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July 12, 2010, 05:00 PM ET

On the Grumpy but Sweet Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar—known for his popular comic-book series American Splendordied Monday at the age of 70. During his career, he collaborated with cultural historian Paul M. Buhle, professor emeritus at Brown University, on five books. The Chronicle asked Buhle about working with Pekar.

Q. You worked with Harvey Pekar on several projects, including books on the Beats, SDS, the Wobblies, and the New Deal. How did your collaboration come about?

A. I was working on my second historical comic, about the Students for a Democratic Society, and I could gather (in some cases writing about my own life) local stories that worked as scripts, but the big narrative was terribly difficult for me, probably because the collapse of SDS was such a huge disappointment in my younger life. Harvey happened to call me and he needed money. I offered him my advance if he would write the narrative. We started there and went on til the end.

Q. Pekar was known for his sometimes irascible commentary. What was it like to work with him?

A. He pretended to be grumpy. He was grumpy about making very little money for his work, and also about the rightward drift of America after his earliest years, in a family that admired FDR and hoped for a more egalitarian society. But he was truly sweet, generous and supportive of young artists.

Q. How was his viewpoint on life reflected in his work?

A. Harvey was able to conceive of his work as his life and vice versa. He may have borrowed the idea from his 1960s close friend, Robert Crumb, but he took it in a different direction, to deeply ethnic, blue collar Cleveland. Many of his early stories were about his own personal relationships but also about his neighborhoods, his job (work at the VA hospital for 36 years) and his interests, such as jazz.

Q. You're a historian. How did Pekar's perspective inform your interpretation of history?

A. I like to think that I broadened his vistas in his published work, in the sense that in our five books, he read very widely about large historical questions and developed scripts that tell the story differently from a scholarly study, but just as well and in many cases, much better. You didn't need to agree with Harvey's take on SDS or the Beat Generation, for instance, to see that he had strong opinions and a distinct aesthetic. He was deeply interested in history, as he was in literature and art. If I were describing some Cleveland setting, I would start with demography. He would start by describing a local Serbian restaurant he liked whose owner was actually a Croat, and so on: that was his way of explaining and exploring history.

Q. What do you think will be his legacy in the world of comics and graphic novels?

A. There were not many artists and writers (he never drew comics, but he gave artists very specific directions, along with dialogue) in the US whose work, before the turn of the new century, shaped the emergence of comics as an accepted, serious art form. Along with Harvey,  I count Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor and Alison Bechdel. These were also practically the only artists of "alternative comics" who made a living. He expanded what comics can do. When I worked with him on the adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working, I realized—as an oral historian and teacher of oral history—that he was  also to comics what Studs was to the interview. He knew how to listen to people. He raised the level of comic art.

Q. Did you have another project in the works with him?

A. Yiddishkayt or Yiddishland (we are still debating the title) will, I hope, appear next year. It meant a lot to Harvey, a native Yiddish speaker. It's the story of secular Jewish-Americans who carried on the centuries-old legacy of Yiddishkayt, and did wonderful things with the language and culture until time ran out. His scripts for this book, to be published by Abrams ComicArt, are more than masterful, and he knew it.—Karen Winkler

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