Harvey Pekar of "American Splendor": His life is just ... sigh, you know

Harvey Pekar's outlook hasn't exactly gotten rosy since the success of last year's film based on his work, "American Splendor." We blabbed with the comic-book writer and ex-file clerk, now 64, before he traveled from his Cleveland home to appear today and Monday at the Bumbershoot festival.

Q: "American Splendor" seemed like a watershed event that made outsiders stop and take a serious look at comics.

A: Well, what if I say "yeah, it was?"

Q: Uh, do you agree?

A: I influenced a lot of guys — a lot of guys that make more money from comics than I do.

Q: At the time of "American Splendor's" events, there weren't a lot of guys doing what you were doing. Where do you think the field is now?

A: Well, I don't know what all this stuff about graphic novels is all about. First of all, I'm kind of separated from the comic-book world. You know, I don't have much contact with people who are involved with comics. So I don't know if they're selling that great or not. I imagine a few of them are selling good and most of them are selling bad.

Q: You don't read much of what other people are doing?

A: No, not a lot. There's some good stuff. I'm not going to disparage what some people are doing. It's just that comics haven't caught on like I thought they were gonna. I mean, once in a while, some comic book gets people excited or something like that. That's not enough. I mean, comics are as good an art form as any that exists, as far as I'm concerned. They haven't really been used right. They've been used in a real limited kind of way. They've been aimed mainly at kids.

I thought when the underground movement of the '60s started, there would be no looking back — that gradually there would be all sorts of comic books published like they deserved to be published, as much of a variety in comics as there is in prose. But that hasn't happened.

Q: Why not?

A: That's a big mystery to me. I don't know. People are stupid, I guess.

I don't take the stuff that's done by the bigger comic-book companies that publish, you know, like that ... what ... the, uh, the superhero stuff. I don't even take that seriously. Kid's stuff to me. I'm sort of cut off from the comics community. The comics community really doesn't take much of an interest in my work and never has.

Q: How has your life changed since the success of "American Splendor"?

A: How's my life changed? Well, I mean I'm retired now. And thanks to that movie, you know I made some pretty good money. But that's not going to see me through forever. I mean, a lot of that's going for my kid's education. And what I'm going to have to do is I'm gonna have to make money as a freelance writer to support myself in addition to the money I get as a pension.

Q: You're mainstream now.

A: What do you mean by that?

Q: If everybody knows you and your work, you're not underground.

A: You think everybody knows me and my work? You think I'm that well-known?

Q: A lot more than before.

A: Yeah, right. But my name's still in the phone book. I'm still listed. It doesn't ring off the hook. I get very few calls. That was one movie, you know? And you know, like I got some extra work from it, but the work is falling off now, the amount of work. Now, there was this companion volume of "American Splendor" that got published at Ballantine. And that is the only thing I've ever done that's sold real well.

Q: Doesn't it say something that DC [one of the two largest American comic-book companies] has hired you to do a book?

A: I'll take anybody's money.

What they're doing is they're trying to capitalize a little bit on what they think might be my improved popularity. You know, what it says, I mean it doesn't really say that much. I'm scared as hell that the books will go back to selling real lousy, like they did before.

I don't have any following among comic-book fans, who are mainly interested in escapism and crap. As far as people who might appreciate the books, they don't even know where the hell to get 'em.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com