The world beyond the indie comics community learned about Harvey Pekar and his innovative autobiographical comics in the acclaimed film American Splendor. In his new book, The Quitter, we learn about Pekar's adolescence and his compulsive need to quit any activity in which he can't excel. Dean Haspiel, a veteran of indie and mainstream comics, is the latest artist to work with Pekar.
You both write autobiographically in your comics. How did you come to this decision?
Harvey Pekar: I'm from the beatnik generation, where everybody wanted to be a poet or writer or something. And at that time, I was a jazz critic and I was always thinking, theorizing about what makes great art or what's important in art. I came to the conclusion that innovation was the most important thing you could do: add to the vocabulary of the form. And comics, I had given up on. They presented the stories that covered such a limited range; there were superheros, funny animals. It was predictable, it was for kids; it just wasn't making it. And then I met Rob Crumb in 1962. I looked at his stuff and thought, "Damn!" I thought that I had been wrong. There's no limitation on comics, nothing. From a logical standpoint, how can there be a limitation on comics? You can use any word in the dictionary. You can put them in any order you want to. You can use a vast variety of illustrating styles. People could do all sorts of things. I had experimented with short stories, autobiographical stories, and then I thought, "Comics, aha!" I can really make an impact on this medium. I don't like comics now any more or any less than I do novels or movies. I think comics can do what you want them to do. But I saw this vast area where maybe I could make a contribution. And you know, we'd all like to leave our mark in history in some way.
Dean Haspiel: Well, Harvey is my answer. I grew up reading superhero comics. Maybe they were becoming predictable, even though I still enjoy superhero comics, and that's when I discovered Chester Brown's Yummy Fur and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. And at that point I realized comics could be anything. The form has been invigorated by what he has done.
How did you guys start working together?
DH: A friend of mine was drawing Harvey's stuff, so I wanted to draw his stuff, too. I sent him some stuff and heard nothing.
HP: I used to get stuff from everybody. People would always send me samples of their work.
DH: About three years later, I get a call from some guy, Harvey Pekar. I thought it was a prank. I called him up and he said, "What do I have to do to convince you that I'm me?" He did it by giving me a story. I was also assisting Ted Hope, the movie producer, so I approached Harvey about doing a movie. He was reticent since he'd gotten offers before where nothing happened. But I convinced him, and a year later we had an award-winning movie. Harvey wanted to repay me so we decided to collaborate on a longer story which became The Quitter.
Dean, what were your greatest challenges in visually portraying Harvey and his story?
DH: There were a ton of challenges. The daunting task of transcribing someone's life visually—it's not Superman in a cape. Harvey's an icon in many ways, but he's a real person. I have someone to answer to. Not an editor, but a human being, and it's his life. This is the one shot. It's not like it's going to be retold like Superman's origins ad nauseum. That was a serious challenge, and that kind of scared me.
Harvey, your comics have brought you a certain level of stardom, yet you're still anxious about providing for your family.
HP: I wish I had gotten my break a little earlier in life. Now, I'm getting work. I want to keep doing as much work as I can and I want to keep the level high. I'm wondering if something is going to happen to me to screw it up. My parents both had Alzheimer's. So I worry about getting work and then when I get it, I worry about doing it well. I don't want to just go through the motions and give people stuff. This stuff is really important to me.
What's next for you two? More collaboration?
HP: Since The Quitter we've done a few other pieces. We did a cover for the Boston Phoenix.
DH: We've done a two-page story for Playboy.
HP: I love getting paid well.
DH: We have a spread in November's Spin about Harvey when he was young and into rock 'n' roll. And then we have a 16-page collaboration of Michael Chabon's The Escapist coming out in November.
HP: It's supposed to be about me with The Escapist, coming back on the bus from the mental hospital.
DH: There are plans for further collaborations.
HP: We'll keep on going. A guy that does this stuff this well—I wanna hang onto him. It's coming out real nice now.