Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 5, 2015

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor,Pekar,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
The Tide is Turning

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism


Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

read full article

January 22, 2014

They deserve each other

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 12:24 pm

Joyce Brabner

They deserve each other:

[Joyce] Brabner is also returning to her social justice roots, reuniting with Alan Moore on a series of 13 comics that neither will talk much about. But Moore says he enjoys working with Brabner again because she “avoids cheap dramatics and empty stylistic flourishes in [favor] of the keenly judged placement of words and images.”

Cleveland Magazine, September 2013

Alan Moore

Comics god Alan Moore has issued a comprehensive sign-off from public life after shooting down accusations that his stories feature racist characters and an excessive amount of sexual violence towards women.


Galley-Wag, a character in Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”

A 1920s Golliwog perfume bottle

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:


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.


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.

April 16, 2012

My pig snout sandwich days

Filed under: food,Pekar,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

I don’t know how many of you are aware that Doug Henwood began blogging a while back at http://lbo-news.com/. Bookmark it if you know what is good for you.

A post on April 13 (http://lbo-news.com/2012/04/13/the-nation-moves-money-again/) skewered the Nation Magazine in Doug’s inimitably informed and witty fashion:

Forgive me if I’m looking obsessed, but someone has to do it. The Nation was out with an email blast this morning touting its branded affinity VISA card issued by UMB Bank in Kansas City. The magazine’s associate publisher, Peggy Randall, helpfully identifies UMB as “a small, regional bank recommended by the Move Your Money project, a project we  support,” and therefore in accordance with the goals of the Occupy movement.

So who is UMB Bank, really? It’s yet another iteration of the classic Money Mover’s institution: flush with more money than it can invest locally, it loads up on securities. (Parenthetically, why should a magazine based in New York encourage doing business with a bank 1,200 miles away on localist grounds?) According to its latest annual report, 46% of UMB’s money is invested in securities, and another 6% is on deposit with other banks—which comes to over half. They don’t provide details on the securities, but they’re almost certainly a mix of Treasury bonds, mortgage bonds, and corporate bonds—utterly conventional financial market stuff. Just 37% is out in loans—and 0.8% in small-business loans, beloved of the small bank fanclub. They are big regional players in mutual funds, wealth management, and private banking, all moderately to seriously upscale stuff. And, like the big guys, they’re looking to make more money out of fees, rather than traditional deposit-taking and loan-making.

Although Doug was looking for a somewhat different answer to the question “So who is UMB Bank, really?”, I can offer these additional insights. When I was working at this bank in November 1978, I turned in my resignation from the SWP. By day I was a computer programmer but in the evenings I was studying milling machine and lathe at a local high school. That was to prepare me for a job in industry as an entry-level machinist. As this snapshot from my memoir–done in collaboration with the late Harvey Pekar and that is due to be published by Random House sometime in the 22nd century–would indicate, this was not the kind of training that came easy:

(That’s me to the right, with beard and eyeglasses.)

By some miracle I graduated from the classes with a certificate and was urged to apply at Bendix by my milling machine instructor who developed a liking for me. He understood that despite my not having any kind of industrial job in the past, I was able to learn how to grind a piece of steel to a thousandth inch tolerance. Unfortunately, I would never get past a security clearance at Bendix since the plant’s main business was building casings for nuclear weapons.

In late November, the branch organizer—a typical hack who had bet my best friend in the branch $10 that I would never be able to get a job in industry—gave a plenum report that clarified what kinds of jobs comrades should get as part of the “turn to industry”. It went something like this:

Comrades, we are about to make a turn within the turn. In the past too many comrades have been taking skilled jobs like machinists or welders. This does not put us in contact with the most oppressed layers of the working class. So from now on the priority is on jobs in garment, meatpacking and other unskilled arenas.

After going to night school for 3 months, this was not the news I wanted to hear. I turned to my friend and said, “I feel like I am in the back seat of a car going down the interstate at 80 miles an hour and there’s nobody in the driver’s seat.” I resigned a couple of days later.

As should be obvious from the picture above, the memoir covers my Chaplinesque attempts to save my soul by getting a job in industry, but Doug’s reference to United Missouri Bank (UMB) persuaded me to say a few words about this job since it was like all my programming jobs—something to remember.

United Missouri Bank is in downtown Kansas City, a warren of nondescript office buildings and parking garages. Once upon a time it was a thriving section of town with department stores and nightclubs that could be reached by streetcar, the most common mode of transportation. I have vivid memories of taking the streetcar to downtown Kansas City with my mom when she was staying at her mother’s house on Linwood Avenue, about 30 blocks to the north, during a trial separation from my cold and laconic father. Even as a 5 year old, I could tell that Kansas City was a rocking place.

My job at UMB entailed working on the software for the bank’s NCR ATM machines. I was a kind of assistant to a 300 pound farmer’s boy named Danny who reminded me a lot of Baby Huey. He used to come to work on Saturday in bib overalls and hump the machines for laughs.

About a month after going to work for UMB, our boss asked me to make a change to the software that I screwed up. The net result was that when someone was issued a new card, the machine would reject it under the impression that it was expired. I wrote “greater than” some date in my program rather than “less than”. I was lucky I didn’t get fired since the people whose cards failed to work probably were skeptical of electronic banking to begin with.

I actually have fond memories of the people I worked with who generally were as disgruntled with management as any place I have ever been. The new department manager was someone who had been recently promoted from their ranks and was acting like a real shithook. They loved cracking jokes about him in the cafeteria at lunch.

My favorite guy there was K.O. Barnes, who looked kind of like a bulldog as his name would indicate. K.O. stood for Kenneth Orville but his nickname was “Smitty”, as I recall. In an attempt to raise some funds when I was in K.C., I sold my newish Datsun to my best friend and bought a 12 year old Impala sedan from K.O. that had belonged to his dad, a gas station owner. It was what they called a “mechanic’s special”. I wish I had held on to it. It would probably be worth $50,000 today.

K.O. had returned to Kansas City from Cincinnati, a city that he found lacking. He once put it to me this way in his Missouri drawl, “Louis, in Cincinnati they roll up the sidewalks at 10pm. There ain’t nothin’ happening there.”

As was the case when I worked for a bank in Houston when I was in the SWP, my workmates viewed me as a kind of “exotic”. After all, how many people moved from New York to Houston or Kansas City? If I hadn’t been a member of the SWP and assigned to go to these places, I would have stayed in New York where I was destined to be like a minor character in a Woody Allen movie. I should add that the only reason I chose Kansas City is that I was born there. When given a choice between my birthplace and Morgantown, West Virginia where I would be expected to get a job as coalminer, Kansas City was number one by far. I figured that if my political life was coming to an end, as I anticipated it would, why not let it end in my birthplace?

One day my workmates, including K.O. and Danny, decided to play a kind of practical joke on me. They organized an excursion to Agnos’s Sandwich Stand about 10 blocks from UMB where I would be able to buy a local treat. They assumed that a New Yorker would be appalled by what it turned out to be: pig snout sandwich.

It looked exactly what it sounds like, a pig’s nose between two buns. Since I had pretty much the same attitude toward food that contestants on “Fear Factor” have, I wolfed it down much to the surprise of my workmates. I don’t know if they have the analogy of “good old boy” in Missouri but that was what I became that day in their eyes.

They did not know that part of the motivation in going to Agnos was its connection to Charlie Parker, arguably Kansas City’s most famous denizen. In “Bird Lives”, Ross Russell writes:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.

Agnos sandwich stand

June 24, 2011

Harvey Pekar remembrance

Filed under: Pekar — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

May 9, 2011

Being played for a sucker by Random House

Filed under: capitalist pig,Pekar — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Chris Schluep, Harvey Pekar's editor

This morning I feel beat to shit.

I woke up at 3am last night and began obsessing for a good two hours over Random House, the scumbag publishers and their editor Chris Schluep who keeps giving me a run-around on the book I did with Harvey Pekar. Harvey always spoke well of Schluep but I can’t help but think of him as a cog in a big machine that I never would have had any dealings with had I not been assured by Pekar that he was under contract for two new books, including the one I was doing with him.

My take on publishing jibes with the one depicted in the movie “Wolf”, starring Jack Nicholson as a top editor who gets shafted by a Rupert Murdoch type media mogul who has just taken over his company. After being bitten by a wolf, Nicholson not only becomes a werewolf, he develops the aggressiveness needed to succeed in the publishing business. In one memorable scene, he pisses on the shoes and pants legs of a rival who has landed his job after the takeover. That, to me, smacked of verisimilitude.

I first got warnings that the book was going to end up shit-canned after seeing an article in the NY Times titled “The Unsettled Afterlife of Harvey Pekar” that dealt with some prospective posthumous projects. It refers to a couple of Random House possibilities, but not mine:

Random House is publishing at least two more of his graphic books: one, called “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On the Fly,’ ” in which Mr. Pekar reflects on promoting his movie and other books, and a second, written with Ms. Brabner, called “Harvey and Joyce’s Big Book of Marriage.”

Now I can understand why Random House would have prioritized these books since they appeal to his fan base, people who could never get enough of his tales of woe about working as a file clerk or butting heads with the rich and the powerful—like David Letterman. Too bad I don’t know how to draw; otherwise I’d have come up with a comic strip about my own frustrations dealing with a colossus like Random House.

I always felt skeptical about the idea of Random House coming out with a book about my own life. Who in their right mind would spend good money to read about the trials and tribulations of a Marxist activist when there were all sorts of books by celebrities like Bettheny Frankel or Rob Lowe that you could read on the beach?

As it turns out, Pekar decided to do something with me because he was probably tired of writing about himself. Like his earliest collaborator R. Crumb, he was exploring new ways of expressing himself. Crumb eventually wearied of doing comics about his own neurotic sexual and racial obsessions; likewise I am sure with Pekar’s sad sack tales. At least that’s my take. He told me numerous times that he was seeking to become the Studs Terkel of our generation. My story amounted to the sort of thing you can read in “Working” or any of his other “as told to” classics. Too bad that Harvey didn’t live into his nineties like Studs. And too bad for me that I got drawn into a project that had no future after his death.

What steams me up the most is the feeling that I have been ripped off. I spent a good four months writing and rewriting the material that would eventually be illustrated by Summer McClinton, a young and very gifted artist whose work Harvey raved about. Now Random House’s contract was with Harvey and not me obviously. His widow Joyce Brabner and the artist have been paid off, fulfilling Random House’s obligations for a book that is now dead and buried. A year ago Schluep assured me that the book would be published. It turns out he was probably bullshitting me. It would have been better for me not to have been left hanging. When I raised the topic with him again two months ago, he said that a decision had not been made but he would get back to me within the month. Of course, he did not get back to me. Like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”, he has the power to piss on me metaphorically speaking. I am not under contract and under capitalism that is how things operate, as any lawyer will tell you.

I imagine that Schluep is not comfortable with all this, having assured me a while back that he is “not a scumbag”. I suppose he is not but the company he works for surely is.

In 1998 Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann, a German media company with 103,000 employees. Now Bertelsmann has a most interesting history—just the sort of venue for a memoir by an unrepentant Marxist as the BBC reported on October 8, 2002:

Bertelsmann admits Nazi past

German media giant Bertelsmann has admitted it lied about its Nazi past and that it made big profits during Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany using Jewish slave labour.

A commission set up by the firm found Bertelsmann rode the rise of the Nazi party to restructure itself from a religious and school book publisher to supply millions of anti-Semitic texts.

The IHC found Bertelsmann had targeted the youth market with its “Exciting Stories” series and the “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth” annual which pushed its sales up 20 fold.

The IHC said the company’s “legend” that it was a victim of the Nazis was a lie.

The Commission found that Bertelsmann made “indirect” use of Jewish slave labour in Latvia, and Lithuania but not at its German headquarters.

The then head of the company, Heinrich Mohn, also made donations to the SS, Hitler’s special forces and concentration camp guards.

The company had close ties to the Nazi regime, particularly the Propaganda Ministry, and printed 19 million books during World War II, making it the largest publisher for the German army.

Bertelsmann used its “revised” history when it took over the biggest US book publisher Random house in 1998.

Harvey died before I had a chance to share this information with him. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I am sure he would have had a word or two to say about being under contract to a company that used Jewish slave labor.

There were signs that Bertelsmann’s infatuation with Hitler continued well after WWII. In 1983, Stern Magazine, part of the German publisher’s empire, came out with the Hitler Diaries that turned out to be a hoax. A Nation Magazine article dated November 8, 1999 reported:

In 1980 Bertelsmann’s Stern magazine published poems and illustrations supposedly written and drawn by Hitler during World War I under the title “Rhymes by Private First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefreiten H”). Dirk Bavendamm, a 61-year-old German historian who had been instrumental in helping Stern obtain the material, wrote an accompanying article noting that the poems and drawings show Hitler as an ordinary soldier. In one illustration a German soldier gently holds a baby; in another, a soldier helps a mother lying in bed while a baby nestles in a cradle. Subsequently the poems and drawings were determined to be forgeries. (Later, Mohn gave the green light to a Bertelsmann division to purchase the Hitler diaries, by the same forger, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were published in Stern in 1983.)

Bavendamm’s career was not affected. His book Roosevelt’s Way to War (Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg) was published in 1983. Rewriting history, he stated that Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that American Jews “controlled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false picture of Hitler.

Even if Bertlesmann did not have Nazi skeletons in its closet, its role in turning Random House into another “bottom line” oriented corporation of the sort that has left the USA economically and culturally impoverished was obvious to Andre Schifrin, the founder of the New Press and a sharp critic of the publishing industry. In a February 17, 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “‘Random’ Destruction”, Schifrin commented on the firing of Ann Godoff, the head of Random House whose “mistake was to adhere to the higher standards of Random’s past.”

Bertelsmann sought to turn Random House into something much more commercial in the pursuit of higher profits, pumping out the kind of tripe that can soar to the top of the best-seller list. The NY Times reported that Godoff “considered her unit’s books above the merely commercial popular fiction published by other divisions. She candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and other page-turners–the meat and potatoes of much of the publishing business.” Hmm. Maybe that was my mistake. I should have put more steamy stuff into the memoir. I did include my romance with a comrade in Houston who had been working as a go-go dancer before I got to town. Harvey told me that I needed to put as much as that stuff in as I could.

In defending itself against charges that it was turning into the publishing counterpart of People Magazine, a Random House spokesman stated “Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.” Sigh, if only that was true. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been selling myself short. They say that the Communist Manifesto became a best-seller in Germany in 2007, around the time that capitalism began its worldwide collapse. Maybe the Bertlesmann CEO decided that it was not in his class interests to publish anything favorable to Marxism, even if it appeared in the style of a Jewish stand-up comedian favored by both Harvey and me.

Ultimately Peter Olson, the guy who ran Bertlesmann’s American operations and who fired Ann Godoff, figured out that it was in his own interest to make Random House follow the short-term dictates of the market. Like so many of the crooks responsible for the collapse of the housing market, mass unemployment, and deepening class inequalities, he figured out what side of the bread was buttered: his own. Schifrin writes:

And there is yet one more factor that cannot be overlooked. Obviously, as the Times and others noted, Olson has “his own targets to meet” His compensation is based on his “success in meeting annual targets each year.” Thus, the personal income of a handful of managers is an essential factor in deciding what the future of American publishing will be.

I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting suckered into this time-wasting business. There’s a mystique about being published that is really quite powerful. It appeals to your sense of vanity in the same way that an appearance on the Letterman show might. If you read Harvey’s account of being in the limelight, however, you will be struck how ambivalent he was. While he hoped to get the word out about his comic books on Late Night, he mostly felt exploited—the butt of Letterman’s frat boy humor.

That’s what happens when you put yourself at the mercy of a powerful corporation. It will find one way or another to fuck you over.

My experiences with print publishing over the years are pretty negative. After submitting a book proposal to an editor at St. Martin’s on Marxism and the American Indian about 12 years ago, I never received a reply. I have to wonder whether editors get some kind of training when they go to work at places like St. Martin’s or Random House on how to make an unheralded writer feel like two cents. It’s about the same story with leftist academic journals that tend to treat you like a dissertation student, subjecting your submission to peer review—as if getting printed in a journal that has a circulation of 2000 is of any importance to me. I get that many visits to my blog every day.

As everybody knows, print publishing is going through a deep crisis. More and more of Harvey’s work began appearing on the Internet through the auspices of The Pekar Project that defines its role this way:

Harvey Pekar’s been mining the mundane for magic for more than 30 years in his autobiographical American Splendor comics. Now he has teamed with SMITH and some remarkable artists to create his first ongoing webcomics series—and some of his jazziest work to date. The new stories will appear every other week, with interviews, creator spotlights, and behind-the-scenes goodies, as well as essays and art from Pekar collaborators and inhabitants of the extended Pekarverse.

Obviously with Harvey’s death, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Clearly, I have the responsibility to make the work I did with him available to the general public on the Web. Ironically, Harvey never used a computer, finding it too confusing. He once told me that Joyce forbade him from using hers. I am quite sure that he would have been gratified to see “The Unrepentant Marxist”, the title of our collaboration, appearing on my blog. After all, that is the title of my blog and the best place for it to appear, all things considered.


Chris Schluep is no longer at Random House.

Blog at WordPress.com.