Even the most casual of comics fans is probably familiar with Harvey Pekar, thanks to the film success of American Splendor. Pekar is one of the trailblazers of autobiographical comics, focusing on the insights that can be gained from the mundane details of everyday life. HIs legendarily pessimistic and curmudgeonly aspects were played up in the film, and while these are certainly qualities familiar to every reader of American Splendor, the film glossed over other aspects of Harv's work. In particular, Pekar has always been a working-class, self-made intellectual. Some of his most absorbing comics have dealt with his thoughts on literature, music, politics and history. In addition, Pekar has become as much a biographer as autobiographer later in his writing career. He's written about a war veteran, someone suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, and most recently a forceful personality named Michael Malice. Harv writes the stories, but they're all a form of oral history.
That brings us to his latest project, Macedonia. It's about a student at Cal-Berkeley named Heather Roberson. She spent some time in Macedonia, one of the Balkan states. Unlike nearby Kosovo in the 1990's, Macedonia did not descend into civil war, despite many of the same conditions that led to ethnic cleansing in other Balkan states. For her thesis, she wanted to find out why this was. Before she went over, she met Harvey Pekar, who urged her to take extensive notes so he could do a graphic novel of her experience.
The results are fascinating. It's partly a travelogue of Roberson's experiences, but they are from the perspective of a student, someone trying to stay objective while gathering as much information as possible. Unlike a journalist, she's not quite there to tell someone else's story, but rather to synthesize all of the stories she's heard into an overarching theory. Pekar himself invokes Joe Sacco's classic Safe Area Gorazde, which takes a hard look at near-genocide in eastern Bosnia, which only makes sense. Anyone doing a comic about the Balkans inevitably is going to be compared to Sacco. But Pekar adds a couple of layers of distance here. It's not his experience there, and he's not drawing it. Furthermore, Roberson's aims and methods were completely different from Sacco's. Most importantly, Macedonia is about what went right, even if there are still enormous problems and conflicts. A conflict in a country untouched by war is better than trying to deal with the aftermath of the brutality in Bosnia.
Pekar famously does stick-figure layouts for his comics before handing them off to the illustrator he selects for each story. Robert Crumb has been his most famous collaborator, but there have been dozens of others (including Alan Moore!). His choice of artist often varies according to the kind of story he's telling. He'll choose a more realistic artist for more straight-ahead narratives, and a more abstract artist for more emotional stories.
The man for the job on Macedonia is 23-year-old Ed Piskor. At the age of 9, he saw a documentary that had Pekar reading one of his stories, and he was instantly fascinated. Piskor's knowledge of comics' underground period is matched only by his fierce desire to improve. His work ethic is what helped him get his early gigs with Harvey. After turning around a 4-page assignment in days, Piskor avoided sleep while helping Harv beat a deadline with a 24-page story in the Our Movie Year graphic novel. If that wasn't enough, underground legend Jay Lynch tapped Piskor to collaborate with him on his strips about other underground artists. That's heady company for such a neophyte, but Piskor has met every challenge and continues to improve rapidly.
After a childhood of comics obsession, Piskor went on to the Joe Kubert comics school for a year, an experience which both helped and hindered his development. His panel composition is excellent, his faces expressive and his attention to detail meticulous. Like many young artists, he's still learning to loosen up his figures a bit. One can already see his development from this early comic to these preview pages from Macedonia. This is in just the span of a couple of years, and it's clear that he's still developing his style as an artist, but is doing it rapidly. Working with Pekar is a huge challenge, because it's up to the artist to establish the story's rhythms in a milieu that isn't exactly replete with slam-bam action and dynamism. It's clear that Piskor is improving with every assignment, and it will be fascinating to follow his career as he writes his own stories, particuarly because of his rather dark sense of humor. Piskor is obsessed with making good comics and his astonishing work ethic along with his willingness to learn & adapt make him one to watch.
Below is a page from Macedonia, exclusive to this site. Following the image, I talk to Ed Piskor about his training at the Kubert School, his influences, his collaborations with Harvey Pekar and Jay Lynch, and how Macedonia was created.
SEQUART: You attended the Kubert school for a year. Was this a positive experience overall? What do you feel like you learned? How did you relate to the other students; did any of them share your interests in alternative comics?
PISKOR: When I think about my tenure there, I realize that I did learn a lot there in a relatively short amount of time, which was great. That being said, the rest of the experience was about as lame as can be. They teach you to be a hack at the school, meaning that you should take every possible job that comes your way and just crap out everything that interests you the least. . .I really don't agree with this position and I even contribute this idea for the degradation of quality in comics. They had a real racket running with what they chose to teach. The first year they were teaching us how to paste up and make color separations...all kinds of stuff that has been obsolete in print media for a decade already at that point.
We lived in the famous "Mansion", which contained a mix between squirrelly-socially retarded cartoonists, old wanna-be cartoonists who could pay their tuition with cash, and pseudo-jock testosterone seething alpha male cartoonists. The teachers in that first year were mostly former students that need the extra cash from the teaching gig because Archie comics doesn't pay that much. And when it comes to the other students and me relating to any of the regarding underground and alternative cartoonists, believe me when I tell you there wasn't one person that was into it. I still bump into these guys and I have to explain who Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are, which is unbelievable.
The main reason I went to this school was to network with like-minded individuals and I remember Tim Truman's account of meeting [Steve] Bissette, [Tom] Yeates, [John] Totleben, and [Rick] Veitch and how they rallied around all the old EC comics and undergrounds and I honestly was looking for a group of cartoonists who knew what I was talking about. I guess that's an impossibility when you're going to a school that is advertised in Spider-Man comic books. I just mythologized that place for years as a kid and those first batches of students are sort of heroes of mine. The school didn't live up to a fraction of what I expected. I'll do a comic about it someday.
SEQUART: You've mentioned in another interview that your art gets mistaken for being that of a 1960's underground artist, and that's a pretty clear influence on your style. But what I find interesting is that I don't see the specific imprint of any one particular artist more than any others. You mentioned being influenced as a youngster by seeing Harvey Pekar in the documentary Comic Book Confidential. Who were some of the other artists in that documentary that influenced you so heavily? Who are your main influences now?
PISKOR: I'm extremely influenced by Robert Crumb. That guy is tops to me, but every artist in that documentary is someone who I look very closely at for different things. I love Jaime Hernandez's body language, Charles Burns' inking, Gilbert Shelton's whimsy, Art Spiegelman, Kurtzman, and Will Eisner's insight on storytelling, Frank Miller's bravado, the old EC artists' craft at illustration. The only person in that flick that can go fly a kite is Stan Lee...that guy annoys the hell out of me. Nowadays my tastes are leading more and more to old comic strips, so I'm inspired by Harold Gray, Winsor McCay, Bud Fisher, Milt Caniff, and Chester Gould to name just a few. There are also plenty of cartoonists working today who are doing fantastic stuff that makes me excited about the future of the comic book medium.
SEQUART: You mention Crumb as a major influence. Is this in terms of his visual approach, the kind of stories he tells, or his general uninhibited unleashing of his id in his stories, no matter what? Or some combination thereof? What was the Crumb story or stories that really blew your mind? (Your noting that you put in some silent panels to help the story breathe on your own seemed a very Crumb-like move, particularly with regard to his American Splendor stories)
PISKOR: I really can appreciate the obsessive quality in Crumb's work. The level of craft is ridiculously high when it comes to the look and feel of his illustrations. I'm influenced by his complete body of work and the growth he's had as an artist is unparalleled when you think about his first wobbly Fritz the Cat comics that were done in composition notebooks all the way through the years to his HUP comics and beyond. Thanks to Fantagraphics' Complete Crumb Comics, anybody can take a look at that work and watch like 40 years of artistic upward mobility in a single day. I think it's necessary to absorb all of his work to get a true appreciation for his stuff. The guy lived most of his life on paper and for better or worse such a body of work is a goal of mine even if it requires me to be poor, alone, and I can think of worse things than to spend the majority of my life at the drawing board too. He's done dozens of strips that I really love and are blown away by...let me think of a few. I think "That's Life" is up [there as] one of my favorites. That's the one with the blues singer who runs away from his wife, records some music, gets killed and the old stuffy white guys find the recording. His autobio comics are great. I can seriously go on for hours talking about this guy's influence on me.
SEQUART: You mention that there are a lot of cartoonists working today who are doing fantastic stuff. Anyone in particular come to mind that really impresses you?
PISKOR: I'm fortunate enough to have some great cartoonists locally here in Pittsburgh that I meet with on a regular basis and these guys blow my mind. They are Tom Scioli who draws Godland for image, Jim Rugg of Street Angel fame, and Pat Lewis who happens to be one of the best guys working on minicomics today. Some other guys who make me want to chop off their drawing hands out of jealousy are the St. Louis Catastrophe crew (Kevin Huizenga, and Dan Zettwoch mostly) Farel Dalrymple, there's this guy Phonzie Davis who can hypnotize you with his work, Sammy Harkham, Anders Nilsen, John Porcellino, Vanessa Davis, Lauren Weinstein, [and] Matt Bors who does a weekly strip called Idiot Box. I equally love and am viciously jealous of each of these cartoonists along with plenty of others who I can't think [of] at the moment.
AMERICAN SPLENDOR AND OTHER COLLABORATIONS
SEQUART: How long did it take for you to track down issues of American Splendor? What was it about Harvey reading an excerpt (do you remember what story it was?) that inspired a 9-year-old? His tales of mundane life aren't exactly typical kid stuff.
PISKOR: The story Harv read in the documentary was the one where he steals some records from the college radio station and instead of just pocketing them, he creates an elaborate process to heist the wax and ends up accidentally locking them in the bathroom. That story was drawn by Crumb and it was frigging amazing to me. This was around when his first collection through Doubleday came out and the book was easy enough to find at the local mall. I wasn't looking for it, but I immediately recognized the book and was completely confused by the whole thing. I was a mainstream comics fan as a kid but I really enjoyed the parts with Peter Parker and his hard times when the other kids liked the parts with Spider-Man fighting Green Goblin. This led me to think "American Splendor" was Harvey's superhero name, and while reading his stuff, I was constantly waiting for him to disappear into a phone booth and appear in costume but those moments never happened; and I found myself fascinated and I didn't even care that there wasn't a battle in which the buildings in Cleveland were compromised. They also had a sort of horror quality because it gave me insight as to what I could expect as I grew into an adult.
SEQUART: You've done a lot of collaborative work in your brief career. Has this been a conscious choice, or were you just given opportunities you couldn't turn down? Would you prefer to do more of this in the future, or do you have your own big project simmering in the back of your mind?
PISKOR: In a lot of ways I'm just letting things happen as they may. I'm excited and lucky to have worked with Harvey as well as Jay Lynch (another prominent underground cartoonist). These projects have sort of fallen into my lap but were definitely too cool to pass up. I want to do plenty of my own comics as well but I really need to focus on the writing portion more because I'm missing some vital skills required to tell great stories on my own. Slowly though, I think I'm starting to figure it out and it's possible that I may pick up some great habits from the people that I work with.
SEQUART: The earliest work on your website seems to be a lot more heavily rendered than your work with Pekar. Was this the influence of the Kubert school coming into play? Are you consciously working towards a different style, and do you see a particular evolution of that style?
PISKOR: This is all just a constant learning process for me. I have no clue what I'm doing, and I'm basically just progressing on an intuitive path as opposed to creating a specific style. I'm sort of blindly hoping that it will emerge eventually as I continue to absorb more great works of others and I think that simple life experience plays a part in the evolution of artwork. The older stuff definitely had a lot of Kubert school programming in there and I confess that I still need to shake a lot of the conformist practices that were beat into my head while I was at "Superhero University".
SEQUART: Going back to collaborations, I was really impressed by the pieces that you did with Jay Lynch. Along with Justin Green, I always considered him to be the most underrated of the underground artists of that era. How did this collaboration come about? What's the division of labor here--does Lynch just write them, or does he do layouts? Did you consciously alter your style for these strips? They seem a lot more polished and self-assured than some of your other material, and I was wondering if that's just your style maturing, having the time to do them right or a conscious decision to do something different.
PISKOR: When I was sending out packages of strips to all of the small press companies, anthologies and other publishing venues I also sent out dozens of packages to my favorite cartoonists who I though may have some insight as to what I was doing wrong because I was steadily being rejected by these companies. Jay Lynch called me days before Pekar called me and explained this idea for a comic book that he had but he said he didn't have the confidence to draw the stuff on his own and couldn't sacrifice the time because he needed to keep a roof over his head. He provided these things for each story that he called roughs, but I have to tell you that these things are print quality. Beautiful pages. But he wanted me to draw them closer to my style, which puzzled me but I was more than happy to oblige. The look of those final strips were a mixture of working off of his great compositions and just a little more experienced construction on my part. The pages were pretty dense too, just because I had a terrible overcompensation complex with Jay to try and make him happy with the outcome of the strips. I think after a while cartoonists become confident enough to leave extraneous detail out of their work, I'll get there someday.
SEQUART: I've read and enjoyed your Isolation Chamber minicomics, particularly your rather dark view of the world and a sense of humor to match. But I also am fond of the human touches you threw in there, like playing with your younger sister. You've said that these minicomics are a way of working out your inner anger for a limited audience, but do you see yourself trying to cultivate a larger audience as a writer in the future, and if so, what kind of story do you think you'd want to write for such an audience? Is it odd to draw stories for others that don't have the same kind of anger you work through in your own comics?
PISKOR: It would be great to have a substantial audience who like my stuff. I don't see a lot of people enjoying those particular comics nor do I even want to many of those in the wrong hands. It was very important that I controlled the distribution on the Isolation Chamber minicomics. I have some stories that I'm working on that I think may appeal to a decent number of people and I'm also pretty certain that most other cartoonists aren't qualified to handle the particular subjects I want to deal with, which is the only reason to devote a year or more on a book in my opinion. My collaborations are a completely separate thing. Those are stories that I would never be able to tell on my own, which is the only reason to collaborate in my opinion. It's fun to work with Pekar because the guy is not a taskmaster at all with me and I don't think of our working together as odd by any means. I'm young, I'm going to have plenty of time to do my own comics. I don't plan on quitting anytime soon.
SEQUART: What subjects are those that you think you're particularly qualified to handle or are specially interested in?
PISKOR: I don't want to go into much detail but I will say that I guarantee you I know more about computer/telephone hacking than any decent cartoonist working today, and this is going to play a major part in the next big project that I'm currently writing and can't wait to produce after the Macedonia book.
WORKING WITH HARVEY PEKAR ON MACEDONIA
SEQUART: How did you get the gig for Macedonia? I know you turned a couple of stories around very quickly for Harv for Our Movie Year, but what else do you think Harvey saw in your style? What made him pick you in the first place, and what do you think made him pick you for Macedonia? As you know, Harv selects his artists based on the kind of story he writes; what do you think it was about your style that made him think you'd be a good fit.
PISKOR: I think the main reason was that Harv was just impressed with my speed in which I produced the Our Movie Year strips. He likes my artwork and he sees the improvement that is happening to the quality because of the steady workload. I think the evolution of style before his eyes may be interesting to him because it is a topic of conversation between us every now and again. I'm not sure what he saw in me initially to make him want to work with me. I did send him a few autobio strips heavily inspired by him so maybe that was helpful. Even then he was constantly aware of the increasing skill and craft that was visible with each strip I'd send him. I hope I'm not coming across as being too egotistical or something on this particular question. I'm just grasping at straws. I have no clue why the guy likes me or anything.
SEQUART: What sort of reaction did you expect to get from Harv when you sent him your story? What were some of the helpful things people said to you when you sent them your early comics, and who were some of the artists who helped you?
PISKOR: I wasn't even sure I was sending the comics to his actual address. I just saw this address on the front cover of a Dark Horse comic and I couldn't conceptualize why he would have the balls to put a real address on the front cover. It just became part of my routine when I'd send submissions and it was fantastic to actually hear back from the guy. I don't know what I expected, but I can sure tell you I never thought in a million years that I'd be in charge of drawing a whole graphic novel for the guy.
Some of the most helpful people probably don't even remember how encouraging they were to me but it sure meant a lot. I recieved great feedback from Peter Bagge, Bill Griffith, Denis Kitchen, Adrian Tomine, Rick Altergott, Steve Bissette, and a slew of other guys. Not many people were in positions to put my work in print but just by responding to me in constructively critical ways they created some incentive to keep me working on new stuff. There are some really popular guys that give me first dibs on jobs that they have no time to do which is really cool.
SEQUART: Let's get into the process of making Macedonia. What is the nature of the collaboration? Did he do stick-figure layouts of what he wanted first? How much influence did you have on the story and the way pages and panels are composed? Has there been a lot of give-and-take in the creative process? Is Harv very particular about the way things look, or does he give you the story and let you go?
PISKOR: Harvey asked Heather to keep some detailed notes on her trip to the Balkans. She complied with him by providing hundreds of pages for us to create the comic. From her notes Harvey put together his famous stick figure scripts which I received and completely deviated from. Each panel he wrote was so dense there was no room for the characters to breathe and it was very important for me to help pace the story in hopes of making the experience less cumbersome to the reader. There were also spots where I thought some silent panels that were pure storytelling would help the mood of the story. He's given me total carte blanche to tell this story in an interesting way, and so long as it comes across perfectly clear to the reader he is happy. He hasn't asked me to change a thing, which is a huge relief. He's the only experienced guy in comics who would trust a newbie punk like me with such a task.
SEQUART: Did you have any contact with Heather Roberson throughout the process? How did Harvey write the script of the whole experience? Did he use notes, photos, tape recordings, etc? How long did the whole process take, from when he first contacted her, then wrote the script, then gave it to you? How long has it taken to draw, ink & letter it? Did you receive part of the advance for the book deal?
PISKOR: I did provide Heather with pencils of the pages for a while and we'd go back and forth. I wanted her approval on the progress until I was comfortable, and she was very happy to criticize. Heather did provide Harvey with plenty of notes and dialogue suggestions for the story. It was a breeze for him to write. She also provided me with a bunch of photos of all important buildings from the book. He wrote the story as I drew it. I can tell you that around MOCCA 2005 I had penciled about 20 pages and as of this interview it's around (or shortly after) MOCCA 2006 and we pretty much have the thing wrapped up in a bun so my conservative guess is that it took us a year and a half from the time her notes were taken. I'm not sure exactly when Harvey first met Heather though. I actually was fortunate to receive a page rate on this book, which I'm very lucky for since this is a rare thing to come by in alt comics. Harv is taking great care of me on this book, and I won't soon forget it. I'm gonna have the funds to draw my own comics and live without having to shovel crap at some 9-to-5 gig for a while.
SEQUART: It seems the biggest challenge you must have had in drawing the book was taking a relatively static story and try to make it interesting. The first 20 or so pages are a whole lot of medicine for an audience to swallow, as Heather basically delivers a lecture on Macedonian history to her boyfriend. Yet you try to break this up by seeing them go through their day: driving, cooking, eating etc. Were you trying to give the reader something to look at, and was this your idea or Harv's?
PISKOR: It was my idea to try and keep the characters moving. The Harv script is very undetailed when it comes to setting, character direction or situation a lot of the times and this batch of pages was a perfect example. Thanks for bringing it up. In the wrong hands this part of the story could have just ended up being 20 pages of talking heads filibustering to one another. This part of the story was a tough one to set, because it does boil down to a 20 page conversation. At least the words are interesting or else we'd have trouble.
SEQUART: What was it like for you as a huge Pekar fan to work with him? What was he like to work with?
PISKOR: It stokes me out. I really never expected the guy to get back in touch with me after I sent those initial strips. I thought that he was probably deluged with slimy jerks pursuing him for work and thought my work would be in that shuffle. Whenever he calls me up, it flat out makes my day because the guy is an important creator to me. It's a blast working with him.
SEQUART: Last question of my interrogation. Early in the book, Harvey points out the elephant in the room when he talks about Joe Sacco. How much of an influence was Sacco on how you did the book, and how do you think the overall experience of Macedonia compares to Sacco's work? I find it very interesting that someone as pessimistic as Harv would think to focus on the mirror image of what Sacco does (go to some of the worst sites of conflict on the planet and figure out what's going on)--it's very hopeful in its own way. And it fits in with the guarded optimism at the end of Our Cancer Year, with the various youths from war-torn parts of the world coming together. What does working on Macedonia mean to you as an artist?
PISKOR: I love Sacco's work, but I consciously didn't look at his stuff since Harv first mentioned this project. I think if our book is compared to Sacco, there is now way for ours to hold water to that guy, because the stories he does are much more intimate to him. I'm a suburban kid from Pittsburgh, who's never been out of the eastern time zone, working from photographs and a script. It's possible our story would be much richer if I would have made the pilgrimage to the Balkans, but I'm sure the publisher wouldn't fit the bill on that. I also do think our story is very different in more ways than it is similar. One example is the overall journalistic approach that Sacco is known for, our story is pure Harvey Pekar in that the conversations that Heather has with people carry the story. The book doesn't have any spiritual value to me but it is the culmination of a lot of hard work and gives me a decent sense of accomplishment. Hopefully this is the beginning of a long, fruitful career.