After moving from the comics page to the big screen, acclaimed autobiographical comics creator Harvey Pekar has now made his way to the Internet with a new webcomic series called, The Pekar Project, to be published on SMITH, an online magazine featuring personal storytelling. The Pekar Project, which will feature the work of four artists, launched this week.
“Harvey is part and parcel of what we are about,” said SMITH publisher, Larry Smith. “Harvey got well known for being the everyman, and the heart and soul of SMITH is the everyman.” Jeff Newelt, SMITH’s comics editor and editor of the Pekar Project, told PWCW “Basically Harvey is the proto-blogger; the original memoir comics storyteller.”
The Pekar Project features artwork by Tara Seibel, Sean Pryor, Joseph Remnant, and Rick Parker. Seibel first worked with Pekar in Cleveland for a year and a half on a strip called Rock City. Pekar began working with Remnant after Jay Lynch, an early underground cartoonist, recommended him. A recent School of Visual Arts graduate, Pryor worked with Pekar on a comic for the magazine Royal Flush, which is due out in October. And Parker illustrated a comic for SMITH’s Next Door Neighbor series, and was brought into the project by Newelt. “It was like assembling a band,” said Newelt of organizing the project. Parker continued the band analogy , “The songs are really about Harvey, and Jeff’s the band leader.”
“Jeff had a vision for an experimental alternative to American Splendor,” said Seibel of the project’s focus. “I encouraged Harvey to be a little more esoteric, not necessarily like his work on American Splendor,” explained Newelt. The Pekar Project features twenty completed stories that range from a single page to a twenty-three-page story by Seibel. “A lot of real mini stories, which are Zen, haiku and abstract,” Newelt said describing the stories. Seibel drew twelve stories in all, including a typically mundane Pekar narrative focused on his daily life in Cleveland. “Tara is the lead soloist,” Newelt explained, “her style is different and sets the tone as a unique break away from what he’s done before.”
Describing his working relationship with the artists, Pekar said that while he likes to write stories specifically for individual artists to illustrate, when he’s working with a group, he tries to “keep everyone happy and give everyone the same amount of work; I worked with Tara longer, so she got more stuff.” Pekar said some of the stories, “have been around longer, I got a stash of them and I was looking to get them done.”
Newelt compared the drawings of Joseph Remnant to R. Crumb, an artist Remnant considers an influence. Remnant said he worked on a story “about [Pekar] as a kid in fifth grade, cracking jokes on the playground, impersonating a radio host talking about pharmaceutical drugs.” He also worked on a story called, “Hypothetical Quandary,” about misspelling the word “quandary” in a script Pekar sent to Crumb and another story “about how people from Austria-Hungary pretend to be from Vienna, since it’s the cultural center.”
Pryor worked on 2 stories for the project, one titled “Searchin’,” which is about “Harvey getting his house cleaned.” Pryor also worked on “Jungle Music,” which Pryor described as a departure from Pekar’s usual autobiographical mode. “Harvey just made it up,” said Pryor, as departure from the autobiographical work he does in American Splendor. In the story “Jungle Music” Pekar goes to South America to learn about the native folk music there, claiming that he is from Harvard University. The comics in The Pekar Project are Pryor’s first published works. “I think the thing that ties [the stories] together the most is their range and variety,” Pryor explained. “Tara’s stuff is totally at the far end of what I do; Joseph is more traditional but in a good way, and Rick’s is pretty funny,” said Pryor.
Newelt said there are enough stories for three months with new comics every other week from at least two artists. The first week featured a comic by Seibel and one by Remnant. “We’re taking a breather right now; we’re waiting to do more [stories],’ Newelt said. In addition, Newelt plans to have guest artists that will be limited to one story, while the original four artists will have no limit.
Along with the webcomic, Newelt wants to make SMITH a “nice hub for all things Pekar.” Along with publishing the comics, The Pekar Project will feature interviews with Pekar, the artists in the Project and other artists associated with Pekar such as Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld and Ed Piskor, in addition to sketches from their projects. Newelt said the project will feature a blog and there will be spotlights on various artists to showcase their other work. Seibel has agreed to write about her experience working on The Pekar Project and the site will also offer “some behind-the-scene stuff and images people haven’t seen of Harvey working and audio clips from Harvey,” Smith said. While Pekar admitted he doesn’t have a computer or understand them, Newelt said there are even plans for a Pekar Project Twitter account, and he planned “ask for a sentence or two from Harvey to tweet.” Smith said, “Harvey probably thinks, ‘What’s this web thing?’ but he’s made for the web, which is just another tool for personal storytelling and expression.”
Although two previous SMITH webcomics, Shooting War and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, have been published as print books, Newelt said, “We weren’t thinking of the end game as a book. We go into webcomics knowing there is a chance and hopefully there will be a book.” There is an online bookstore integrated into the site with links to Pekar’s other books. “We want to reach out to publishers and be a place where Harvey can talk about other projects,” Newelt said. “And if people like the comics [on SMITH], we can send them to look at other his books.”
Among other promotions, Newelt said he was considering a “pin up contest,” in which contestants draw a portrait of Pekar and the winner will get to draw a comic for the series. In addition, to celebrate Pekar’s 70th birthday, Newelt is working to organize an exhibition of artwork from The Pekar Project that would go display in Cleveland and New York City in October.
Newelt believes that by publishing Pekar’s comics stories on the web and using social media to promote them, he can “hit a million people” and put many more readers in touch with the universal appeal of Harvey’s stories. “I truly believe Harvey has never got the audience he deserved,” Newelt said.