Alan Moore authored what many consider the seminal graphic novel of the 20th century, Watchmen. His masked V for Vendetta character has become the adopted logo of the Occupy movement. His layered epics court the esoteric and fantastic. So the last person you’d imagine the droll Englishman would turn to for inspiration was a nebbishy Cleveland writer reveling in the mundane.
Yet for nearly a quarter century until his untimely passing last year at age 70, Harvey Pekar–who created the autobiographical American Splendor comics that inspired the 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis–was among Moore’s closest friends. The pair bonded over blue-collar backgrounds, old books, and a wariness of Big Brother. Even death hasn’t stopped their collaboration: Pekar’s sensibility is informing Moore’s current novel, Jerusalem, while Moore penned the introduction to Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, Pekar’s posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Joseph Remnant) that’s due in March. And, most notably, the notoriously reclusive Moore has agreed to a multi-hour online videoconference with contributors to a Kickstarter fundraiser for a Harvey Pekar memorial statue at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, where Pekar often wrote.
“I’ve always considered Harvey a dear man and a great friend, as well as an amazing influence on me, and a whole generation of autobiographical graphic artists,” Moore, 58, tells Fast Company. “He’s a pillar of the comics medium. Without him, the comics landscape would be an impoverished field. It takes an awful lot to pry me from my writing. But it’s a couple of hours of my time, and if that helps the momentum, then I’m happy to do it.”
Slated for an October opening, the whimsical statue will feature Pekar emerging from a comic page, with chalkboard panels on the back for kids to draw their own comics. Despite exceeding its $30,000 goal, more donations are needed by the Dec. 5 deadline to cover taxes, the Kickstarter commission, prize shipping and handling, and enhancing the library’s comics collection.
The novel fundraising gimmick is the brainchild of Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s wife of 27 years, business partner and co-author. “I didn’t want to ask Alan for money. I knew his celebrity was worth something and a lot of people would want to hear him speak,” says Brabner. “Harvey would have been mad about his friends being aggravated, and I wanted to make this as easy as possible. This statue isn’t so much about Harvey, but about standing up for comics as a literary medium.”
For Moore, who operates from his Northampton, England, home sans Internet, fax, cell phone or TV, this whole videoconferencing business is a brave new world. “I’ve never been connected to the Internet in any way–mainly to keep focused on my work,” says Moore. “I’m a bit Amish. I don’t trust anything after the horse and buggy. The Internet brings communication to a more intense level, with increasing political ramifications from this kind of connectivity. It’s a fascinating social experiment, but I’d rather just keep out of the Petri dish. Kickstarter seems to be an entirely benevolent use of the Internet. Things like Harvey’s monument are a good way of taking the power and responsibility into the hands of the people.”
Moore and Pekar met in the late ’80s, through Brabner. Moore drew a page for a 1990 issue of American Splendor (at left), and later appeared as a character in it when Pekar and his family traveled to England to visit.
“We developed a friendship, because of a mutual love–an obsession, really–of old books,” says Moore. “Harvey loved looking around the old tomes in my library, and Joyce told me I only enabled Harvey. They hadn’t got a spare inch of space, and Joyce would blow a fuse if he brought home a slim volume of poetry. He would smuggle them into the house by stealth. He’d slip them in among the old dusty books, and leave them there for about six weeks, then one day, walk over to the shelf and open them like they were cherished artifacts. The fact that this would take weeks showed his level commitment to great literature. He did everything short of wrapping them in plastic and hiding them in the lavatory.”
“There were times when we weren’t in contact, because of busy lives,” he adds. “But what Harvey represented to me was always there and hasn’t actually changed. It’s always upsetting not seeing someone again, but I tend to think that most people we know are an accumulation of ideas that we have about them. Our impressions and what they mean to us is kind of immortal, because we take their ideas with us.”
The Everyman Superhero
What Pekar represented to Moore were the small heroics of making one’s way in life, of stealing quiet victories against a backdrop of disappointment and disadvantage. “Harvey came from Cleveland, where the creators of Superman came from,” says Moore. “But Harvey represented a very different kind of hero that exists in real life.
“What I really admired about Harvey was, he was a resolutely blue collar artist, and one of only working class voices that I’d come across in comics with a level of political commitment, especially a left-wing one,” he adds. “I mean, this man had a spectacular meltdown on the Letterman show about a strike going on at the network that it was not publicizing. He never tried to rise above that class.”
Hence Moore’s recoil at Frank Miller’s recent diatribe against the Occupy protesters. “I’ve not really had any taste for Frank Miller’s work for a couple of decades. I’m not surprised by his reaction to the Occupy movement,” he says. “The superhero as an assertion of one strong man’s idea, can, if not careful, be a kind of fascist approach, and excludes the complexities and nuances of modern life. It’s opposite of what I believe and why I wanted to distance myself from those types of comics. I’m gratified by the wave of condemnation, because it’s an affirmation his views not shared by a majority.”
Moore regards his “superheroes” more as vehicles to explore societal constructs and abuse of power, with final judgments left to the reader. In V for Vendetta, “It doesn’t matter who’s behind the mask–he’s an idea. That factor has made the V identity such a useful tool in the Occupy protests,” he says. “Watchmen was a meditation on different sorts of power that exist in the current world.
“Most of these stories, even about extraordinary beings, are about self-empowerment,” he adds. “I never intended for my superheroes to solve all problems. I wanted to put the moral dilemmas in the hands of the readers. I find the traditional superhero a compensation for cowardice–a pathological aversion to a fair fight that enables one side to enter a conflict without a massive tactical advantage. It struck me that people who work on superhero comics for a living don’t display a great deal of courage in their actual lives. They spend their existence writing and drawing impossibly noble men who stand for the oppressed and champion the underdog, while never forming a union or raising a squeak of protest as the giants of the industry go to their graves as abused, cheated old men.”
No Place Like Home
Pekar’s work encouraged Moore to explore those ideas on a more provincial level. “Harvey inspired in me an absolute artist’s confidence in the celebration of places where we live, the ordinary things of our lives, and streets that surround us as suitable subject matter of creative endeavors,” he says. “He took his life in Cleveland and personal history, and turned them into beautiful comic book captures of little human moments–something as mundane as pouring a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. I became obsessed with place and locality as being a big feature in my writings.”
He tested those ideas gingerly at first, setting his 1991-6 comic book series From Hell in a detailed 19th century London, before placing his first prose novel, in 1996, Voice of the Fire, in Northampton. (“I found it a much richer subject matter than any of the science fiction landscapes I’d created,” he says.) Pekar’s voice is very much alive as Moore crafts his current novel, Jerusalem, which engages a history of Northampton, though woven among angels, demons, ghosts, historical figures, and an ethereal contemplation on the quantum view of time as simultaneous occurrences rather than linear sequence.
“It’s about the place where I live in much the same way Cleveland was for Harvey,” he says. “At its heart is a belief that I’ve come to about mortality. Instead of the passage of time, every moment is forever, and happens over and over. It’s as though you’re driving down the street, traveling one way, passing houses in an instant. You don’t see them again, but they’re still down the road. To bring that concept back to my friendship with Harvey, I believe the moments I spent with him are eternal. If the theory is correct–and I’ve yet to hear a plausible argument against it–I’m looking forward to running into Harvey Pekar again.”