Remembering Harvey Pekar: An Interview with Jeffrey Newelt of the Pekar Project


"Legendary Vienna". Jeff Newelt and Harvey Pekar as illustrated by Joseph Remnant.

Harvey Pekar was a legend among connoisseurs of underground comic books, a piercingly intelligent everyman whose long-running series American Splendor chronicled the ins and outs of his life in Cleveland. While Pekar flew under the radar for a sizable proportion of the American public, that changed with the release of the autobiographical indie film American Splendor. In true Pekar fashion, he chronicled his experiences in his comic series. This story was collected in American Splendor: Our Movie Year.

Pekar was a prolific writer, but he was an avowed technophobe. Independent comic creators were enjoying a renaissance online, but Pekar, a father of the genre, was not a part of it…at least until he got t in touch with editor, publicist and creative mover and shaker Jeff Newelt. Newelt, along with a crack team of artists including Joseph Remnant, Rick Parker and Sean Pryor, set about to bring Pekar’s unique vision to the online publication SMITH Magazine in a series titled The Pekar Project.

I recently spoke with Newelt about his work and friendship with Pekar, as well as the background of American Splendor: Our Movie Year.

American Splendor: Our Movie Year chronicles a time in Pekar’s life when his work was attracting a lot of mainstream attention, namely the filming of American Splendor. Were these happy times for Pekar? How accurately does the book reflect his real experiences? Further, isn’t it a little “meta” to write an autobiographical graphic novel about an autobiographical movie about your life as a autobiographical graphic novelist?

From what he told me and what I read in his comics, he enjoyed the filming process, particularly “craft services” and the unlimited donut supply therein. In general the book, as all of his books accurately represent his real experiences, though, as Joyce Brabner explains in the film, Harvey oft erred on the side of a cautious glass-empty perspective, especially in how he portrayed himself. He wanted to make sure he came across as anything but a hero. The book isn’t any more meta than his other work. The movie was something that happened to him, so he wrote about it, and it included adventures like his overseas visit to Alan Moore’s lair, etc. So Our Movie Year isn’t a book about a film about an author, its a rich collection of anecdotes and observations, like usual.

How did you get introduced to Pekar? Can you remember what you thought after reading his stuff?

I first started reading American Splendor when I was around 18, around the same time I was getting in to jazz (and was already deep into comics.) I was very into Woody Allen and writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, so I was instantly hooked on Pekar’s thoughtful funny literate slices of life. Plus, reading his comix-essays on musicians I thought, “WOW, a comic written by someone who loves jazz about jazz!” And I said to myself I want to be pals with this guy someday.

Did you know Pekar personally? What was he like on a day to day basis? I understand he lived a life of relative anonymity. Did this bother him?

As editor of The Pekar Project, I became good pals with Pekar and talked to him a few times a week over two years. He’d read me scripts over the phone, we’d blab about jazz… Re: what he was like… my one issue with the film, which I thought was great and so did he, was that it over emphasized (both in script and Giamatti’s performance) Pekar’s curmudgeonly side, whereas in “real life” he was uber-appreciative and ever-enthusiastic about a myriad of subjects and people. I don’t think I’d call his life one of “relative anonymity” — he wasn’t Bob Dylan, but he was indeed a hometown hero — when I visited Cleveland with the Pekar Project crew for his 70th birthday, wherever he took us it was “Hey Harvey!” “Yo Harvey howzitgoin” , and he had many fabulous musician, artist, writer and other friends he kept in touch with over the years. I got a taste of how he comes up with his stories when one day, on one of our first calls, he asks me “So what kinda Jew are you?” I tell him, “Um, well my last name comes from Austria-Hungary, Vienna…” “Vienna!” he said, and then proceeded to give me a lecture on how my family was likely not from Vienna but were in reality Galitzianers… the next day Harvey calls me with a story idea, “So, I’m talking to you…” and that be came Legendary Vienna, illustrated by Joseph Remnant.

How did the Pekar Project start? What has been the number one accomplishment of the project?

The Pekar Project webcomics series came about after I worked as comics editor of SMITH Magazine, with two comics creators who drew many stories for Pekar, Josh Neufeld who’s graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge which began as a serialized webcomic on SMITH. and Dean Haspiel who edited a wonderful comics anthology of true Next-Door Neighbor stories. Haspiel, who drew Pekar’s The Quitter graphic novel, suggested to Pekar that he get in touch with me about doing some webcomics and he did! The Pekar Project’s number one accomplishment are the wonderful free stories by artists including Rick Parker, Sean Pryor and Joseph Remnant. I’m also really proud of the Harvey Heads gallery we created for his 70th birthday where over 100 artists contributed “Harvey Heads” and we surprised him with it on his birthday.

Where can we find out more about Pekar?

The best way to learn about Pekar is by reading his comics! The recently released Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a good place to start, which is half history of Cleveland, half autobiography. I had the honor of working as editor on that. The script was complete before he died, and 20 pages were already drawn by Joseph Remnant. Harvey was excited how that was shaping up, and I think he’d be thrilled with the result. There are many American Splendor collections available, as well as the Our Cancer Year graphic novel he wrote with his wife Joyce Brabner, The Quitter graphic novel about his youth, dynamically drawn by Dean Haspiel and many more.