What made Harvey Pekar famous is writing comics -- which he hired well-known artists to illustrate -- about the seemingly mundane circumstances of his life as a working man and autodidact in Cleveland. But his new graphic novel, Macedonia, takes him beyond the autobiographical.
Five years after retiring from the file-clerk job at a local VA hospital he'd held since 1966, the American Splendor author might have more time to write than ever. But Pekar -- who's also a music and book critic, and award-winning radio commentator -- is also exploring new topics. And for reasons practical as well as artistic, he continues seeking out new illustrators for those stories, including Munhall's Ed Piskor.
Macedonia, illustrated by Piskor and due in May from Villard Books, reflects Pekar's lifelong interest in history and philosophy. It's a 150-page account he adapted from the writings of Heather Roberson, a University of California graduate student he met while touring with American Splendor, the 2003 film based on his comics series.
Roberson, pursuing a degree in peace and conflict studies, was intrigued by Macedonia. Despite its own ethnic tensions and weak security apparatus, the tiny, landlocked former Yugoslav republic avoided the all-out civil war that engulfed other Balkan nations in the 1990s. Roberson was on her way to the country of 2 million; Pekar asked her to take notes.
Macedonia follows Roberson from Berkeley to Skopje. Often, it's as episodic as other Pekar stories, including Roberson's sometimes humorous struggles to wrest information from Eastern European bureaucrats, academics and service organizations, as well as time spent hanging out with friends and new acquaintances. But it's also dense with background on Macedonia's Albanian minority and Balkan history, including a six-page account of modern Yugoslavia.
On the book's central question of whether war is inevitable, Pekar tends to side with Roberson: It's not. (One reason Macedonia was spared: peacekeeping efforts by the U.N. and other international organizations.) But Pekar felt obligated to include all points of view and as much information as possible about a complex, deeply nuanced situation. Consequently, for a comic, Macedonia's pretty text-heavy. "I'm a writer and I get carried away maybe," admits Pekar with typical self-deprecation.
Illustration was a challenge. Pekar's artists over the years have included such big names as R. Crumb, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel, and even a couple of seasoned Pittsburghers, Don Simpson and Mark Zingarelli. For Macedonia, why 24-year-old Piskor?
For one, in a field where most good artists are busy and expensive, says Pekar bluntly, "Ed had the time and he was willing to work for less money." (Pekar has always paid his artists, even when he was self-publishing his work; he says he split his Macedonia money with Piskor 50-50.)
For another, Pekar saw promise in Piskor's illustrations for two stories in Pekar's 2005 book, Our Movie Year. "He can make a little space go a long way," says Pekar. Significantly for a book about a place neither had ever visited, "He researches stuff real well." Not inconsequentially, Pekar and Piskor seem to click personally, perhaps the residue of a common Rust Belt working-class heritage (Piskor's parents were both mill workers).
"He's a hard worker and he's an honest guy," says Pekar of the artist.
In his work on Macedonia, Piskor "made a big stylistic jump," says Pekar. "The drawing was more realistic. I was really very impressed with the way he used the room he had."
What Pekar values most in his illustrators, though, is the sense of the importance of the everyday that unites, say, a story about losing his keys to one about a young woman on a fact-finding adventure in the Balkans. Pekar says that Piskor meets the same standard as the illustrator's artistic hero, Robert Crumb. No matter how cartoony his renderings get, Crumb "captures the essence of the people he's drawing," says Pekar. "There's some realism in it. Because that's the way my writing is."