Dean Haspiel & Josh Neufeld Take On Pekar’s American Splendor ‘Scene By Scene’

by Hannah Means Shannon

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that the writer Harvey Pekar had on the development of the autobiographical and slice of life comics confessional. With his characteristic wit, and even his own blend of charm, Pekar brought unabashed stories of daily life to fans, famously even presenting his experiences trimming his toe nails. With such an example set in comics like his strip, American Splendor, drawn by various artists including Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, and even Alan Moore, aspiring creators began to realize that no aspect of life was off-limits for commentary and hilarity, and perhaps more importantly, storytelling could bring meaning to even the most mundane experience.

Comic creators Josh Neufeld (A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, The Influencing Machine) and Dean Haspiel (The Quitter, The Red Hook, War Cry) both artists who worked with Harvey on projects, have decided to pool together their experiences as well as their research skills, and use them to explore the film American Splendor, and do so on a podcast “scene by scene”. Haspiel also adds his observations of having worked on the film to the mix. The detailed picture they are creating brings the man and his work to life in a new light, and is certainly a podcast to check out and even archive as a valuable record. Josh Neufeld and Dean Haspiel join us today to talk about their new podcast, “Scene by Scene with Josh & Dean” launching today.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Wow. I knew you two, both old friends, were doing a podcast, but I didn’t know it was on such a focused theme as Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. What’s the benefit of focusing in on a single subject for a podcast series?

Josh Neufeld: In recent years I’ve become addicted to the growing movement of “movie-by-minute” podcasts, where they break down a single movie minute-by-minute, one episode at a time. Most of these are daily podcasts, and they cover pop culture franchises like the Star Wars saga, the Harry Potter films, or the Back to the Future series. They delve deep into the weeds: talking about behind-the-scenes details, the actors involved, background characters, the toys, and just about every other bit of nerd marginalia you can imagine. But the really good shows, like Star Wars Minute (the father of them all), are basically pop culture comedy podcasts that are informative and entertaining.

I thought it would be cool to take an admittedly more obscure film and give it a similar treatment — but from the perspective of two people — myself and Dean — actually connected to the subject. After all, I illustrated stories for Harvey (and his wife Joyce Brabner) for 15 years; Dean illustrated Harvey’s “origin story” The Quitter, as well as introducing Harvey & Joyce to the producer who made the film! One of Dean’s comics pages even made it into the final film, in a very pivotal scene.

And as Dino and I started discussing the idea, we found that there was a lot more to talk about than just the film, Harvey Pekar, and his comics… Each scene of the film — each episode of our show — is a jumping-off point for talking about all sorts of issues related to our own careers, lives, and friendship. After all, Dean and I have been friends since freshman year of high school — that’s going back quite a long way — and both consider ourselves storytellers — in a larger sense than “just” cartoonists…

Dean Haspiel: When Josh first approached me about doing this podcast I was hesitant. As much as I love collaborating with Josh, and cherish Harvey Pekar, his comics and the movie, I didn’t think I could devote the time and intelligence necessary to breaking down the movie minute-by-minute. That’s right, when Josh first pitched it to me he wanted to dissect American Splendor minute… by… minute. Josh tried to sell me on the Star Wars Minute format — but I had to remind him that epic sagas strung together with yarns of lore and reams of fan fiction can explore each minute of a film second-by-second, but I didn’t feel American Splendor had that kind of latitude. Which is why I suggested we break it down scene-by-scene. And, when Josh finally agreed to that, I still wasn’t convinced to do it.

Even though I studied film at SUNY Purchase, watch movies weekly, and I’ve written unproduced screenplays, I had reservations about spending that many hours analyzing and critiquing a single movie that intensely. I know Josh wanted to also discuss the original comics that served as source material and influenced the film but, again, did I really want to steep that deep into the legacy of Harvey Pekar?

I will never take for granted the fact that collaborating with Harvey Pekar on The Quitter put me on the comic book map. I am forever grateful. But a part of me feels like I need to let the past stay in the past and respectfully move forward. It’s emotionally difficult for me to revisit the past. Especially those people who were so important to me in my life. I grew up with a father who has devoted most of his life to a person who died almost sixty years ago. I suppose my initial hesitations in co-producing the podcast stemmed from an allergic reaction to my father’s loyalty to the past.

Ultimately, Josh and I discussed the merits of this unique project and agreed to use the movie as a way to also talk about our relationship with Harvey, our comix careers, the industry and, most importantly our friendship. And now that we’ve produced more than half the season, I’m happy Josh asked me to do it.

JN: It’s true: Dean reined me in the idea of doing A.S. minute by minute. In retrospect that was a crazy idea! And he also helped guide the overall format, like what happens after we discuss the scene in question. Which leads to the next question…

HMS: How did you structure the podcast series and decide what might be interesting to listeners?

JN: The format of the podcast is right there in the title — scene by scene — so we go through the movie from beginning to end, broken down generally into three-to-five-minute chunks. After describing the scene and going into some detail, we usually talk about the source material — when it was published, who the illustrator was, and how the two versions compare. From there, we often take some element from the scene as a jumping-off point for wide-ranging discussions: Pekar’s life & career, the nature of identity, truth in art, and the realm of memoir/autobiography. Oh, and Robert Crumb, collecting vs. hoarding, jazz, our own multi-faceted careers… you get the idea: that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

We’re also going to be bringing in guests: other illustrators, actors from the movie, and other folks associated with Harvey and the film.

Overall, however, we aim keep the tone fairly light — our goal is to inform AND entertain. And the rapport Dean and I have developed over our 30+ years of friendship hopefully comes through in the show…

DH: Fans of cinematic and comix detail and personal stories are going to freak out over this podcast. Josh did a great job researching the minutia of the film, the comics, and most everything that went into shaping the movie. He plied me with photocopies of the comics, a spreadsheet breaking down talking points for each episode, and cut up the movie scene by scene. A podcast of this magnitude is as prepared and professional as can be. No room for boring navel-gazing.

However, with all the preparation, I felt it was important to improvise. Incite a sense of conversational discovery. Encourage our analysis to derail a little bit into other, interesting territories. Luckily, the movie is rich and serves as a vessel for spirited dialogue that both educates and entertains.

JN: The podcast website (http://www.SceneByScenePodcast) will have a lot for listeners as well: images of the original comics that inspire many scenes, behind-the-scenes photos, process drawings by myself & Dean, links to our own stories, original sketches and finished art by us, and of course a store where listeners can buy American Splendor merch and our own stuff.

HMS: What does it mean to each of you to get up close and personal with Harvey’s work?

DH: Place a magnifying glass upon any author’s oeuvre and you can’t help but find curious connections between their work and yours. After Harvey’s sudden death, I realized that his work gave me the gift of observation. Harvey’s ear was as profound, if not more than his voice. He listened. Having that distance between reading Harvey’s work, drawing his stories, and writing my own allowed me to identify important ways to tell a story — especially memoir. And even though Harvey wasn’t a guy who dug superheroes, emulating his nuanced approach helped humanize and make more complex my flawed characters.

JN: I owe Harvey a great deal; not only for giving me some of my first professional credits, but also for opening the door for me to start writing my own stories. Through my work illustrating American Splendor (and also David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet Illustrated), I learned SO much about constructing true-life stories for comics: first in my own autobiographical work (like my travel book A Few Perfect Hours) and later as I started telling other people’s stories via comics reportage (like my book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge). But the most important lesson I gained from working with Harvey all these years was a passion for comics about real people’s real lives.

HMS: Are there things that you think the viewing or comics public are not realizing that are buried in details in the film?

JN: As I talk about on the podcast, way back when, before I approached Harvey to offer to be one of his illustrators, I had really immersed myself in his work via a couple of American Splendor anthologies I had picked up. And then when I first started working with him, he very generously sent me almost his entire backlist. In those first few months, I gobbled that stuff up — at that point almost 20 years’ worth of American Splendor — and his stories really imprinted themselves on my brain.

So when the movie came out I realized right away how many scenes were lifted directly from various American Splendor stories Harvey had published over the years. Before launching the podcast, I basically went through the film “scene by scene” and, using my knowledge of his work (and resources like the Grand Comics Database) was able to nail down each story — when it was published, the illustrator, and of course how it differed from the film version. As far as I know, no one has ever broken down the film that way, identifying each source story.

A lot of our discussion on the podcast centers on those connections between the source material and how it was translated filmically. What narrative choices were made to adapt a series of episodic stories into a more traditional three-act film structure? What is lost in translation, and what is gained? How does an illustrator’s style affect your experience as a reader, versus how a scene is acted and shot affect your experience as a viewer?

What I love about the film is how it directly engages with these questions; it uses all sorts of techniques — staged scenes, documentary segments, comic books panels, animation — to remind the viewer that it originated with a comic book.

DH: Having been involved in the film, it’s been fascinating to revisit it so closely and make connections I hadn’t noticed before. Stuff you’ll have to find out about while listening to the podcast. But the fact that the movie still holds up, is still ahead of its time while paradoxically being classic, is admirable and awesome. I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen American Splendor the movie to watch it before listening to our podcast because it will only add more value to the discussion.

JH: Yes! You have to watch it along with us — scene by scene.

HMS: How accurately are we seeing the personality of Harvey in the film?

JN: What’s so great about the film is how unvarnished the portrait of Harvey (and Joyce) is portrayed. He is definitely not your typical movie protagonist! Thanks to the source material, the filmmaker’s approach to the story, and the amazing acting of Paul Giamatti, what emerges is a highly intelligent, prickly, opinionated, cantankerous dude — in my experience with the real Harvey a very close match!

DH: Harvey suffered no fools, but even though he was a famous curmudgeon he also had a heart of gold and was a good guy. The movie does a great job negotiating Harvey’s complexity. And, as amazing as the actors were, the movie proves how beautifully avant-garde it is by letting the actors share screen time with the real-life people they are portraying, almost as if your mind was playing tricks on you, contrasting memoir with fiction — and it’s wonderful.

HMS: How important do you think it is for readers to know a little bit about Harvey when approaching his works?

JN: That’s a great question, and I think there are two answers. If you’ve mostly read superhero comics in your life, or have a limited sense of what comics “should” be about, then American Splendor can be a real shock to the system. That was me when I was first exposed to them in high school. There was no way for me to connect with these depressing black-and-white stories of a file clerk from Cleveland!

But if you’re a little older and maybe more well-read, or have a more open view of the potential of comics as a storytelling medium, then Pekar’s work can be a real revelation. Not to sound snooty, but there is something to the idea that you need to be educated a little bit on how to read his comics first. And the movie is a great place to start with that!

DH: I think almost any adult in America can watch the movie cold, knowing nothing about Harvey Pekar and his legacy, and they’ll walk away wanting to know more. Not because the film doesn’t do a brilliant job telling a feature length version of Harvey’s life, but because the filmmakers do a fascinating job taking an otherwise ordinary, blue-collar guy with a hankering for jazz, comic books, and junk food, who makes friends with misfits who carve their own niche to communicate and connect with people, and wrap it all up under the guise of a romantic comedy! If you can’t relate to that, I can’t relate to you.

HMS: What do you find most enduring about the comics of Harvey Pekar?

DH: Harvey Pekar transcended comic books with his commitment to memoir when it wasn’t fashionable. When comic books weren’t cool. Coupling words and pictures that could do anything; say anything, Harvey was blogging about his life in comic book terms before social media and the 24-hour news cycle took society hostage and inoculated us with attention deficit disorder. Back when a “selfie” came with a story. In American Splendor, no topic was off limits. Even though Harvey was the hero in his story, he wasn’t heroic. That wasn’t the point. The point was to communicate, captivate, and connect with real people. Harvey was just an honest and authentic guy.

JN: I continue to be amazed at how Harvey transformed his everyday interactions into comics gold. There’s something unique about the way he structured his stories that’s so brilliant and yet so hard to put your finger on. (The many, many auto-bio cartoonist imitators who came after him — and never matched the quality of his work — attest to that.) His work really is groundbreaking, and it remains relevant, even now almost a decade after his death. Can you imagine TV show like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm without the prior example of American Splendor? I can’t. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff” indeed!

Thanks so much to Josh Neufeld and Dean Haspiel for this lengthy discussion of Harvey Pekar’s life and work!

Check out the Scene by Scene with Josh & Dean Podcast, launching today!

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