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Our Mothers Were a Communist

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.”

(So what.)

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.”

We end up not talking much about the movie, because there’s too much else to talk about, and we have less than an hour until the alarms go off and the Movie People whisk Pekar away.

Instead, we compare parents.

“My father,” says Pekar, “he seemed like a humble, normal kind of guy. My mother was real nervous. God, was she nervous. So nervous.”

“Mine, too.” I tell a nervous-mother story, hypothesizing the origins of Mom’s nervousness. (It’s a real good story, you should’ve been there.)

“My father was real religious,” Pekar says. “And my mother was an atheist.” ‰

“Oh, yeah? My mother was an atheist,” I counter, “and my father’s still agnostic. They used to argue.”

“Mine wouldn’t argue, about anything. It was really something. They really respected each other. It was amazing. You should write about, like, how your father came from the same town that I did, and my mother was a communist . . . ”

“There’s our headline, right there . . . ”

 

A lot of people who aren’t familiar with American Splendor comics may know Harvey Pekar as That Guy who’d get in arguments with David Letterman. The semiregular guest who wore the Boycott NBC T-shirt on the air and tried to get Letterman to talk General Electric. That guy.

“So is Letterman asking you back, to promote the film?”

“No, they’re not. I think I just cause painful memories for him. They made the movie and sent it to him, and he didn’t respond.”

“What about The Daily Show?” Pekar’s not familiar with the program, so I say good things about it, for free. Stephen Colbert’s brow. Peabody Award for the 2000 election coverage.

“No shit? That’s pretty good.”

“That’s weird. I just would’ve guessed they’d want you on the show. Maybe after the film comes out.”

“Nah, they probably haven’t heard of me. I’m waiting for you to make me famous.”

“Oh, yeah. Once you’re in the L.A. Weekly twice in the same year, it’s just a matter of time before you’re in the Bakersfield Weekly

“So write an article about this, about us talking. Why not? Yeah. I mean, that’s the most comfortable thing to do, right? Not to transcribe the tape.”

“Well, yeah. I figure I’ll write it without the tape, then go back and listen to make sure I get the quotes right, and stuff like that. Figure I’ll focus on how I wouldn’t let you get a word in edgewise about yourself or about the movie while I was talking about my parents and Glenville High School and cancer and stuff . . . ”

“Ah, you were fine, you were fine. Don’t be hard on yourself. I mean, if you wanna do it to be funny, you know, comic relief or something like that . . . but, as far as . . . I mean, you’re a nice guy. I got no beef with you. You were nice to me. You showed up . . . ”

“No. I am the evil Dave. I have come here to ruin both our lives.”

 

Time to go. Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, stops by with the professional publicity people. (You’ll meet her — she’s in the movie.) They’ve gotta get ready for another interview in 10 minutes, and then Pekar’s got one more right after that. And then the comic convention all day tomorrow . . .

“Do you know Victoria Looseleaf?” Pekar asks me.

“I just saw that name for the first time a few weeks ago. Where did I see it?”

“It’s just like Jennifer Blowdryer,” says Brabner.

“Possibly related to poet laureate Todd Refrigerator,” I offer. “It is a made-up name, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s a made-up name,” says Pekar. “She writes for various papers, and she’s also got a cable show. It might be on the channel where they don’t pay you. She’s from Cleveland, too. I got another interview after this, then I got her.”

 

“Do you end up having to repeat most of the same stuff in all the interviews?”

“Well, I didn’t do that with you. We’ve been talking about my communist background, and you didn’t ask me, did I feel weird about seeing somebody playing me on the silver screen . . . ”

“If it’s all right, I still won’t ask you. Not that I’m not interested, but I’m sure I can read about it later somewhere.”

“Nah — I give them such a boring answer that they don’t even publish it.”


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