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.

3 Comments »

  1. Here in Cleveland the RCP still has a bookstore HQ at the corner of Mayfield and Coventry, which is Pekar Ground Zero. The Pekar-Brabner milieu is part of the air they breath.

    Comment by Jay Rothermel — October 8, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  2. A tragic story that is worthy of its own zine. Pekar comes across as a person with conflicting motivations, motivations that lead him to adopt a nihilistic perspective about people. Given that he was an artist who seems to have believed that others were living off his notoriety, as the Letterman episode suggests, it is not surprising that he became cynical about human nature. It would be interesting to know to what extent Pekar acted independently of Brabner when he was alive, and to what extent they coordinated their relationships with others.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 8, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

  3. I have fond memories of hanging out in Coventry as a teenager watching the river flow. Circa: 1971 (the second year of the seventies and the last year of the sixties). I bought a used Mother of Pearl western shirt at a used clothing store for fifty cents and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Cleveland’s little piece of Greenwich village, even if it was all of three or four city blocks. Never ran into Harvey, however. Too busy watching the boys play guitars and the girls promenading in their sun dresses and high-top tennis shoes.

    Comment by Dave — October 8, 2013 @ 7:36 pm


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