Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2013

A postscript on my work with Harvey Pekar

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

Probably the best thing that came out of being interviewed by Cleveland magazine for an article on Joyce Brabner was getting to know Tara Seibel, another human being unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a Brabner vendetta.

Work done by Harvey Pekar and Tara Seibel. Why is Joyce Brabner determined to suppress such fine art?

I first learned of Seibel’s problems through a NY Times article written soon after Harvey Pekar’s death on July 12, 2012 from an overdose of antidepressants. Dave Itzkoff reported that Seibel worked with a team of artists on the Pekar Project, an online version of his work that they collaborated on. When they began discussions about turning this into a book, Brabner stepped in to warn them that Seibel was to be excluded.  Why, you might ask. Here’s what Itzkoff said:

No one in their artistic circle believes the relationship between Mr. Pekar and Ms. Seibel crossed professional boundaries, but some could see how it strained Mr. Pekar’s marriage.

“A part of him was enjoying the attention he was getting from this very good-looking young woman,” said Mr. Parker, one of the Pekar Project artists. “And, naturally, Joyce, how could she enjoy that? You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that one’s not going to be good.”

In rereading Itzkoff’s article and in light of a phone conversation I had with Seibel, I am now convinced that my problem was never with Random House but with Joyce Brabner who simply did not want a book about me in print even if Harvey was proud of it. Itzkoff quoted Brabner: “I’m the one who decides about what gets published and what doesn’t in any venue.” In other words, I got Seibelized.

I should add that the one phone call I had with Brabner reinforces this interpretation. In her hour-long, profanity-laced tirade, most of it was about me having no business contacting Random House about their plans for the memoir. But a good part of it was also her belittling my socialist credentials, lumping me in with Robert Avakian’s cult. She was the real revolutionary, not me. Based on the Avakian comparison, I concluded that she had never read the book I did with Harvey since every page contradicts her.

I can’t say that I am surprised that Cleveland magazine mangled what I told them even after a fact-checker followed up with a phone call shortly before the article appeared. The article states:

When Pekar died, he was under contract to write a graphic novel about New York-based blogger Proyect’s humorous tales of his summers growing up in New York’s Catskills. Pekar’s death halted the nearly finished project, which Random House was set to publish. Upset, Proyect made confrontational comments about Random House on his blog. Brabner responded by denying Proyect’s request for permission to shop the book around and run excerpts online.

Not exactly. I was upset because Random House refused to tell me if they had plans to publish it or not. At my wit’s end, I wrote an article pointing out that the Bertlesmann group in Germany, the parent company of Random House, used Jewish slave labor during WWII. It was probably this article that provoked Brabner to call me up. How dare I expose Harvey Pekar’s publisher as war criminals? I guess that was the same kind of question David Letterman had for Harvey when he made an appearance and focused on G.E.’s role as a weapons and nuclear reactor manufacturer. Why are you being such a pain in the ass, Harvey?

And most importantly, Brabner told me in the phone call not to bother Random House or the book would never be published. She led stupid me to believe that she would be handling everything and that I jeopardized the book’s future by annoying Harvey’s editor there. So I took her at her word and stopped sending email to his editors asking for a status report, and left everything in her capable hands. Little did I suspect that she probably told Random House to flush the memoir down the toilet. After a year elapsed, I discovered through the grapevine that they had abandoned plans to publish—probably on directions from her. When I emailed her for permission to serialize the book on my blog if and only if she had no plans to present to other publishers, she wrote back a nasty email basically telling me it was up to her what happened next and that I had to live with that. She warned me that if I divulged her email, that would be the end of the project. After four years of getting played for a sucker, that was it for me and I told her so.

Speaking of the Letterman show, Pekar decided to stop making appearances because he was tired of being a sideshow that Dave could make jokes about. Looking back in retrospect, I wonder if my work with Harvey fell into the same category. When he proposed the idea of doing a comic book, he said that the text had to be short since it was the pictures that people really dug. They were, as he put it, a bunch of idiots. Instead of a lot of political analysis, he was looking for some good jokes.

To accommodate him, I left out a lot of the political substance that was important to me such as how the SWP turned into a cult. Frankly, if I ever worked on another memoir that would be the main topic just as it was in Les Evans’s memoir. I believe it would be a lot more interesting and a lot more amusing than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards will be Free”. I can guarantee you this, however. When I begin writing it, it will appear as a serial on my blog. If Joyce Brabner had given Random House the green light, the book would have sold 2000 copies and then went into the remainder bin especially with the two-bit publicity campaign they would have mounted. On a good day, my blog gets 2000 visits and over the past 8 years or so since I have been blogging, I have gotten over 4 million visits. I haven’t made a penny out of this but who cares? I’m a throwback to the 60s when making money was less important than making a statement.

Even though I knew that I would not have gotten a penny out of sales of the comic book, I now understand that I expected a kind of “intellectual capital” to be accrued, to use Bourdieu’s term. When Random House publishes a comic book about your life using your own words, that means something—I guess.

There’s a guy named Mike Feder who used to have a sort of confessional talk show on WBAI in the 1980s. He was always going on about the contacts he was making with publishers about turning his monologues into print. He explained why books become so important to people, especially if you don’t have children. It is a way for your identity to continue after you are dead, like your children carrying on your genes. It is a way of achieving immortality.

Now that I think about it, there was something about this ambition that went against my core values. There was a kind of inner appetite that gnawed at me. I was hoping to be a “celebrity” attached to Harvey Pekar’s coattails, as if his life as a comic book author, a trained monkey on the Letterman shows (as he put it), and a flunky job in a veteran’s hospital made him special. I always admired Harvey but there was something about his never-ending search for money and recognition that I always found a bit off-putting. They say that crack cocaine is the most addictive drug. I would rank celebrity first. A guest appearance on the Charlie Rose show goes straight from the vein into the brain.

Tara Seibel

The Cleveland magazine article is generally respectful of Brabner but provides some eye-opening details on her thuggish behavior toward Tara Seibel and a local sculptor named Justin Coulter.

After Pekar died, Brabner says, Seibel began incessantly calling her. Within months, Brabner called the Cleveland Heights law department, which told Seibel not to contact Brabner…Brabner has scrubbed Seibel’s work from an online showcase and a traveling exhibit of her husband’s works. She has warned a comics publisher not to publish Seibel’s collaborations with Pekar or there could be possible legal action.

Seibel feels Brabner’s efforts stem from jealousy over the hours Seibel spent with Pekar. Seibel says she believes Pekar’s memory continues through her work. “My legacy is being sprung out of his legacy,” she says.

The Cleveland cops? Legal action? This is some “leftie”.

Joyce was just as petty and vindictive toward Coulter.

She selected local sculptor Justin Coulter to create the memorial [for Harvey Pekar], but they clashed.

“I wouldn’t hear from Joyce for weeks or longer,” Coulter recalls. “Then all of a sudden I’d hear from her, demanding something the next day.”

At a certain point, a team of artists and Coulter’s mentors finished the project. Brabner says Coutler was supposed to finish it. Coulter disagrees, saying it was always meant to be a group project, and that he was hired to sculpt the bronze head and cartoon and did so.

During the memorial’s dedication last October, the library’s director called police to report a disturbance, and officers arrived and spoke to Coulter, a police call for service report shows. Coulter says when he arrived at the unveiling, he was surrounded by cops and escorted off the premises.

Something tells me that Coulter was not the one who started the disturbance. You can bet that Brabner told him to get lost and he refused to leave.

The Harvey Pekar memorial

I will survive Joyce Brabner’s fatwa as will Justin Coulter and Tara Seibel. Tara is a very talented artist whose work with Harvey should have been encouraged by Brabner if she was really serious about his legacy. You can see her work at http://thealternativeproject.blogspot.com/, a sample of which graces this article.

With talent galore and an unconquerable sprit, I am sure that Tara has a very bright future.

August 12, 2012

An exchange with Harvey Pekar’s widow

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 2:58 pm

Joyce Brabner

Back in 2008 the late Harvey Pekar stayed at my apartment for an evening. My old friend Paul Buhle, who had been collaborating on comic books with Harvey, had asked me to put him up while the two were in town to meet with publishers.

In the course of the evening I told him about growing up in the Catskills and joining the SWP in 1967, trying to get a job in industry, etc. People familiar with my writings know that I like to make jokes about my political experiences, sort of keeping in line with the title of an old Lester Young record, “Laughin’ to keep from cryin’”.

About 3 weeks later Harvey called me and asked if I would be willing to write all this up as a comic book memoir. He would use the artist Summer McClinton who he had been working with lately and spoke highly of.

I agreed to work on the project but told him from the outset that I had misgivings about print publishing after my experiences with blue-chip journals published by James O’Connor and Immanuel Wallerstein, as well as a humiliating experience with St. Martin’s Press involving their failure to respond to a submission for a book on Marxism and the American Indian that my friend Michael Perelman had recommended to his editor there.

I told Harvey repeatedly that I would have never approached an outfit like Random House if he weren’t involved. Don’t worry, he said, I have a contract for two books that will be coming out in 2009 or 2010 at the latest. One is Huntington, West Virginia “On the Fly”, the other will be yours. I figured that with his track record and the clout of a written contract, I would have no problem. I then spent 4 months writing a memoir geared to the comic book format, with a lot more dialog than I would have used ordinarily as well as a lot more jokes.

Unfortunately for me, and a lot more unfortunately for him, Harvey died on July 12, 2010. A NY Times article written in September about the The Unfinished Tale of an Unlikely Hero  described two upcoming posthumous works coming out of Random House. One was “On the Fly” and the other was a guide to achieving a happy marriage, based on the Harvey Pekar-Joyce Brabner relationship. This made me feel anxious. What was the status of my memoir that should have come out already based on Harvey’s promise to me in 2008?

I contacted the artist I had worked with who said that she could put me in touch with Harvey’s editor at Random House. But first she had to get his clearance that it was okay for me to email him. When I heard that, a shiver went down my spine.

It probably would have made more sense for me to contact Joyce Brabner who had inherited Harvey’s work. I didn’t even raise that subject with the artist because the NY Times article described her as a willful and vindictive person:

Mr. Parker said he was contacted by Ms. Brabner, who wanted to “cut Tara out of the equation” of the Pekar Project’s work. Other people with direct knowledge of the project’s operations, but who did not want to speak for attribution for fear of offending Ms. Brabner, said she would not allow a book to be published if it included Ms. Seibel’s contributions.

(Seibel was an artist in Cleveland who Ms. Brabner regarded as a rival for Harvey’s affections.)

For approximately a year I tried in vain to get a status report from Random House. Were they going to publish the book or not? If not, I wanted to serialize it on my blog. After all, the title was “The Unrepentant Marxist”.

After one particularly frustrating experience with Harvey’s editor, I blogged about Random House and what a bunch of dirt-bags they were, informing my readers that it was owned by the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that had used Jewish slave labor under the Nazi regime.

About a week after this post appeared, I received a phone call from Joyce Brabner that demanded that I stop “bothering” Random House. If I didn’t behave myself, the work would never be published. It was like being told by your mom that if you didn’t clean your room, you would not be able to watch “Leave it to Beaver”—and the mom was Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest”.

Robert Crumb drawing of Harvey Pekar, as well as how I felt after getting a phone call from Joyce Brabner.

So I stopped “bothering” Random House for a year in the vain hope that somewhere along the line I would be given word about the progress or lack of progress on the memoir.

After finally learning that Random House had abandoned the project, I wrote Joyce Brabner:

Dear Joyce,

I learned from Summer McClinton that Random House has abandoned plans to publish the memoir.

I have no idea what your plans are at this point but would simply request your permission to serialize it on my blog if you have no plans to shop to other publishers.

I know that you don’t like me and that nothing will change that but it would be a shame for the work to never see the light of day. I am sure that you can agree that Summer’s artwork is a delight and deserves to be seen. Also, even though the work is not about Harvey’s life, it will be of great interest to his fans, many of whom are readers of my blog. I see it as a contribution using the Internet along the same lines as what Jeff Newelt and others have worked on.

Thank you for your consideration,

Louis Proyect

This was her reply:

Louis,

You may not publish, serialize or otherwise excerpt this work on the Internet or elsewhere.

I do not give you the permissions customarily allowed to reviewers or scholars.

That means you may not copy or post even one panel of this work, as you did in April.  What you did there was illegal.

You may not print or circulate paper or electronic copies of the work in part or in whole.

I am willing to have one more conversation with you about the future of this project.  If so, you will have to check your ego, listen to me with respect, accept responsibility for a good deal of the mess you created at Random House and in other ways co-operate and move forward, conducting yourself within guidelines I am willing to spell out to you: acceptable, professional and constructive behaviors that would be in the best interest of this project and would not compromise either of us– the only way you would get to see this work published in your lifetime.

If I find you disagreeable, obstructionist, melodramatic, rude or tiresome, I hold the book back until you are dead.  Then I re-sell the book, cash the check and release it for publication or, if you outlast me, it gets published by the young woman we raised as our daughter, who will inherit our combined literary, etc. estates.

If you disclose the contents of this letter, especially in your blog, there will be no book.   It’s no problem for me to resell the work.  I’ve already had enough offers to be able to conduct an auction.   However, you have been a real pain in the ass and I will not let you become my pain in the ass.

Bitch about me to your wife or girlfriend or best friend and get it out of your system.  Then swallow a humble pill and if you think you can handle a phone call, as described, send me your phone number. You’re half way there, because you e-mailed me.

Joyce

I should explain that the panel referred to in her email appears here. Apparently as is probably the case with the other readers who have registered three and a half million visits to my blog, Ms. Brabner finds me both reprehensible and irresistible.

Well, this is probably the right time to dump the project since Ms. Brabner’s “guidelines” make me feel like a disobedient chihuahua on Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” show who needs to be taught to be calm and submissive.  Shhh, Louis, shhh. Arf-arf. In fact I had come within a hair’s breadth of telling Random House that I refused to give them permission to publish anything about my life several weeks after Brabner’s phone call. My old friend Richard Greener, author of the superb Locator series of novels that has been adapted for the Fox television network, told me that I should have done so much sooner to save myself the tsuris.

In a way it is too bad that she has chosen to provoke me into throwing the kill switch. Out of the tens of thousands of different people who have read my blog, I am willing to bet that maybe 2000 or so would have bought the memoir. Add to that Harvey’s fans who would have paid money to read a comic book in his name, you are talking about a pretty piece of change.

I imagine that Ms. Brabner thinks that being in print is supposed to provide some kind of validation, as clearly was the case with her late husband. However, I made a decision about 10 years ago to only write for my blog and grass roots online publications so I could care less about a comic book about my life being shit-canned. My validation comes from the praise I get from readers on my blog as well as the curses. Furthermore, I will be remembered mostly by my deeds after I am gone: the antiwar demonstrations I helped to build in the sixties and the brigades I helped send to Nicaragua and southern Africa. That is what I hope to be remembered for, not some comic book.

At any rate, I plan to serialize my own memoir dispensing with Summer McClinton’s artwork and including material that would have been unsuitable for a comic book, such as how to understand the Brenner thesis, my mother’s ultra-Zionism, and most importantly my secret for a happy marriage now in its 10th year with a Turkish Delight.

June 24, 2011

Harvey Pekar remembrance

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

December 17, 2010

Dean Haspiel tribute to Harvey Pekar

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

October 21, 2010

How Harvey Pekar died

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

Coroner rules that Harvey Pekar’s death due to ‘natural causes’

Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 4:18 PM     Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010, 6:22 PM
Pat Galbincea, The Plain Dealer Pat Galbincea, The Plain Dealer
Harvey Pekar.jpg
Los Angeles Times
Harvey L. Pekar as he appeared in this 2003 photo while he was in Los Angeles.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — American Splendor comic writer and Cleveland native Harvey Pekar died July 12th of an accidental overdose of two anti-depressant medicines, according to the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office.

The 70-year-old Cleveland Heights resident was found dead by his wife, Joyce Brabner, in their home. His death was not a suicide, said coroner spokesman Powell Caesar, and Coroner Frank Miller ruled his death by natural causes on Pekar’s death certificate Sept. 27th.

“He did not take his own life,” Caesar said. “His death came as a result of accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion.”

Fluoxetine is used as a treatment for major depression, and bupropion is used for depression and smoking cessation. The latter drug can lower a person’s seizure threshold when used incorrectly.

In 1990, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and more recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. He also suffered with high blood pressure, asthma, and clinical depression.

Pekar, a 1957 Shaker Heights High School graduate, chronicled his life and times in the acclaimed autobiographical comic book series American Splendor. He portrayed himself as a rumpled, depressed, obsessive-compulsive ‘flunky file clerk’ engaged in a constant battle with loneliness and anxiety.

Describing American Splendor, Pekar wrote, “the theme is about staying alive…Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts…I’ve tried to control a chaotic universe. And it’s a losing battle.”

He became a working man’s celebrity with his raucous appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” until Pekar was banned after an on-air argument.

July 21, 2010

From Jeff Newelt, the editor of the Pekar Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Harvey Pekar to be buried next to Eliot Ness — If any fans of Harvey would like to donate needed funds to help defray the costs of everything from groceries to granite, they can PAYPAL a donation to Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner, and donate to HPEKAR@aol.com at PAYPAL.

From a January 2010 interview with Harvey Pekar

Filed under: aging,comedy — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of
mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

full: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24421

July 15, 2010

Harvey Pekar interview

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar’s last appearance on the Letterman show

Filed under: capitalist pig,commercialism — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar is dead

Filed under: comedy,Jewish question,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

I just discovered from a link that Dennis Perrin posted to Doug Henwood’s mailing list that Harvey Pekar is dead.

The article is worth reading in its entirety for people who were fans of Harvey, like me, and anybody else who wants to learn about one of America’s great literary talents. I first heard about him in a May 11, 1986 NY Times Sunday book review of a collection of his comic book stories titled “American Splendor” (I should mention that Harvey preferred the term comic book to the pretentious graphic novel term used for works like “Persepolis” and “V for Vendetta”):

Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why. His stories, as he puts it, are about “the cosmic and the ordinary,” about the working stiff’s search for love and transcendence, the bleak reality of life in a hard town and the reflections of a volatile, passionate sensibility that vibrates with everything around it.

That was the first book of his that I read, joined eventually by a host of others, including what might be his last published book: “The Unrepentant Marxist”. Here’s the story on how that project came to be.

In 2008, I got a call from my old friend Paul Buhle, who had become Harvey’s writing partner on a number of comic book projects including ones about the beat generation and SDS. He was in town with Harvey to meet with their publisher and asked if I could put him up. Sure, I said. As a huge fan of his work, I was anxious to meet him.

Harvey is not much of a talker–at least he wasn’t that night up at my place. He had a tendency to interject “ya knows” into just about every sentence and seemed a bit out of it. So, to pass the time I began telling him about my past. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains resort area when people like Sid Caesar were coming up. Living above the Kentucky Club and hanging out with Jewish boxing legend Barney Ross, a greeter at the club, on the sidewalk where he would show me how to put up my dukes. Joining the SWP and going to Houston where I had a relationship with a woman comrade who had just quit her job as an exotic dancer. Dropping out of the SWP after a Chaplinesque stint as a spot welder. And all the rest.

At some point, the conversation turned to his own work and I told him how much I appreciated the story about his father denigrating Harvey’s beloved jazz collection and telling him how superior Jewish cantorial music was. As it turns out, I love both jazz and cantorial music and invited him to listen to a few minutes of one of my favorite records that featured old-time greats like Yossele Rosenblatt. Here’s Rosenblatt singing a prayer for the dead, appropriate for the topic at hand:

About a month later, Harvey called me from Cleveland and asked me if I’d like to work on a book about my life. Sure, I said. I spent about six weeks putting together some material that he and the very gifted artist Summer McClinton turned into a book—the final page appears below.

I haven’t talked to Harvey since early 2009, but assumed that the book would eventually come out. He had a two-book contract with Random House and they have obligations to his widow and to Summer. But there is the possibility that they might just pay them off and let the book die in their vaults. Who knows? According to Paul Buhle and Summer, there is a strong possibility that his death might ensure its release since there is always a market for the remaining works of authors who have died, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño being a prime example.

Speaking on my own behalf, I would say that “Unrepentant Marxist” is a terrific book largely due to the incredible work done by artist Summer McClinton. The book is written in a kind of Jewish stand-up comedian style with lots of political observations familiar to anybody who reads this blog, including my evolution since 1981 after coming into contact with Peter Camejo, who is a major presence in the book. Ironically, I had plans to send Harvey a copy of Peter’s memoir in the next day or so. I should add that one of the last times I heard from Harvey was the day that Peter’s obit appeared in the NY Times.

I have no idea what is going to happen with this book but—believe me—I will not rest until it can be read by the public. I don’t have much use for publishing houses, or any other capitalist firm for that matter, and will make sure to remind them that this book was important to Harvey Pekar, one of the outstanding dissident voices of our era.

The last page of “Unrepentant Marxist”

Updates:

Very perceptive article on Pekar and David Letterman

Dennis Perrin on Harvey Pekar

My other articles on Pekar:

American Splendor

The Beats

SDS

The Quitter

Next Page »

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