By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
HARVEY: So it sounds like you wanna write more than just a regular interview-article, with the question-and-answer shit.
DAVE: Nah. Let’s just do a Q&A and get out of here.
“In 1948, my mother was for Henry Wallace. You know who he was? Yeah. So she gave me all these posters, to go around the neighborhood, stuffing in mailboxes. I thought I was gonna get red-baited. And it was weird: All these kids did start to razz me about it — ‘Harvey’s a communist,’ you know, stuff like that. And then this one guy, Chucky Welch — only he didn’t look like a Chucky Welch, and his grandmother had an Italian accent so I figured it was a changed name — anyway, this Chucky Welch guy was considered to be like a hoodlum-in-the-making, or something like that. And when he heard these guys riding me about Henry Wallace, he leaped to my defense. He said, ‘No, no, no. Wallace is for the working man.’ It was amazing. I’d never expected any help from Chucky Welch.”
Harvey Pekar’s been writing American Splendor — autobiographical stories illustrated by Gary Dumm, Robert Crumb and lots of others who don’t rhyme — since 1976. Shari Springer Berman and Bob Pulcini (who made, in 1997, the award-winning documentary Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s) wrote and directed a downright fascinating narrative biopic/documentary live-action/animation hybrid film about Pekar, also called American Splendor. The film has already collected some impressive awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) at Cannes, and now it’s being released with big-time production-company logos at the beginning. One of those logos sent Pekar out on a full-blown, Hollywood-style promotional tour.
“They brought me out here mostly to go to the [San Diego] comic book convention,” Pekar tells me and my neo-Depression-era tape recorder after we’ve had a chance to sit down and press the appropriate buttons. “You know, I’m a comic book writer, and they want to get comic book fans to come and see this thing [the movie]. But I have some other stuff set up for me to do, in town, here. Like what I’m doing now.”
What we’re doing now is eating and talking, wiping our mouths and coughing in the corner of a mostly empty bar in the Bel Age Hotel. Each little table has its own movie star silk-screened into the tablecloth to watch the patrons drink from under the glass tabletop. Ours has Clint Eastwood, pointing a gun at me.
I try to ignore the gun and focus on my own reporterly blatherings. Glenville High School in Cleveland, old-school lefty Jews in Cleveland, Harvey’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (you’ll see, it’s in the movie), my brother’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (not in the movie) . . .
Pekar notices that I’m not much of an interviewer.
“So,” he says, much more politely than I probably deserve, “you wanna talk about the movie or what?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure — let’s talk about the movie.”
Okay. What should we talk about when we talk about the movie? “How about that one scene where you and Toby are there — real you and real Toby, in this empty white space — and then the actors playing you are sitting off to the side, watching? I don’t know why, but that scene really stuck with me.”
Or wait, how about this? “How much were you involved in the script?”
“I wasn’t involved in it. I mean, you know, they started off, they wanted me to write a script, and they were paying me to write this script. So I was putting it together piecemeal, you know, and I got the idea they thought my script was too episodic for them. And then the producer [Ted Hope] decided he wanted me to be in the film, and then he got Bob and Shari to do the script and to direct it. You know, the whole project. So they paid me for what I wrote — I think I wrote some nice parts — and then I didn’t do anything with it . . .
“I was just glad, at first, to get paid. You know, I’m retired now.” (In 2001, Pekar retired from 35 years as a file clerk at a V.A. hospital in Cleveland. His job and co-workers — bow-tied Mr. Boats, übernerd Toby Radloff — show up in lots of American Splendor comics. And they’re in the movie. Go see the movie.)
“And then I met Bob and Shari, and I found out that these people doing this film really knew what they were doing, you know? They were really sharp. So it turned out to be a good movie. I didn’t need to tell them what to do. They were telling me how great it was that I didn’t bother them, you know. And I guess it was. I didn’t even read their script.
“I used to go down to the set all the time. Just to get free meals and stuff. And you know, I liked everybody down there, so I used to go and socialize and stuff like that.”