Mr. Success? Ha!


Growing up in Cleveland, a much-maligned city, Harvey Pekar was also mocked -- because of his weird-sounding name. Years later, in 1976, Pekar took matters into his own hands: He began writing -- not only about his moniker and the city he’s called home for the last 63 years, but also about his working-stiff, bum-steer kind of life.

These trials, tribulations and torments of Pekar’s soul gave birth to the comic book “American Splendor.” Illustrated by a smorgasbord of cartoonists, including Robert Crumb, the autobiographical tomes now number 28.

While cranking out comics, the existential scribe supported himself doing 37 years of file clerk servitude at Cleveland’s Veterans Affairs hospital. In 2001, Pekar retired with a modest pension.


But that could soon change. “American Splendor,” a quirky bioflick that blends animation, TV footage and appearances by the real Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, opened Friday.

Ensconced at the Bel Age Hotel, Pekar, clad in fraying jeans, cotton shirt and sneakers, looks weary, his thinning hair typically askew. But, like a slashed wrist, he opens up, grousing about his world, one that might best be described as, well, Pekaresque.

Has success sunk in yet? Are you besieged by fans in Cleveland?

I’m not besieged with nothing. My phone number is in the phone book. Nobody besieges me. I live in the same house. It’s paid for at least. Success -- how should I put this? I don’t feel like I’ll be successful after this is all over.

You looked forward to retiring, a pension. Then the movie wrapped; you went to Sundance. You were even on the same plane as Al Gore, who supposedly liked the film. Audiences loved you. And you’re going to sit there and not crack a smile for me?

You want me to kvell? Here, I’ll kvell. [He attempts a feeble grin.] I’m Jewish. I’m an obsessive-compulsive person who worries. It’s not 100% rational, but where is my next buck coming from? Yeah, I had a pretty good time at Sundance, but I’m not going to feel really good again until I have a steady source of income. The movie has to get me work. I didn’t know I was going to react like I have about retiring. I couldn’t get adjusted to not getting up and going to work. I feel unsettled. I’m going to try and ask journalists, “Do you have any openings in your paper?”

What did Al Gore say about the film?

He supposedly laughed the loudest at Joyce’s comment, “All American cities are depressing in their own way.”


Sounds like you’re suffering from anhedonia, an inability to experience joy. Are you on meds?

Yeah, I’m on some stuff. I had cancer again and a few other things, but I’m doing better. I’m trying to take each day as it comes. The last time I experienced unalloyed happiness without the undercurrent of all this was years ago.

But this is your moment.

It’s going to get worse after this.

Surely your comics are flying off the shelves these days.

One person in every state buys my comics. Like there’s an agreement, maybe they rotate it so it’s not too much of an expense. At least I sell 50 copies in 50 states.

Let’s talk about Cannes, where the film won the International Critics’ Prize. What did you wear?

I don’t want to be bothered about dressing. I ain’t got the strength to argue about what to wear. I borrowed a tuxedo from a guy in Cannes.

A stranger?

It’s all right. It was clean.

It fit?

It was a little tight, but it was close enough. He even threw in the shoes, but they were size 11, I was size 9.

You wore those? How could you walk?

I wore his too-big shoes. It worked out.

What if “American Splendor” gets Oscar attention?

Oscars? All I see is bleakness.

-- Victoria Looseleaf