar’s appeal transcends the comics marketplace and his work can attract a much wider audience, one with broad cultural tastes who, as he described it, are also fans of people like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Jonathan Lethem and Louis CK. Eventually, Newelt and Pekar ventured out to find a more suitable publisher.
Enter Josh Frankel, a recent Drew University graduate and founder of the fledgling indie publishing house Zip Comics. While still an undergrad, Frankel had become acquainted with Newelt and Pekar after he arranged for Pekar to visit and speak at the university. Upon starting Zip, Frankel was eager to get noticed in the comic publishing business and had lined up the necessary financial backing in case the right book project came along. A lifelong Harvey Pekar fan, Frankel jumped at the opportunity to publish a book by one of his favorite writers and the deal was made. “A perfect storm” as Newelt characterized it.
Despite being relatively unknown as a publisher, Newelt said that he and Pekar were impressed by Frankel and believed he would give the book the attention it deserved. But for a work as significant as Cleveland, Frankel and Newelt knew they needed serious and experienced marketing muscle. The two approached Chris Staros, publisher of the highly regarded indie comics house Top Shelf Comix, seeking support and the two firms are essentially copublishing the book. Zip will cover the cost of production while Top Shelf gave Cleveland the necessary marketing and promotional thrust by including it in its catalogue and providing for wider distribution and visibility at conventions. In addition, Top Shelf also assisted in the design of the book.
When it came time to pick the artist that would draw Cleveland, Pekar and Newelt had no problem in choosing Joseph Remnant, one of the three Pekar Project artists who first came to Pekar’s attention via legendary underground comics creator Jay Lynch. Remnant, an illustrator who had little comics experience but an “indie, yet mainstream” style that evoked artist R. Crumb (the patron saint of underground comics and one of Pekar’s earliest collaborators) and reflected Pekar’s attitude seamlessly. “It was crystal clear he was the man for the job,” said Newelt, “no one else was even in the running.” The book is Remnant’s first long-form work, and he threw himself into the project, researching all the places and people from Cleveland’s history in order to better visualize the Cleveland script. Remnant recalled often working without any dialogue in place and said he relied on the copious amount of notes Pekar jotted in the script margins. He even joked about going back and redrawing Cleveland’s early depictions of Harvey after getting to know him better.
However, in July 2010 Harvey Pekar quite suddenly passed away at the age of 70 from an accidental overdose of antidepressant medication. While tragic, Pekar’s passing did not hinder Cleveland’s progress. He had, in fact, enthusiastically approved about twenty pages of artwork, giving Remnant the direction needed to complete the book. Through a twist of fate Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was suddenly poised to be Pekar’s first posthumous work, not just an ode to the city, but now a requiem for the man.
Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland certainly lives up to its promise. Frankel described it as a “great primer” on Harvey Pekar: perfect for the non-comics readers the publisher is hoping to attract. For Remnant, the book is “definitive about the later part of [Harvey’s] career.” And Newelt, who has been both paying tribute to Pekar and promoting Cleveland in multiple articles and convention appearances, called the book, “A thrill from start to finish,” emphasizing that he couldn’t be happier with the way the book turned out. He compared it to Pekar’s other major standalone works, such as the Eisner Award-winning Our Cancer Year created with Frank Stack and The Quitter produced in 2005 along with artist Dean Haspiel. Pekar’s wife and collaborator, comics writer/editor Joyce Brabner, has also worked to promote Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, as well as launching a successful Kickstarter campaign (the effort raised over $38,000) to have a commemorative statue of Pekar erected at the Cleveland Heights public library, a favorite workplace of Pekar’s.
Perhaps Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland’s most prominent legacy will be using it as blueprint for an unconventional publishing venture. For Newelt, the partnership between Zip Comics and Top Shelf “has been a phenomenal success”, one that ultimately benefitted the book’s creation by allowing Joseph Remnant’s involvement, as well as providing promotion and distribution to a wider audience beyond the strictly comics marketplace. The book also got an unexpected boost when Apple gave it a major promotional page on the newly launched Comics and Graphic Novels category of its iBookstore in February.
The publication of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland represents an inventive and refreshing publishing strategy—a young and emerging indie publisher teaming with a like-minded and more experienced independent comics house—in a volatile comics marketplace that isn’t always prepared to support original non-superhero comics works.
Frankel echoes this as he describes his experience. “We were able to put out an amazing book. However equally important is the lessons learnt. I have learned more about publishing from putting out this book than I could probably ever learn any other way. Thanks to the collaboration with Top Shelf, we at Zip Comics will be much better prepared to put out more quality books in the future."
Check out a preview of Harvey Pekar's Cleveland from Zip Comics and Top Shelf.